There is one skill that is essential for new moms and dads today. I wish I could wrap it up in pink and blue paper and give it at every baby shower. It isn’t how to bathe a baby or encourage healthy sleep habits. This is far more important. I’m talking about being skeptical and science-savvy about what you read on the Internet.
Why is this so important? Consider these scenarios:
Newly pregnant, you attend a prenatal yoga class. You feel like a mother goddess, but the conversation afterward makes you anxious. The talk turns to birth plans. Someone mentions epidurals and pitocin, and another recommends a placental encapsulation specialist. There’s talk of fetal monitoring and delayed cord clamping. You hurry home to start Googling. It’s a good thing babies take nine months to gestate because you have a lot of research to do.
Before you know it, your baby is here. Nothing went exactly as planned, but he’s perfect. You, on the other hand, have only slept for two of the last 48 hours, and you’re on the edge of tears. (Happy or sad? You’re not sure.) You’re breastfeeding, but things are off to a slow start. A doctor tells you if your baby loses more weight, you may need to supplement with a bottle. She leaves the room, and you pull out your phone. You’re surrounded by medical professionals, but there’s someone else you’d like to consult. Hello, Google?
Fast-forward four months. You and your partner feel like you’re hitting your stride. Your baby is sleeping most of the night, but bam! He’s waking up every hour, and you’re both zombies. One of your friends says you’ve hit four-month sleep regression and it’s time to sleep train. Another advises you to sleep with your baby. You want another opinion – or 20 – so you ask Google: “Should I sleep train my baby?”
The Internet will give you unlimited advice and information. The problem is it’s a messy mix of opinions and parenting philosophy. Much of it is conflicting, and only some of it is accurate. It’s often accompanied by a bit of judgment. If you don’t believe me, try that search for sleep training advice.
Sorting through this is an unfair burden on new parents. In generations past, we lived by family and friends who could help us figure out this parenthood thing, but now we often find our parenting village online.
The key to using the Internet is to sort out evidence-based information from the rest. If you want to understand why newborns get vitamin K at birth or how we know the recommended immunization schedule is safe and effective, you do not want answers from random people on the Internet. What you need is careful, objective and repeatable science. Not anecdotes or old wives’ tales, but data.
When I became a parent, I had more than a decade of experience in scientific research. You don’t need a PhD to parent with science, though. You need to be open-minded and think critically. Here’s how:
1. Select Web sites carefully. Start with sites from universities, medical organizations, children’s hospitals and governmental organizations. These will give you evidence-based information that represents scientific consensus on a topic. If websites are selling you dietary supplements or a fishy conspiracy theory, these are not reliable sources for health information
2. Scrutinize credentials. If you’re reading a blog or news article, realize you’re trusting an individual to interpret the science. Make sure that person has advanced training in science, seeks input from experts or has a record of careful analysis.
3. Look for peer-reviewed science. An online article about scientific research should provide citations or links to peer-reviewed journal articles so you can check them. Abstracts of these are available through databases like Pubmed and Google Scholar
4. Be skeptical. Was this scientific study conducted in petri dishes, in mice or in humans? If humans, how many were included, and was it a population similar to you? Does this study show one factor causes another, or is it showing a correlation? Can you think of other factors that could affect that relationship?
5. Look for scientific consensus. One study is never that useful on its own. A critical part of the scientific process is replication. Scientific knowledge is built slowly, over time, through studies conducted by different researchers in different populations. That’s why we can feel pretty certain about it. If you encounter information vastly different from the scientific consensus, it’s probably not accurate. As for any new finding, it may be cause for excitement, but look for replication before you change your life over it.
6. Don’t assume something natural is better. This is a common assumption of parenting blogs, building on our deep desire to keep our children safe. But the natural world is full of deadly toxins, and just because something is natural doesn’t make it safe. Coconut oil may be natural, but that doesn’t mean it makes a good sunscreen. Measles is a natural virus, but the vaccine is far safer than getting hit with the infection.
7. Question your own assumptions. It’s human to seek information that confirms our beliefs rather than challenges them. Check yourself by searching for contrary information.
8. Know that no Web site can be a substitute for a healthcare provider. If you think your child is really sick, don’t bring her symptoms to Facebook. Get real medical care.
If you focus on science-backed information, you’ll make decisions with confidence, rather than fear or anxiety. You’ll sidestep misinformation traps and mommy wars and steer a straight course toward making evidence-based choices. And then you get the best reward: powering down your phone or computer and enjoying your new little baby.
Alice Callahan is author of a new book about science and parenting, The Science of Mom: A Research-Based Guide to Your Baby’s First Year. You can find her on her blog, scienceofmom.com, Facebook and Twitter @scienceofmom.
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