Where science and child-rearing meet
Barely two generations ago, women smoked during pregnancy, parents threw their kids unrestrained into the backs of station wagons, and Twinkies were considered a wholesome afterschool snack. Few mothers and fathers looked for expert advice on child-rearing, and if they did, they turned to Dr. Benjamin Spock, whose “Dr. Spock’s Baby and Child Care” began by reassuring them: “You know more than you think you do.”
Today’s parents are inundated with information about everything from genetic testing to vaccines to thumb sucking. But sometimes this wealth of information can feel, paradoxically, like not enough information. At least that’s how Tara Haelle felt.
“I was frustrated because I was trying to find information about this or that topic and I found it really difficult to sift through everything online,” said Haelle, an Illinois-based journalist and mother of sons ages 2 and 5. “I wanted something that was more comprehensive.”
Emily Willingham, a biologist, writer, and mother of three who lives in California, agreed. She also wanted to help change what she called “the tone of the Mommy Wars.” The two teamed up to write the informative and nonjudgmental book they wish they’d had available to them as new mothers: “The Informed Parent: A Science-Based Resource For Your Child’s First Four Years.”
In short sections running chronologically from pregnancy through toddlerhood, Haelle and Willingham review current peer-reviewed data on such questions as how to manage morning sickness, when to stop breast-feeding, and how much screen time to allow preschoolers. In some cases they reveal decisions they made personally. For example, Haelle took antidepressants for postpartum depression and Willingham chose nonpharmacologic treatment. Willingham fed her first baby only organic foods while Haelle bought organic foods mostly when on sale.
By highlighting instances when they made different choices, Haelle and Willingham underscore that there may be more than one answer to a child-rearing question, even when scientific information is available. “We’re hoping to demonstrate that you make these choices . . . based on the data and your interaction with that information based on your own family, . . . personal experience, and your personal needs,” Willingham said.
The authors point out that a scientific approach to child-rearing doesn’t necessarily exclude the kind of parental instinct Spock endorsed. Willingham said, “I think that when people say ‘instinct’ they think they are referencing emotion. But what instinct really is is the sum total of your personal experience. . . . That’s not an absence of data. It’s actually data you’re adding to the information that we give you in the book.”
Nor does science negate personal choice, Haelle added. “There’s very few sections in the book where you’ll find we convey information that suggests there’s one way to do things right,” she said. “We can pretty much safely say that the benefits of vaccines outweigh the risks of vaccines and we can say that spanking doesn’t work very well. But with a lot of the things, you have multiple choices open to you and the choices have different sets of evidence connected to them, and it’s essential to rely on your own values, beliefs, needs, circumstances to assess what is the right decision for your family.”