When I was pregnant with our first child, more than a couple of friends warned me not to read What to Expect When You Are Expecting unless I wanted to add to my already overdeveloped sense of fear and anxiety at giving birth. I’m glad to have heeded that advice, but it didn’t stop me from reading other “expert” baby books or looking on the Internet for answers to all sorts of questions about our kids and my pregnancies. Like many of my parenting peers, I’m much more comfortable looking to impersonal, distant, supposedly objective expert advice on child-rearing than I am asking my mother and father, my in-laws, my cousins or my siblings.
This reliance on outside information rather than older, lived personal experience came to mind as I read a news item about a clash of conflicting parenting dogmas. As Dana Wechsler Linden recently explained in the Wall Street Journal, there’s a growing division among breastfeeding and safe sleeping advocates. To keep moms breastfeeding longer, lactation enthusiasts recommend sleeping in with baby to make it easier on mom to roll over and go back to sleep after nursing. Hold on a second, warn sleep safety exponents, there is a lot that could go wrong, from risks of suffocation and strangulation to the all-purpose diagnosis when doctors don’t really know what happened: Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, or SIDS.
In an August opinion piece in JAMA Pediatrics, three Boston-area pediatricians argued that the widely praised and heavily funded World Health Organization baby-friendly hospital initiative (BFHI) may actually be harmful to infants. “Rigid adherence to the Ten Steps to Successful Breastfeeding component of the Baby-Friendly Hospital Initiative may inadvertently promote potentially hazardous practices,” the authors complained. They argue that following the breastfeeding rules that are promoted in the hospital can lead to risky behaviors at home, such as co-sleeping, which can lead to babies sleeping on their bellies on a too-soft, too-warm surface, or even babies falling off of beds.
“Tired parents have to feed their infants somewhere at night,” retorts Melissa Bartick, an assistant professor at Harvard who served on the impressive sounding, but ultimately unaccountable nonprofit U.S. Breastfeeding Commission. She argues that co-sleeping is a lot safer than, say, falling asleep with baby in an armchair or sofa. And since activists like Bartick believe that breast is best in nearly all circumstances, and given that moms who are in the habit of breastfeeding when they leave the hospital are more likely to continue breastfeeding, these lactation promoters don’t want to criticize where these women nurse.
Another expert organization, the American Academy of Pediatrics, is in a real bind about this. On the one hand they are pressing women to breastfeed as the healthiest option for babies’ future development, while at the same time, they are strict about safe sleeping. Indeed, while the organization strongly discourages co-sleeping, when asked to comment on the controversy for the news report, AAP refused to even dip a toe in these roiling waters.
None of this is easy, of course. Trying to decide the very best way to feed a new baby and get that baby to sleep is especially tough when parents are new to the baby game. But let’s at least admit what’s behind this battle of the so-called experts: They don’t have the answers figured out for every family any better than all the homespun family advice that this generation of parents usually chooses to ignore.
It would be refreshing if, in our data-and-empirical-evidence-driven age, experts doling out advice were more willing to admit that their recommendations will sometimes conflict with other experts, and that this might confuse as much as illuminate new parents. Parents today have an overwhelming amount of information at their fingertips as well as scolding “experts” ready to criticize their every move. As the breastfeeding vs. co-sleeping battle suggests, however, there are still times when parents should rely on their own knowledge and wisdom (and trial and error) to do what’s best for their children. Like the so-called experts, parents don’t always have everything figured out. And that’s OK.