New Parent? 3 Things You Should Know About Internet Baby Advice

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Awful parenting advice proliferates across the internet, especially as it relates to caring for a new baby. Here are a few things I've learned in the first few months of fatherhood.

Bad baby advice is ubiquitous, it seems. You can find it in every corner of the internet, sometimes proffered by well-meaning but misinformed parenting groups on social media, but more often by websites with ulterior motives. I've written several articles this year documenting my experience as a new dad dealing with pesticide fears, anti-vaccine aggitators on Twitter, and websites that accuse doctors of “body shaming” new moms to make money.

There's apparently no end to this inanity because I continue to run across marketers, politicians, and activists who capitalize on new-parent anxiety to sell unnecessary nutritional supplements (among other products) or promote some “do-it-for-the-children” agenda. Let's examine why this state of affairs persists and a couple of examples to illustrate how we might change it. 

Root problem: disproportionate fear

New parents worry way too much. Even when we rely on trustworthy sources of information, we're liable to walk away in a state of panic. My wife and I experienced this when we began investigating how to best prevent sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), which kills more than 2,000 babies annually; in the US, it's the leading cause of post-neonatal mortality and the fourth leading cause of infant mortality. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) reports that back-sleeping is the safest way for newborns to sleep because SIDS rates declined following a nationwide campaign encouraging parents to place their babies on their backs in the crib.

That's all well and good, but what if your child doesn't cooperate? Our baby, for his own amusement it seemed, decided that side-sleeping was a better option. We spent the first few weeks of his life outside the womb regularly repositioning him on his back; sometimes he'd stay put, sometimes he wouldn't—after we'd gone to bed for 2–3 hours of restless sleep. We also read that putting any sort of device in the crib to keep our baby on his back posed its own set of risks. What's a fearful parent to do?

We reached out to our pediatrician for help. After listening to our concerns, he explained that the AAP's recommendations, while correct, are based on studies with necessarily limited conclusions. It would be hopelessly unethical to study two groups of infants while some slept on their backs and others in the face-down prone position. All scientists can do is analyze the relationship between SIDS rates and the sleep environment or other variables that may be risk factors for sudden death.

In other words, the doctor said, our baby wasn't destined for an untimely end because he found side-sleeping more comfortable for a few weeks. Our new-parent blinders caused us to exaggerate the risk the AAP reported. If moms and dads can learn to recognize this emotional state consistently, we'll lose less sleep to exaggerated fears and save money we often spend on useless baby products. 

Baby food won't poison your kid

The routine is the same each time. An activist group or a politician releases a report exposing certain baby food brands that contain “toxic” chemicals of one sort or another. The media amplifies the story, giving the nonprofits and Congressmen the coverage they need to raise money and bolster their reelection efforts. Everybody wins—except parents who are now worried that baby food could poison their kids.

In my (admittedly brief) experience as a dad, I remember two important points when these agenda-driven reports hit the headlines. First, their conclusions are almost always spurious. You can verify this by actually reading the reports and ignoring news stories about the reports. See Heavy-Metal 'Tainted' Baby Food? Congressional Report Omits Important Science and 95% of Baby Food Tainted with Toxic Metals? Don't Panic for two recent examples.

Second, the FDA or food companies themselves usually identify and report real risks linked to a given product. While deeply flawed in many ways, industry and regulators have incentives to get harmful items out of the food supply. Poisoning your customers (or their kids) is a terrible business model, and federal agencies don't want children getting sick on their watch. This is why organizations like the FDA and CDC tend to be too cautious, sometimes to the point of absurdity. Activist groups and senators, in contrast, get plaudits for solving problems, real or imagined.

Food allergy foolishness

There is decent evidence indicating that children exposed to small amounts of potential food allergens early in life (approximately 3-5 months of age) are less likely to experience food allergies later on. The most common allergens are milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, wheat, soy, and shellfish; they're widely available at most supermarkets. A pediatrician could therefore help any parent figure out when and how much of these foods to introduce into a baby's diet. Lemon squeezy, right? Of course not.

Several companies selling “organic, non-GMO, all-natural daily” dietary supplements have sprouted up to help confused parents.[1] For just 40 bucks a month (or $13 an ounce), they'll send you pre-measured “mix-ins” for your baby's food. If the pediatricians who endorse our products couldn't figure out how to prevent allergies, the marketing materials claim, what chance do you have? Order today!

In fact, your chances of learning how to take care of your baby are excellent. You don't need gimmicky formula supplements, organic food, or scare stories from activist groups, just some common sense and the input from a physician.


[1] No company selling “non-GMO” baby supplements deserves a link.