In the shifting battle lines of the mommy wars, scientific studies have become an increasingly common weapon. Research gets employed by both sides and on nearly every issue. Whether breast-feeders versus formula-feeders, anti-vaxxers verses vaccine advocates, or a range of other issues, parents rely on a wave of child development scholarship to defend their positions—and often add fuel to the fire.
We have the Internet to thank, mostly. Young moms have all done it. We Googled our parenting questions or relied on information posted by our friends on Facebook. According to a Pew Research report, 66 percent of mothers and 48 percent of fathers say they have found useful parenting information on social media. About a third said they asked a parenting question of their social network sometime in the last month.
Reflecting on her first six years of parenting, Jennifer Richler writes on The New York Times blog Motherlode: “Google was my parenting manual and my What to Expect When You’re Expecting.”
With all that searching, scientific studies and claims ranging from shoddy to sound inevitably appear in the results. A simple query generates everything from data gathered at the Center for Disease Control to industry-funded organizations to grassroots websites and mommy blogs, all citing peer-reviewed studies and quoting doctors. For each study claiming to be evidence supporting one thing, there’s another study on the other side.
Discerning pseudo-science from bona fide science takes some work and forces us to realize that research isn’t as straightforward as we might hope. Along with the rest of a generation of Googling parents, Christian mommas seeking wisdom for the right strategies for raising healthy and happy kids may find themselves confused and conflicted. Science is a messy pursuit for understanding, but learning a bit more about the culture of research can help us appreciate information as a tool rather than a weapon.
Sometimes when we read a particular finding, we inadvertently wound our own heart. We feel guilty for our inability to provide whatever the scientific “best” is. Or, our existing bias is strengthened by the latest study, creating division among our social circles when we pat ourselves on the back for our “good” choices.
For us, there’s emotion wrapped up in what the scientists say. Our own fear and insecurity—or good-intentioned hopes and dreams—heighten the importance of research and can create idols. A healthy understanding of the complexities of research may assuage the self-doubt many moms feel for different parenting choices they’ve made and humble us as we consider our place in the complexity of factors swarming around our families: genetics, nature, culture, class, history, and more.
The Informed Parent: A Science-Based Resource for Your Child’s First Four Years, a book out this year from Tara Haelle and Emily Willingham, gives a pretty cool-headed explanation of how to cut through the noise to find the truth in a number of parenting debates. The authors also openly submit what they actually did in their own lives, showing there can be multiple answers to difficult parenting questions.
They attempt to summarize scientific findings on a host of issues beginning when a pregnant mom might begin Googling her way through prenatal vitamins, fetal screening, and delivery. The authors’ careful consideration of what science does and doesn’t do gives parents better perspective, which is perhaps what we really need more than groundbreaking research.
The breastfeeding case: Is breast really best?
The breastfeeding versus formula-feeding decision remains a common debate and serves as a helpful case study for finding a more nuanced understanding through science. Decades of scientific studies and data gathered through surveys actually reveals benefits on both sides. Breast milk is considered the best source of infant nutrition by medical professionals; however, formula has made great strides in the last 150 years, becoming a safe, nutritious alternative.
Most American mothers attempt breastfeeding, though many moms begin supplementing with formula as a baby nears age 1. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s annual stats, 79 percent of moms breastfed their newborns, but those numbers drop to around half at six months and just over a quarter at a year.
Breast milk is often touted for its immune benefits that last past weaning, but Haelle and Willingheam report in their book that it can also be deficient in vitamin K (which is why babies get a vitamin K shot at birth), iron and vitamin D. That’s not an issue for formula-fed babies because formula can be fortified, thanks to advances in scientific understanding.
Additionally, Haelle and Willingham examine the research on breastfeeding’s impact on obesity and cognitive, social, and emotional development finding that many claims made about the benefits of breastfeeding lasting into childhood are probably oversold—it’s too difficult to control for other factors that could influence a child’s life and any findings favoring breastfeeding were too modest to be significant. For example, some studies have found that babies who are breastfed longer have higher IQs, but a narrow reading of these studies fails to weigh the significance of other factors—many mothers who breastfeed longer have higher incomes and more education themselves.
Is safety ever guaranteed?
The breastfeeding debate highlights some of the same emotions at the root of other parental concerns, such as what to eat while pregnant or whether to feed growing kids organic or conventional food. There’s a fear of what is “safest” for our kids. Safety is a relative term and looking for a study that proves zero risk is virtually impossible.
For years, I’ve stopped to think over whether to buy organic produce and groceries. Was pesticide residue a risk that I should take or not? I ultimately came to the same conclusion as Haelle and Willingham: Comparative studies of the two aren’t compelling enough to conclude that organic food is safer or nutritionally better. The food system carries risks, whether we eat organic or not. As Haelle and Willingham write: “Feeding children is a good idea; how you do it matters a lot less than that you do it.”
As with breastfeeding versus formula-feeding, there’s not a sharp enough blade to use the science as a weapon here, not enough reason to let it wound us in a mother’s struggle of self-doubt. In our concern for not choosing the safest option, we get tunnel vision and fears make the monsters look much bigger than they are. Meanwhile, we miss the obvious commonality for many mommas: We are all doing our best to feed our kids, and guess what? They’re growing!
Social sciences lend some context
With many parenting debates, a variety of factors are at play. For example, organic food is not equally available to everyone and is often more expensive. For breastfeeding, a range of reasons beyond personal preference can dictate a mom’s decision: work constraints, family situation, not producing enough milk, or a medical condition.
Haelle and Willingham searched for sociological studies that give insight into moms’ experiences of feeding a baby. Though they point out that there were unfortunately only a few available, one from 2014 pointed to some themes that can bind both sides together: Moms feel shame or doubt no matter which feeding choice they made.
The study’s authors interviewed English, mostly white moms, finding they had more in common than the mommy wars headlines imply. “Breastfeeding moms felt pressure to hide their breasts in public, but formula-feeding moms felt pressure to hide their bottles,” wrote Haelle and Willingham. The formula-feeders felt like they experienced disapproval for giving their children something “second best,” while breastfeeding moms felt self-conscious about feedings and unsupported to feed in public despite messaging that breastfeeding is best.
“Ultimately, the moms were damned if they did and damned if they didn’t. Perhaps one step to changing this reality might be more research that helps everyone realize that both breast-feeders and formula-feeders experience social pressure, judgment, and shame, and little good will come of arguing over who has it worse,” wrote Haelle and Willingham.
What science can’t address
We can look at the scientific research on a topic while considering other factors shaping our parenting decisions, but science can’t tell us with certainty what to do. So instead of placing that burden on science, it seems more prudent to address the fear, self-doubts, and judgment. Ultimately, we should also look inward: What’s driving our search for scientific assurance? Have we given science too much authority?
Yes, I continue to appreciate the value of science in our quest for truth and understanding of God’s world and how to guide our children in it. Science can be illuminating, helping us to better understand the reality of the world God created.
But, yes, sometimes I elevate science unnecessarily. Science is just a process, limited by man’s pursuit. It isn’t an end-all, because man will never know everything.
Haelle and Willingham remind their readers of the Dunning-Kruger effect, which is basically the tendency to consider your own knowledge much more complete than it actually is while rating others lower than yourself. (Science calls that the Dunning-Kruger effect; the Bible just calls it pride.)
Philippians 2:3 says, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves.” In our parenting journey, we remember that our circumstances are not the same as others and humbly admit that we might not make the same choices if we lived life in another’s shoes. We remember that a study that made sense one day may lose significance the next as a more thorough study is completed or a new observation is made. The mommy wars may be raging out there, swords wielded from the halls of science, but let’s use science as a tool instead, ensuring that its knowledge is considered but tempered by prudence.
Rebecca Randall is a science editor at CT. She tweets @beccawrites.