Conflicting advice

  • By Robin Barker
  • 27 Jun, 2017

Conflicting advice and information to mothers - it's only recently fathers have been included - has been the go for centuries, at least as far back as the 1700s (see, Dream Babies, Christina Hardyment, Frances Lincoln Ltd, London 2007 ) and probably way beyond the eighteenth century.

 Even though parents have always been bombarded with advice, I doubt they have ever been subjected to as much information as they are subjected to today. The reach of the information and the range of people dishing it out has reached stratospheric proportions.

 With the availability and rapid growth of global technology, scientific research and communication systems, this will increase, not diminish.

 And yes, I'm only too aware of my contribution to this volcanic eruption of information. And, sure, some of my stuff is at odds with other people’s stuff.

Like everyone else with information to impart, I wrote Baby Love and The Mighty Toddler because I thought my perspective and insights would be helpful in ways that perhaps others weren’t.

Naturally, everyone who writes a book telling parents what to do with their babies thinks the same way. Inevitably new mothers get caught up in the competing egos of the people whose advice they are reading or listening to, which adds to the conflict and confusion.

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     Looking for advice and information is normal

 It’s normal for new parents to turn to books and websites for advice. After all it’s not just baby advice we all go looking for. We seek advice for just about every aspect of our lives – health and fitness, relationships, nutrition, fashion, real estate, cooking…the list goes on and on.

 Regardless of the theme, conflicting advice is everywhere but because new motherhood is such a mix of fragility and vulnerability and fierce emotions, it’s harder for mothers (and to a lesser extent fathers) to walk away from advice they find unappealing than it is to walk away from their personal trainer, weight loss advisor, dog whisperer or hairdresser.

This is especially so if parents, as is sadly often the case, are made to feel that their baby’s physical, emotional and psychological well-being is at stake if they don’t comply with the advice.

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A plethora of advisors like never before in the history of humankind

  It's common for mothers in the first three months to be getting advice from a child and family health nurse, a mothercraft nurse, a family doctor, a paediatrician, a lactation consultant and maybe a psychologist and/or a naturopath as well. Then there’s the all-knowing Dr Google, the pharmacist, online parent groups and all manner of social media advisors.

 Weighing in will be the grandmother, the grandmother-in-law, the know-all in the mother's group, the busybody in the supermarket, the man in the carpark and the avalanche of comments and advice via baby web sites and social media.

 Almost certainly everyone is telling the new mother something different. This can vary from 'he's got a little pain', he's teething, he's too hot or too cold, he's allergic to your milk, he's spoilt, he's got reflux, he's lactose intolerant, he's colicky, he's a high-need baby, he's over-stimulated, he’s bored.

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       Conflicting advice – a blessing or a curse?

On the face of it, conflicting advice seems like a curse which, because of the havoc and mental stress it creates, it certainly can be.

But, it’s also a blessing because it allows for the many variations in human nature and experience and provides much-needed flexibility and wriggle-room that wasn’t available in the past when advice was more rigid and uniform.

Why is ‘parenting’ information and advice so contradictory?

Mixed messages are mostly down to tradition, fashion, scientific research, opinion based on personal experience, cherished beliefs about various child-raising philosophies, and because babies and toddlers are mysterious little people. Until they are able to communicate effectively, they can’t tell us what is wrong or how they feel.

Not all information is conflicting

A great deal of baby and toddler information is consistent. In areas that are measurable, where there is clear-cut evidence for recommending one thing as opposed to another (or doing nothing), where systemic observations, numerical data and statistics have been replicated many times there is no ambiguity. The risks and benefits are crystal clear and in these areas health professionals - as aside from the broader community who may not be up to date on the latest - and will generally give similar advice.

There are many areas of baby/childcare where this is the case:
  • Immunisation
  • Sudden Unexpected Death in Infancy and safe sleeping advice
  • Child safety (car restraints and standards for baby equipment and toys, helmets for head protection and all the safety recommendations which are based on measurable, scientific research)
  • Sun protection
  • Tooth decay prevention
  • Nutrition

  • Many aspects of breastfeeding, but as anyone who is breastfeeding for the first time will tell you, conflicting advice is rampant among breastfeeding advisors.
    This is because breastfeeding, like birth, is a highly individual experience where many subjective factors such as culture, support, domestic arrangements, paid-work commitments, social, emotional, psychological and physical circumstances all play a part.
    Breastfeeding is an art as much as a science and while the science can demonstrate the superiority and advantages of breastfeeding, the science can often be murky when it comes to providing concrete answers for mothers and babies with difficult breastfeeding problems.
  • Most advice on discipline (for toddlers/children) is similar, at least the general themes are, even if the details vary slightly.
  • Diagnosis and treatment for paediatric medical conditions.

 Conflicting advice that most bothers new parents is common in areas that are difficult to research.
For example, the behavioural aspects of breastfeeding, baby-crying, baby-sleep, ‘teething’, strange habits in normal babies (for example ear-pulling, dribbling), the impact of childcare on the under-threes.

 Conflicting advice is also rife in areas that are prone to trends and fashion. For example, the usefulness or otherwise of amber beads for ‘teething’, baby-wearing, baby-signing, baby gym, dietary fads that come and go, infant lesson plans, the multitude of herbal and other cures that wax and wane each decade.

 And, naturally, tradition and culture also play a part. Tradition and culture are often beneficial and comforting but can muddy the waters when it comes to factoring in advances in baby health, safety and development.

It can also be unhelpful when enthusiasts of baby-rearing practices in traditional rural communities urge parents (read mothers) in urban western settings to take up the 'superior' mothering skills of their traditional sisters.
As Christina Hardyment notes; ' baby-care experts who think you can live like an Amazonian Indian in modern Britain (Australia) need to be treated with caution' (Dream Babies, page 289) .

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Conflicting advice is common when the advice concerns behaviour rather than health.

Conflicting advice is more likely in the behavioural area than in the health and safety area because research into baby/parent behaviour is much more difficult than research into baby health and safety.

 Behavioural science, which attempts to find out why people – in this case parents and babies – do the things they do, is rarely definitive and clear-cut.

 While research into human behaviour is fascinating and potentially beneficial, history is littered with weird and at times dangerous practices based on questionable biological/behavioural science.

  Here’s one example, an internet search will reveal many others:

In the 1970s, Australian researchers John Kennell and Marshal Klaus declared that maternal/infant bonding immediately following birth was a ‘one shot only’ opportunity that imposed a lifelong benefit or disadvantage.

 Their idea was taken up with gusto by maternity hospitals, lactation gurus, early childhood nurses, paediatricians, psychologists and even found its way into policy documents issued by the Department of Health.

 Diana E. Eyer ( Mother-Infant Bonding: A Scientific Fiction, Yale University Press, 1993)   later conclusively showed that Kennell and Klaus's work was based on dodgy research. She did this by painstakingly tracing the history of Klaus and Kennell's bonding theory as expounded by them and demonstrated its lack of validity.

Crucially, she also showed how the enthusiasm with which the Kennell and Klaus’s ‘do or die bonding myth’ was taken up by all and sundry reflected a disturbing tendency by professionals as well as lay people to accept ‘scientific’ research without question.

Her work exposed a lack of awareness in the way that research - and how it is interpreted -  can be distorted by professional agendas, commercial interests or an unquestioning religious-like devotion to certain ideas – in Kennell and Klaus's  case a ‘maternal/infant bonding’ theory based on an extreme position and faulty research.

 After frightening the wits out of a generation of mothers who feared they hadn’t ‘bonded’ correctly, Klaus and Kennell  back-tracked and significantly modified their bonding theory.
It’s now accepted that bonding can evolve slowly over many weeks, even months and the idea that the first hour after birth can make or break the future mother/baby relationship, or have a lifelong positive/negative outcome for the baby is absurd.

 Leaving aside the obvious impacts that genetics, medical problems, neglect, abuse, dangerous environments and so forth have on babies, research into the realm of early childhood behaviour and how it may affect future outcomes, especially in the context of healthy babies with conscientious parents in good homes, is frequently at odds with itself.

 For example, it’s possible to find opposing research on the benefits versus risks of childcare for the under threes. You don't have to look far to find research supporting opposing views on sleep-training, various claims about attachment parenting (as opposed to attachment theory), the benefits of co-sleeping and the age children should start school. 

 On the other hand, there is no research which claims that properly fitted child restraints in cars are hazardous to children’s health.
Nor any research claiming that it’s irrelevant whether babies sleep on their backs or their tummies.
Or that heels pricks soon after birth to detect life-threatening/debilitating  genetic problems are a waste of time.
Even formula companies unequivocally acknowledge that breastmilk is scientifically proven to be the optimum milk for babies.

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Bear in mind when confronted with conflicting advice in tricky areas.

All else being equal, there is no definitive research that says babies in good homes with loving parents grow up into better or smarter people based solely on single issues such ‘sleep’, age of introduction of solids, the odd unfortunate smack, potty-training, childcare, baby signing, baby gym and all the other relatively minor concerns which, thanks to the over-the-top feverish debates that erupt in these matters, parents get themselves into knots over.

Often, parents must make up their own minds on these matters, hopefully after they have received balanced information to help them decide.

Good question

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          Dealing with conflicting advice

  • Avoid seeing too many people or reading too much variable information. Find one person/source you trust. It may be your mother, your sister, your best friend. Remember that once mothers/parents relied on friends and family far more than outside sources and in some families still do.
  • If you’re confident there’s no need to routinely check-in with a professional unless a specific problem arises.

  Consider the advice

  • Is it practical and realistic in relation to your life? Have you been offered some options?
  • Is it safe?
  • Does the person giving you the advice have any commercial interests which may influence the advice?
  • Does the person have wide-ranging practical hands-on experience? A lot of written information is from people with none (academics, researchers, journalists, other parents).
  • Does the health professional reject out of hand advice from other ‘experts’ or is he/she happy to help you work out what’s right for you?
  • Is the advice conflicting or simply a variation on a theme and is he/she happy to help you see the difference?
  • Does your health professional make you feel confident and good about yourself and your baby? It’s crucial to find someone else if he/she doesn’t.

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Work on the nonconflicting basics: be nice, be kind, teach them to read, teach them to swim, turn your phone off when you go to the park and don't let them choke on an amber bead.

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