by Jennifer Richler
So much parenting writing these days comes off of as preachy or alarmist or both. Check out the parenting section of your local bookstore and you will find titles like The Collapse of Parenting. A quick Google search of “parenting” yields articles like “Six Ways Good Parents Contribute to their Child’s Anxiety.” The title alone makes me feel anxious.
The Informed Parent, a new book Tara Haelle and Emily Willingham, is different. It is a nuanced, thoughtful exploration of the latest research on parenting young children. And it is completely non-judgmental. “[W]e don’t know your family and can’t say which route would be best for you and your child. But we give you the scientific information to map your own path,” they write. How refreshing.
If you’re about to be a parent or recently became one, poring over reams of research on everything from antidepressants in pregnancy to home births to breastfeeding to vaccines is probably the last thing you want to do. Luckily, authors have done it for you, and have translated it all into easy-to-understand terms.
The result is a book that makes you feel like you’re talking to a really smart friend, one who knows a lot more than you do, but never acts like a know-it-all.
As someone who spent many years conducting scientific research, I’m always skeptical when a book bills itself as ” science-based,” as this one does in its subtitle. I worry that it will mislead readers by oversimplifying the research or overstating what it can tell us.
But Haelle and Willingham deftly avoid these pitfalls, explaining the findings clearly and thoroughly, while repeatedly reminding the reader about the limitations of scientific research: variables the researchers didn’t or couldn’t control for, biases on the part of the researchers in terms of how they collected, analyzed, and interpreted the data. When the findings on a given topic are particularly scarce or messy, as is the case for many parenting issues, the authors come right out and say so.
Even when the data are clear, the authors avoid being prescriptive, acknowledging the many factors that influence people’s parenting decisions. They cite the evidence for the health benefits of breastfeeding, for example, but are quick to point out that “for an individual woman, those benefits may or may not outweigh other considerations or possible harms of breastfeeding,” such as the psychological stress a woman might experience if nursing proves especially difficult.
When they lay out the risks of certain practices, such as co-sleeping, the writers keep their tone practical, not preachy. As veteran parents themselves, they acknowledge that some will choose bed-sharing with their infants as a way to get a few precious hours of sleep. Instead of admonishing parents for the practice, they review the research in a clear-headed way, highlighting evidence on ways to reduce the risks (e.g. , avoiding waterbeds, smoking, sharing a bed with a preemie, and having multiple bed sharers). Refreshingly, they also suggest potential risks of not bed-sharing, including a higher chance of falling asleep with the baby on a couch, which is a dangerous practice.
In the spirit of showing that there are many ways to approach parenting, the writers include “What we did” paragraphs at the end of many sections, each describing various decisions they made in their children’s early years — where to give birth, how to feed their infant, how to manage postpartum depression (both experienced it). By revealing these personal choices in a matter-of-fact way, the authors lend credibility to the claim that there is no one “right” way to parent.
The authors balance this emphasis on personal decision-making with a healthy respect for scientific research and what it can tell us when carried out rigorously. They choose high-quality, well-controlled studies to review in depth and relate findings that might surprise many parents, even those who try to keep up with the latest developments. They cite an “incredibly detailed UK analysis” that found no environmental benefit to cloth diapers over disposables, for example. They also describe studies that found no evidence of harm to the fetus from a mother dying her hair while pregnant, and no evidence of health benefits from eating organic rather than conventional food. Among the most recent research they discuss is the evidence that early introduction of peanuts actually lowers risk of peanut allergy, contrary to what was previously thought. This led the American Academy of Pediatrics to revise their recommendations last year, advising parents to introduce peanut products to infants between 4 and 11 months instead of waiting until after 12 months. By highlighting the latest research, Haelle and Willingham remind us that research is a dynamic process, and that the “accepted wisdom” is always in flux.
This openness to challenging ideas leads the authors to entertain claims others might shy away from. Instead of the standard disapproval of all things screen-related that you’ll find in many parenting books and magazines, for example, they discuss the potential advantages of touch-screens over TV: interactivity, personalization, and progressive learning, which allows children to build on concepts they’ve already mastered. “It’s entirely reasonable that touch-screen devices could promote as much learning and traditional toys,” they write, showing their willingness to carefully consider an issue for which other parenting experts might have a knee-jerk reaction.
Screen time is one of the few topics relevant to parents of toddlers and preschoolers that the authors discuss. Despite describing itself in the subtitle as a guide for “your child’s first four years,” over two-thirds of the book is devoted to topics relevant to parents of infants. This is probably because the research on these topics is more abundant and somewhat cleaner; there’s simply more to say about the research on breastfeeding, circumcision, and medications during pregnancy than on complex topics like discipline.
Still, I was disappointed that the book didn’t go into more depth on certain topics, particularly developmental delays. There is a section about the possible causes of autism (the research is unambiguous that vaccines are NOT one of them, a fact the writers thankfully state plainly), and another on screening for delays. But given Willingham’s incisive writing about autism elsewhere, I expected more, particularly guidance for parents on when to be concerned about their child’s development without becoming unnecessarily alarmed.
Readers will find more discussion of certain topics on the theinformedparentbook.com, where the authors maintain a blog highlighting the latest studies on everything from migraines in pregnancy to hydrolyzed formula.
Overall, The Informed Parent succeeds as an informative, reassuring guide to parenting in the early years. Toward the end of the book, the authors say that they set out to create a “factual resource in the face of the relentless messages about ‘how you should be doing it’ and ‘what you’re doing wrong’ that no parent can escape in the modern age.” Mission accomplished.
Jennifer Richler received her PhD in clinical psychology and is now a freelance writer living in Bloomington, Indiana with her husband and two kids. Follow her on Twitter.