Happy Mom Secret #3: Be your own expert.

The importance of “tummy time”. Sleep training for newborns. How to make your baby smarter. Before I became a parenting writer, I always assumed that headlines made their way to the front covers of magazines and books found their way to the shelves because the research behind them was new, ground-breaking and solid. But somewhere along the way, I learned differently.

The truth, I learned, is that magazines and websites have to publish information that their readers are interested in, so the more people are talking about something, the more likely it is to get ink. Makes sense, right? But it’s a cycle: the more magazine covers, blog posts, and book titles are devoted to a specific topic, the more parents are going to talk about it, and the more they’ll start asking their pediatricians about it, and the more those pediatricians will start forming their own opinions (and perhaps write their own books) about it, and then those pediatricians will be interviewed for more magazine articles… and so on and so forth. A trend is born.

Sure, it’s great to bring certain information–like the need for babies to have strong necks, or ways to help babies and moms get much-needed sleep–to light. But the unfortunate side effect can be mommy/parent fear, concern, and guilt over topics that may not really be all that big a deal. That feeds into the pressure to buy more books and seek out products to solve the “problem”, whether the “problem” is a baby who doesn’t seem quite as advanced as his playmate at Gymboree, a newborn who hates laying on his belly (many do), or a 6-week-old who—surprise!—doesn’t want to sleep on a schedule.

Why does all this get in the way of a mom’s happiness? Because it’s pretty much impossible to feel confident as a parent if you’re constantly adding new problems, issues and concerns to your list. Happy mothering requires a certain level of faith that even if we make mistakes along the way (which we will), our kids will still most likely turn out healthy, happy, and wise. Or at least smart enough to stop eating paste by, say, 3rd or 4th grade.
Of course, we all want to keep up on the latest information about our kids’ health and wellbeing, but it’s definitely possible to take it too far—or to give too much credence to questionable sources.

The only way around this is to make ourselves the #1 expert on our kids–and to trust our smarts and instincts that we’re doing it right. Note: I’m not saying that we need to trust that we do EVERYTHING right, because that’s impossible no matter how many books you read or parenting gurus you consult. I’m talking about making enough good choices that over the course of your child’s lifetime, it balances out the not-so-great.

Of course, it’s one thing to say “trust your instincts” and another thing to actually know how to do it–something that doesn’t come naturally these days, with all the information we have to sort through on a daily basis. Here are my three rules for sorting through the onslaught of advice out there while staying firmly in the driver’s seat as your own parenting guru:

Rule 1: Be your own fact-checker.
Depending on the magazine, blog, or website’s standards, there may be little oversight of the statistics, studies, or sources used in the story once it’s turned over to the writer. If it doesn’t occur to the writer to look into conflicting research, or if other studies haven’t yet been published or are now considered “old news” and not “fresh” enough, there’s a good chance that the “other side” won’t make it into the story at all…even if it has merit. When a story is fact-checked, the fact-checker doesn’t necessarily have time to make sure that the research used is the newest or most conclusive or exhaustive that exists.

My point is not to defame the publishing industry as a whole, because hey, I’d like to keep getting work as a writer; and besides, I know that a lot of what’s out there is well-researched, valuable information. My point is simply that there’s no guarantee that something is true just because you read it in print or hear it on Oprah—even if it’s backed up by somebody who seems to be a reputable MD or other expert, and even if you respect the person who’s saying it.

And sometimes, things may be true for one person – or even a large segment of the public – but just aren’t true for you. To be more specific: just because you really respect somebody’s parenting or parenting advice doesn’t mean you have to do everything they suggest. And if you read about a “new study” that seems to fly in the face of common sense or your own parenting philosophy, don’t feel like you have to act on it. Research comes and goes; not all studies are well done or scientifically sound and many will be disproved later.

Rule 2: They aren’t talking directly to you.
When a health or medical organization comes out with a recommendation, they aren’t necessarily talking directly to you, a smart, concerned mom with a (most likely) healthy child. They’re talking to the public at large, which, let’s face it, includes a lot of really stooopid people. That means that experts have to say things like “Before backing out of your driveway, it is very important that you securely fasten your baby into her car seat”. Duh, right?

Let’s take tummy time, for example. In your circle of mom friends, how many do you know who leave their babies lying on their backs all day long? I’ll tell you what I see when I’m with a group of mothers: some moms hold baby face-down across her lap. Some walk to and fro with the baby tummy-down on a forearm. Some let baby lean on her chest or prop baby up against her bent knees (again, tummy down). Everywhere I go, when I’m with tuned-in, attentive moms, I see babies learning to exert control over their heads and necks and explore the space around them. Sure, if your baby spends most of his day lying in a crib or reclining in a seat, maybe this is something you need to worry about. Otherwise, is it worth feeling worried or guilty over?

Rule 3: Consider Relative Risk
When my kids were younger, I read about a study in the Journal of the American Dental Association that showed kissing your children on the lips may promote tooth decay. Bacteria, the study discovered, travels from the mother’s mouth to the child’s, placing him or her at risk for developing cavities at an early age. That led to an onslaught of articles suggesting that moms shouldn’t kiss their babies on the lips at all.

No baby kisses? I’d gone along with safety advice up until then, but this was really pushing the limits of happy mothering. It was beginning to seem that the world is a very dangerous place for our kids, and we’re lucky if they manage to make it through alive.

On one hand, it’s great there are people out there looking out kids and trying to reduce the risks that come into their lives every day. For instance, I find it useful to know that there are statistics and studies that tell me that yes, it’s worth it to strap a bicycle helmet on my boys’ heads every time they get on their bikes.

But on a large scale, we’ve taken the concept of “risk” a little too far—and we don’t always calculate risk logically. For example, taking my children out in the car each day is one of the riskiest things I could do to them (according to the National Center for Health Statistics, 6 children between the ages of 0 and 14 die in auto accidents each day)–yet I don’t see any government agencies or medical organizations recommending we stop putting kids in cars. The bathtub is one of the most common locations of childhood accidents, including deaths…but most of us take a chance and bathe our kids because they don’t want them to smell or develop funky growths behind their ears.

For every “risky” activity, there’s a way to make it safer. And sometimes, the risk of NOT doing whatever it is–whether it’s letting my older kids play outdoors (gasp-unsupervised) or giving my baby a smooch—is not worth the “risk” to me.

Ever gotten freaked out about the results of a health study, then learned later that it wasn’t accurate or conclusive? Or, is there any common parenting “wisdom” that you choose to go against? Continue the discussion in the comments!

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