Ravenous information junkies that we are, the hus-b and I have read pretty much every written authority for lay people on the subjects of pregnancy and birth. The hus-b is encyclopedic at this point, advising me calmly at the first occurrence of Braxton Hicks contractions that they were “completely normal for this stage of pregnancy” and informing me that I had developed a linea negra before I even noticed it myself. Seriously, we’ve only called the doctor’s office for advice *once* because the amateur obstetrician has been taking such excellent care of me (and, truth be told, we’ve been fortunate to have a relatively uncomplicated pregnancy thus far).
What we are not so superbly prepared for, however, is what to do with the actual *baby* once she makes her debut this summer. While this is partly due to not having read enough material to make informed decisions (Ina May has been taking precedence over Dr. Spock), we’ll also admit to being more than a little freaked out by all of the controversy surrounding such seemingly innocuous decisions as crib bumpers and swaddling. There’s a lot of hysteria in the realm of parenting these days, fed by a fear-mongering news media, rampant (mis)information on the internet and the proliferation of judge-y “mommy blogs” condemning parents for every perceived misstep. Simply put, it’s scary as hell to be a parent in the 21st century.
This is not to say that parenting hasn’t always been a frightening undertaking: the responsibility of keeping another human being alive is and always has been a huge deal. New parent anxiety is common, expected even, and in the information age there are people at every turn offering freaked out parents different opinions on how not to screw up their little darlings.
The news media is the first line of attack, assaulting parents with conflicting (and frequently changing) advice on such hot button issues as Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), autism and vaccinations. Want to lessen the risk of SIDS? The common wisdom (since 1992, mind you) has been to put a baby to sleep on his back rather than his stomach. Simple enough, but as per a recent Time.com “Healthland” article, back sleeping is now being associated with a higher risk of plagiocephaly (i.e., abnormal flatheadedness), which can become a permanent disfigurement if not treated during infancy with a specialized helmet. One expert cited in the article expressed his preference for back sleeping in spite of this risk, stating that “babies with funny-shaped heads are better than dead babies.” Funny-shaped heads? Dead babies?! It’s enough to make any new parent run screaming.
And where do they run to exactly? In the direction of the nearest Babies “R” Us, generally, to purchase specialized mattresses, motion-sensor nursery monitors and whatever other specialty good is being touted as the latest and greatest SIDS prevention system. To feel a measure of control over one’s child’s mortality is desirable without question, but one has to wonder: if I (and my parents, grandparents and so many other human beings before me) survived sleeping on our stomachs on non-organic mattresses in lead-paint covered cribs, is there really any there there or am I being manipulated?
It’s hard to reconcile, especially because no one really knows what causes SIDS. Sure, there are many suspected culprits — stomach sleeping, heredity and environmental vulnerabilities — but experts have yet to unveil a definitive cause. In the absence of certainty, fear reigns, and suddenly everything becomes a possible cause of SIDS. To put crib bumpers in your child’s crib is fast becoming a CPS-worthy infraction, at least, depending on who you ask. (Thanks to Time.com for yet another panic-inducing piece: “Why Parents Should Stop Using Crib Bumpers Now“. Spectacular title. Really.) Want a peek into the sancti-mommy war zone? Check out the comments section on this sensible Project Nursery design article discussing crib bumpers, where according to some commenters daring to put a bumper in your child’s crib is tantamount to negligent homicide. Parental alcohol consumption is another suspected cause, with SIDS rates being 33% higher on New Year’s Day. Baby mishandling by drunk parents is the apparent causal link, but that hasn’t prevented legions of paranoid mommy commenters from accusing women who nurse and have an occasional drink of choosing booze over their babies (nevermind that beer intake is associated with increased milk production). I hit my personal breaking point when I saw this article associating swaddling with an increased SIDS risk. Wait, aren’t all of these newfangled baby straight jackets supposed to reduce the incidence of SIDS, and now they’re telling me that they might actually kill my kid? Madness.
While we may know little about the actual causes of SIDS, one thing is for sure: the news media and the internet are doing us no favors with the alarmist tenor accompanying so much of the information directed at parents these days. And SIDS is really just a microcosm of other childhood health hazards — autism, severe food allergies, ADHD — that parents are justifiably concerned about but lack any sort of bright-line guidance. What, then, do the hus-b and I plan to do short of burying our heads in the sand to drown out the crazy? The same thing we do with everything else: research reputable sources (we’re thinking Dr. Sears instead of the iVillage mommy discussion boards), use plain old good sense and hope that our best is sufficient. It’s a baby and not a car, after all, and she isn’t going to come with a manufacturer’s warranty or a definitive instruction manual, or at least so we’ve heard…