Having never taken any interest in how to raise a newborn, a week ago I gave birth to my first child and this inattention turned from zero to fascinated overnight. Suddenly I couldn’t get enough of the advice of friends and family who have traversed this journey before me and I finally opened up the self-help baby books I had been gifted during pregnancy. And of course, coming from generation Google, and suddenly finding myself with an iPhone in one hand and a baby in the other at times it’s not natural to be awake, I launched myself into researching the feeding and sleeping habits, and how to get as much as possible of both for my daughter in her first precious weeks and months. I knew Google would be resplendent with a range of information; after all having a baby must be the most common life experience shared by women worldwide. But what I found was not just handy hints and tips. What I found was a baby war.
It’s worth saying at this point that the environment in the world of cooking and raising babies is ripe for a war because there are so many yes / no decisions to make, each of which will leave you judged to varying degrees as to your choice. Judged by your family, your friends, your work colleagues and the lady behind you in the line at the post office. That’s not to say that all this judging is negative. Much of it is just well meaning curiosity. But it’s just a fact of life that when you’re pregnant or you have a baby, the people around you take a huge amount of interest and will often directly ask you which direction you’ve decided to take in the countless forks in the road. Are you finding out the gender or waiting for a surprise? Private or public hospital? Midwife or obstetrician? Strictly avoiding all alcohol, cigarettes and foods higher in risk of Listeria or throwing caution to the wind and indulging just a little in contraband items while pregnant? What about a natural birth or elective caesarean? Painkillers and epidural or without pain relief of any kind? Water birth, home birth, water birth at home or wait and see? Then when baby comes there’s another huge list of choices. Some are fairly tame choices with little controversy or judgment made. For instance to dummy or not to dummy? Cloth or plastic nappies? Can you feel yourself making silent judgement on each of these choices as you read this list? Then there are the hot-button topics which are the battle grounds for the baby wars; to vaccinate or not vaccinate? Co-sleeping versus cot-sleeping, and cot-sleeping in their own nursery or in parent’s room? Demand feeding or feeding on a set routine? Controlled-crying, self-settling or attachment parenting?
The internet offers a literally endless, and ever growing quagmire of baby-advice websites and forums providing advice on all these choices, with a mixture of articles by baby experts and by the other baby experts; mothers. Baby experts range from qualified doctors, researchers, obstetricians, midwives, paediatricians, lactation consultants, sleep therapists, child psychologists and self-taught consultants for sleep and feeding. But of course, the other baby experts – any woman anywhere who has ever had one or more babies, view themselves as equally qualified as these experts to provide expert advice, sometimes even more so. And these experts, let’s call them mother-experts, are the foot soldiers in the baby wars I stumbled across.
I totally understand why these women feel entitled to their opinion on parenthood. The experience of pregnancy and child birth, and surviving the onslaught of challenges it takes to raise a newborn, does bring with it a sense of accomplishment that feels like an expert qualification. Raising a baby is like being in a 24/7 job where you’re your own boss and the weight of responsibility on you is enormous. The baby is the centre of the family’s world and it’s up to the parents to ensure the baby thrives. But what worries me about some of these self-proclaimed mother-experts is that their well-meaning advice on internet forums is often a mixture of extreme judging of other mothers who are desperate for help, is unscientific and anti-real-baby-experts, and worst of all, is offering advice that does not help those sleep-deprived newbie-mothers who are desperately Googling for answers in the middle of the night, and may instead be making them more confused, more anxious and less likely to seek help from experts that could make their family’s lives much easier. Because many of these expert mothers deride the advice of real, qualified experts such as doctors and as far as I can tell, are often misrepresenting the methods and science behind this expertise, and making vulnerable new mothers feel terrible in the process.
Using one hot-topic as an example, I have friends who have found success with routines, and other friends who swear by demand feeding. It’s important to understand that this particular choice is a very hard one for new mothers because once you’ve decided what you plan to do, you have to commit fully to it and it will make a huge difference to your experience of raising a newborn. Demand-feeding is baby-led which means you feed the baby whenever they seem hungry and let them sleep whenever they want which means their sleep and feed patterns are then generally unpredictable and non-routine. Routines like those advocated by experts such as Tizzy Hall in her book Save our Sleep, and by Adelaide’s The Baby Sleep Doctor, Dr Brian Symon, are parent-led and suggest feeding and sleep patterns that you can aim to use as a flexible routine at different stages of the baby’s development, almost like baby-rearing by numbers. You can read my review of routines versus demand feeding here.
When looking for advice on the internet about the pros and cons of each of these methods, I stumbled across some terrible behaviour from mother-experts offering advice. An important note at this point is the difference between sleep training methods; self-settling and controlled crying. Self-settling is teaching a child to put themselves to sleep without parent intervention, and often means ignoring protesting, or grizzling type noises while the baby settle themselves. Controlled crying is generally used in cases where parents have had sleep problems for a period and are at their wits end to get baby to sleep longer than a short nap. It involves letting the baby cry emotionally and going in to comfort them at longer and longer intervals to teach the baby that parents won’t rush in at their every demand. The following comment is an example of the type of judging and implied-nastiness that is littered all over baby advice forums and characteristically confuses self-settling for controlled-crying:
‘I don’t doubt that it [routine] works, but personally I don’t agree with it. I could never ever let my son cry – even as protest… but that’s me. My baby feeds and sleeps on demand; whenever and wherever he needs to. I could count on one hand the times he has cried since birth. We don’t need him in a routine and I won’t force one on him. We are happy and in my opinion raising our son to trust us. I am not saying this as a ‘holier than thou’ thing, I get that people do what they need to do and what works for them….’
This comment is likely well-meaning, but it also reeks of up-on-her-high-horse self-congratulating judgement of mothers who have chosen a different method. The main attitudes some demand-feeders have against routines is that it’s the easy way out, when mothering should be all about the baby and not about the parents. It also implies that mothers who use routines are heartless, and don’t mind their children ‘not trusting them’. The ‘it’s fine for you, but I could never do that to my child’ type comment can easily be translated to: ‘if you’re heartless enough to force your poor abandoned child into routines and self-settle them that’s fine, but I have a heart and I’m a good mother so that wouldn’t work for us’.
What this type of comment, in favour of demand feeding, also implies is that any method that is designed for the health of the baby and the family is selfish on the part of the parents, inferring that it’s natural for a mother to give up her life when she has a child and if she’s not willing to do this, if it’s not convenient for her to be waking all hours of the night to feed her child, and rock it to sleep, and feed it for hours at a time, then she’s not a real mother. I might be taking this a little far, but I’m just reporting what I hear in this comment and I really feel this attitude is rampant in the baby wars.
Where the war gets even fiercer is when it cascades from factions on the internet into protests off-line. An example of this is a recent controversy around Dr Brian Symon, a self-settling routine advocate who says he has helped over 10,000 families solve their baby’s sleep problems. Dr Symon was due to give a presentation about his feeding and sleep methods at Melbourne’s Pregnancy Babies and Children’s Expo in October last year, but this presentation was cancelled after a back-lash from prospective attendees on the expo’s Facebook Page. From what I have read about Dr Symon, he only advocates a very short-term version of controlled-crying in cases where parents have had sleep problems with their child over many months, but on the whole, advocates self-settling to teach the child to sleep as early as possible so to avoid having to consider controlled-crying as a circuit breaker later on. As he explains on his blog:
‘Despite the urban myth, I do not advise parents to lock babies in their rooms for 12 hours unattended, or any variation on this theme’ and ‘If a baby is trained to achieve prolonged crying it can be damaging to child, mother and the family unit. Uncontrolled, prolonged crying is a major insult to the well-being of the child’.
Clearly many of those who oppose Dr Symon’s methods have never fully investigated what these methods are. And because they don’t agree with them, he apparently should be censored from speaking altogether. What ever happened to the right to free speech?
More recently, Dr Symon was heckled to the point of distraction at a baby expo in Brisbane for advocating starting solids earlier than four months for babies who have developed quickly and aren’t sleeping due to hunger that mum can’t solve with breast milk or formula. What I find disappointing about the backlashes faced by experts like Dr Symon is that the unqualified, unscientific opinions of experienced mothers are used to oppose methods scientifically developed. Dr Symon is a qualified GP, has a Diploma in Obstetrics and Gynaecology, a PhD in Infant Sleep and over 30 years’ experience in the field. I challenge anyone to find a person more qualified to offer expert advice on baby sleeping and feeding habits in Australia, perhaps even the world. Yet since Dr Symon is, heavens forbid, not a mother, his advice is framed as not as valid as the mother-experts, many of whom only have experience in parenting one or two children of their own. I can’t help but think of the unscientific opposition to vaccinations as a similar trend and even see parallels in the climate change denial movement; the ‘it’s not hot in my back yard so climate change definitely doesn’t exist’ anti-science, anti-expert attitude. The other thing I find odd is that many of the women providing advice on these internet forums have young children, but not newborns. So what are they still doing on these forums? Hanging around waiting to share their coveted opinion with those seeking help? I hope their motivations are altruistic and not self-serving, but I can’t help but think for many it’s the latter.
I recall when I was a child, my parents had a rule between the two of them about when back-seat driver behaviour was allowed on car trips and when it wasn’t. It was a simple rule. Basically if the parent driving was doing something dangerous, such as heading down a one-way-street or absentmindedly driving through a red light, the parent in the passenger seat had permission to intervene quickly and loudly to keep everyone safe. But if the back-seat driver advice was just a differing opinion, such as a quicker way to get somewhere, the rule was they kept it to themselves and let the driver make their own safe decisions. This rule could also apply for mother-experts on online forums. From the very early days of my life as the mother of a newborn, I am keen to research as much as I can about different methods and to find out what worked for other people so I can learn from their mistakes and triumphs. I just wish that those offering the advice would be helpful back-seat drivers; a little more open-minded, less judgemental and willing to encourage people to try different safe baby rearing methods that are advocated by experts to see what works for them, their baby, and their family. Because one thing is for sure; mothers of newborns know how it feels to bring a new baby home and to try to work out how on earth this new life works while sleep-deprived and entering completely unchartered waters. So be kind to the newbie mums, respect the experts and take the judgement and aggression out of the act of providing advice. Then maybe there can be baby peace on the internet and we’ll find love, not war.