When it comes to our own health, don’t we know best? Why become familiar with the relevant research? After all, we all have stories of medical professionals giving us bad advice, of misguidedly dismissing our mama’s intuition, only to worsen a health problem. And most of us have heard of misguided expert recommendations when it comes to infant care. Remember when parents weren’t supposed to show their children affection? This was a common belief several generations back, and still persists in many circles today. Turns out, it's pretty bad for kids to withhold affection from them. And what about drugs offered to the public that had terrible health consequences? For example, diethylstilbestrol (DES), aka the “wonder pill,” a synthetic estrogen that was prescribed to pregnant women for reducing risk of miscarriage. Turns out it also caused reproductive system damage and cancers in the developing offspring (after birth, later in life). We all have or know stories that seem to demonstrate how science, specifically the medical sciences, have failed us or led us astray. Why engage in an evidence-based birth or parenting when evidence seems to so often misguide well-meaning parents?
First of all, there is no question that mama’s intuition is wise, and when you are given "reliable" advice that conflicts with that intuition, it’s time to sit down and do some serious reflection. Far too many women regret how easily they denied their inner voice, doing a disservice to themselves and their little ones. I recommend an evidence-based approach to birth because I think evidence is on your side, and can give a special confidence to your inner voice. When my health-care experts gave advice that conflicted with my inner voice, I turned to the science, and found the science aligned with my intuition. With evidence as my armor, I felt more courageous about following my mother’s intuition, and became a better mother because of it.
Secondly, those stories of misguided experts providing poor guidance to patients are THE BEST arguments I could possibly make for promoting science literacy and encouraging an evidence-based approach to birth and parenting. Was there any research to suggest it was a good idea to withhold affection from children? No. How do we know it's NOT a good idea now? Mountains and mountains of child development research that came in the aftermath of that affectionless parenting trend. And in the case of damaging drugs... drugs, unfortunately, can only be tested on lab animals before they are made available to the public. So whenever we take a new drug we are engaging in the human experiment for that drug. In the DES story… was that drug really tested adequately on animals before being made available? Often pharmaceutical agencies fund their own research (obviously a conflict of interest). They sometimes do not interpret their findings in the most honest way, or do not conduct studies for long enough to really make well-informed claims about their product before releasing it. This DOESN'T mean science led those mothers astray. What it means is that, since those mothers couldn’t read and critique the available research for themselves, they fell prey to the financial interests of pharmaceutical companies, and perhaps the innocent ignorance of their medical doctors (who also are rarely trained extensively in reading/critiquing the available research).
In many stories of medicine gone wrong, science literacy could have SAVED the victims, could have protected them from malpractice and mal-intent. Anyone who tells you to remain scientifically illiterate is telling you that so you continue to be easily manipulated. You see, though medicine draws upon science for its treatments and remedies, medicine and science ARE NOT the same. Here are some ways they differ:
Medical doctors extensively memorize symptom lists, and learn to match them to extensive lists of diagnoses, drugs, and treatments. Researchers, on the other hand, design experiments to answer a specific question, identify flaws in experiments, identify discrepancies in data, and understand subtleties about data interpretation. In other words, researchers are trained problem-solvers, information detectives, and skeptics.
Medical doctors do not have to stay up to date with the latest research (though the good ones do anyway), while researchers have to be up on the research published this very month if they are to stay relevant.
Medicine is a money-making industry, funded through its own patients, while research is usually publicly funded, and not a way anybody gets rich (researchers are in it for the quest for knowledge, not because they love 80hr work weeks that rarely result in six figures).
There is a built-in conflict of interest between the patient and the pharmaceutical industry, hospital, health insurance agency, or even health care practitioner in cases where the best or safest treatment provides less financial return for these agencies. But, when publicly funded, there is no conflict of interest between researchers and the public. (Note, however, that new discoveries are more likely to be published than negative results for a new discovery, which may result in some bias towards reporting something exciting that isn't really there. However, peer reviewers often squash overly-ambitious claims before a research paper gets to print.)
The list above should convince you that there are major differences between medicine and science. In particular, however, science INFORMS medicine, but so does culture, law and liability issues, and business. Culture can be said to influence research as well, since we all bring our own personal tinted glasses to problems we face. But all the safeguards against personal bias built into the scientific method result in less cultural bias in science than in medicine.
I became a biologist so I could save the Earth. But I have a few stories about times my education has saved me from medical incompetence. And let me tell you something else that is really important- every single time expert advice has conflicted with my maternal instinct, the research has supported my instinct over the expert advice. Misinformation about birthing practices, the pros and cons of different parenting strategies, and even how to care for a sick child, felt at first to me like a dark forest that only scientific evidence could illuminate.
To me, it makes perfect sense that science and maternal instinct should overlap. Think about it, why is that instinct there in the first place? Our emotional responses to our children’s cues have evolved over millions of years to save the most children, extending humanity yet another generation. Our instincts HAVE to be accurate or they never would have worked to protect our children and preserve our species. And science is the practice of investigating and peeling away biases to reveal a more accurate truth. When applied to birth and child development, science will also help us more accurately understand the needs of our children. In this vein, parenting instinct and parenting science are just two different routes to the same end. They support each other.
Another way science is an important armament in your parenting arsenal- sometimes it can be difficult to untangle our instincts from our fears in highly stressful situations. For example, when a mother is unsupported, when she is depressed and distressed, her instincts often become clouded when it comes to her child as she turns inward. In situations where a mother has lost connection with her child, or is overwhelmed by fear, science can guide her actions to help her and her child find the path back to health and back to each other. I know this from personal experience, and successful parenting intervention programs are further testament to the power of science to solve parenting problems. So when a mother's intuition is disrupted, scientific insight can help her (1) be the parent her child needs her to be until her intuition has been restored, (2) give her practical ways to restore her intuition ASAP. Here are a few situations that might disrupt a mother's intuition: A traumatic labor, a stressful romantic relationship, a death in the family, money problems, alcohol and other substance abuse challenges, unresolved childhood trauma (often triggered by parenting), exhaustion. Basically anything that makes a mom stressed can be expected to disrupt her intuition for her child. Pretty sure we've all experienced at least one of these at some point. So you see, we all need a little help and some scientific insight to get us by in moments when our intuition is weak.
Finally, science literacy is essential because it provides a spiritual nourishment that enhances our ability to nurture our children. Scientific discoveries have demonstrated the connections between our outer and inner worlds, between our pasts and futures, they explain how energy moves through living things and the universe, how energy transforms inanimate matter into life. Science explains how mind is connected to body, how our communities and love are essential to our well-being, and even how different species cooperate to make life possible for us all (think about the trillions of microbial symbionts living in and on your body, whom you feed, and in return who protect you from pathogens, synthesize your vitamins, and even preserve good mental health).
Without science, the world becomes two-dimensional, like a set on a play. You see a twig and it’s just that- a twig, as if it were sculpted from clay. But through a scientific lens you see a twig, and are reminded of the history of life on Earth that brought it into being, of the solar energy transformed into chemical energy contained within each of its molecules. You see its function transporting nutrients up from the soil and sugar down from the leaves, you see its organs and cells from a microscopic perspective, and how it serves the forest from a macroscopic perspective. You may even be able to put together some reasonable scenarios about its future. Now the twig glows with different light- it is multi-dimensional and connected by many threads to the things that surround it in space and time. Now, imagine if you could see your own body like that, your own child. How would this perspective change how you treat yourself, or how you parent? It’s hard to know before you get there. And science literacy takes a little time to cultivate. I'd argue its an ongoing process.
So to sum up, science literacy and an evidence-based approach to birth and parenting can (1) protect us from being bamboozled by medical misinformation, (2) give confidence and clarity to our parental instincts, (3) grow an unprecedented holistic understanding of ourselves and our children, essential for providing proper physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual nourishment.
Your child needs you to include science in your parenting toolbox. Take biology, psychology, anthropology, and ecology classes. Watch Kahn Academy, Mr. Anderson, Crash Course, and It’s Okay to Be Smart on YouTube. Join some evidence based parenting groups on Facebook. I'm collecting interesting science videos related to birth and parenting on my YouTube channel, if you're interested. (Shameless plug- You can also solicit my services for a holistic, evidence-based parent-oriented education.)
See hyperlinks. If any links change or are broken, please contact me.
©Sarah Dean, PhD