Science for Parents: an Interview with Tara Haelle and Emily Willingham

Photo credit: EL Gringo. Image retrieved via Flickr and shared under a Creative Commons license. Click for more information.
Photo credit: EL Gringo. Image retrieved via Flickr and shared under a Creative Commons license. Click for more information.

Parents, particularly first-time parents, get a lot of advice – whether they want it or not. Some of that advice comes from professionals, such as obstetricians, pediatricians and nurses. But a lot of advice comes from less reliable sources.

New parents, and expecting parents, are often told that they “have” to do this or that. Sometimes it feels like everyone knows exactly what to do in order to get a baby to sleep, how a baby should be fed, or what you definitely should (or should not) buy to make your baby safe and comfortable.

The tricky bit, of course, is that many of these tips contradict one another. And, even worse, parenting advice is often presented in a way that seems designed to make a parent feel bad if they choose not to take the advice.

What’s a parent to do? Aren’t there any actual facts out there about parenting, and how our decisions as parents may affect our children?

Enter Emily Willingham and Tara Haelle.

In an attempt to help parents sort through the science of parenting, Haelle and Willingham have written a book – The Informed Parent: A Science-Based Resource for Your Child’s First Four Years. The book, published by Penguin Random House April 5, looks at what we know (and don’t know), based on decades of scientific research in fields related to the health and well-being of children.

Haelle is a science and health reporter who has written for everyone from Nature to the Washington Post. She writes a regular online column for Forbes and maintains a blog on health and science for parents, called Red Wine & Apple Sauce. Willingham also covers science and health, and has written for outlets include the New York Times and MIT Tech Review. She has a Ph.D. in biological sciences from the University of Texas at Austin, also writes a regular online column for Forbes, and is a 2014 recipient of the John Maddox Prize for her work in promoting science in the public interest. And – worth mentioning only because it is directly relevant to the subject matter – both Haelle and Willingham are parents.

Writing a science-based book about parenting seems like it would present some interesting challenges. How do you convey the nuance of science when parents are just looking for answers? How do you address sensitive issues, such as nursing? Heck, how do you divvy up the research and writing between two authors?

I recently had the opportunity to ask both of them about the challenges of writing The Informed Parent. Here’s what they had to say. [Full disclosure: I consider both Willingham and Haelle to be friends. But these questions are ones I was honestly curious about – and anyone who knows them will tell you that they have a low tolerance for bull…um…stuff.]

Communication Breakdown: Who came up with the idea for the book, and what gave you the idea in the first place?

Emily Willingham. Photo courtesy of Willingham.
Emily Willingham. Photo courtesy of Willingham.

Emily Willingham: We each had separate motivations for writing the book. A couple of agents and editors had reached out to me, asking if I’d ever thought about writing a science of parenting book. I hadn’t, but when writing about subjects near and dear to the parent heart, I’d always sought to disentangle elements of emotion and philosophy from the elements of information. And then this drumbeat about “mommy wars” began to be a thing, fueled by never-ending antagonisms over parenting “philosophies,” from big-tent themes like tiger vs attachment parenting down to finer-grained battles over circumcision, organic foods, vaccines, and discipline.

To me, each of these tactics and the expectations they raise cause more harm than good and mean more shame and more opportunities to judge people, to pick endlessly at ourselves as parents, one of the most sensitive, fragile roles I’ve ever had. The “you’re doing it wrong” refrain is a feature of the internet, hitting at everything from how we eat at restaurants to how we tie a scarf to how we raise our children. I don’t care about the restaurants or scarves, but the idea of manufactured, unnecessary stress over selecting one entirely OK option among many OK options really bothered me. To me, this book is a no-judgment zone of scientific information, a tool anyone can incorporate into their unique calculations for results that are best for their family.

Tara Haelle: I wrote the book I wished already existed. I had my first child just as I was beginning my career in health and science journalism, and the more research I read so that I could report on it, the more frustrated I became with the information available to parents. I wanted a book which brought together everything we knew to date from the evidence base about various topics and gave me the big picture, including how strong that evidence was. But tons of searching turned up nothing. So I wanted to write it and reached out to Emily, who, coincidentally, had already been thinking about a parenting book along similar lines.

CB: How did you decide to team up and write the book together?

Willingham: Our interests and writing beats overlapped a great deal, and Tara had been strongly considering a book about vaccines and vaccine controversies, and it seemed like a good chance to integrate the two.

Haelle: What she said. Emily was the first person I reached out to because I knew the book would be a tremendous task – likely too much for one person – and she had big areas of expertise that I lacked. I have admired her writing and way of drilling down into the evidence for a long time too.

CB: How easy was it to find a publisher for the book, and how much work had you done before signing the book contract?

Willingham: I’m not sure how many places our agent pitched the book, but our book proposal attracted interest from a few publishers. We chatted with a couple of editors and the conversation with Marian Lizzi at TarcherPerigee/Penguin seemed to suggest a good fit with a consensus around vision. At that point, we’d framed out the introduction, a couple of chapters, the table of contents, and the overall goal and target audience for the proposal.

CB: How do you decide which parts of the book each person will write?

Willingham: Our first step was to go through our sections we’d planned and stake a claim to the ones where we each clearly could bring some individual expertise and understanding. For the rest, we split the work evenly. Following on the writing, we each reviewed one another’s sections several times and edited for an integrated tone and approach. We actually reached a point where I couldn’t remember which of us had written what and couldn’t tell from the tone or writing either, so I think we succeeded in creating some consistency and continuity.

Tara Haelle. Photo courtesy of Haelle.
Tara Haelle. Photo courtesy of Haelle.

Haelle: More than half the book’s sections were pretty straight-forward to divvy up given our different areas of expertise, and we consulted one another on areas where we both had relevant experience. I admit one of the things I’m proudest of is that our tone matches so closely that it’s difficult to tell who wrote which section, even for us.

CB: How did you go about researching the book? Were you looking primarily at journal articles on each subject? Interviewing experts in the field? Both?

Willingham: As we describe in the ancillary materials, the literature underlying many of the subject areas in the book is substantial. While we certainly dug deeply into a great number of studies, our goal for the writing itself was to home in on randomized, controlled study designs and, where available, meta-analyses. We wanted to go with the longest-term, most-validated data available.

Haelle: In addition to limiting ourselves to the highest quality studies (RCTs and meta-analyses), primarily from the past five years, I occasionally reached out to experts in particular fields to request recommendations on seminal papers or research reviews so that I could familiarize myself with an overall topic. Often, the reference sections of these papers were invaluable. While these did not involve interviews, I did request that several of those researchers look over some sections, and two researchers were ones I had interviewed so many times in the past that it seemed appropriate to include a quote from them. (If you’re interested, those folks are Paul Offit and Yoni Freedhoff.)

CB: Science sometimes offers clear answers. But it can also offer up findings that seem to disagree with each other. Did you run into subjects where there was no clear guidance and, if so, how did you address the competing findings?

Willingham: We ran into several areas like this – in fact, for many subjects in this book, that could be the interpretation. The reader’s challenge – and opportunity – is to take in what’s available and work it into their family’s calculus for decision-making. It could be that an option that was exactly right for my family, for instance, might not have been so for Tara’s – in fact, we do have some examples of that, although I don’t want to go into too much detail.

Haelle: We try to make it clear throughout the book that science is a process of learning things, not a static body of knowledge, and as such, it’s natural that findings will differ and even contradict. We therefore looked for areas where a strong scientific consensus existed and called attention to the areas that lacked one or which were too new for any consensus to have coalesced. Very few parenting topics have a “right” answer, a specific recommended course, and in others, the balance of benefits and risks of this or that decision will vary according to a family’s circumstances, needs, and beliefs.

CB: Did you have a particular audience in mind when writing the book? I mean, you’re clearly writing for parents. But science can sometimes be pretty confusing to non-scientists. How did you try to address issues related to jargon and technical language?

Willingham: We did our best to get down to the nuts and bolts of findings without throwing in a lot of numbers, P values, and jargony terms. We did bring our expertise in reading and understanding scientific research to achieving this distillation to make the language accessible. I’m not concerned that our readers won’t be able to grasp complexity or wrestle with conflicting findings, but no one should have to have a jargon translator on hand just to be able to access the information.

Cover of The Informed Parent. Image courtesy of Penguin Random House.
Cover of The Informed Parent. Image courtesy of Penguin Random House.

Haelle: I had been blogging for several years at Red Wine & Applesauce, and I often thought of the audience as similar to the readership at that blog, but slightly expanded. Most visitors to that blog are already science-minded and are explicitly seeking information about scientific findings. While that audience will certainly be a part of our book’s readership, I suspect many parents who do not necessarily explicitly seek scientific information will find what we cover helpful – and perhaps even reassuring.

CB: There are some subjects, such as nursing, that I’d think might require some delicacy in writing about. For example, the research may show significant benefits related to breastfeeding, but many mothers may either not be able to nurse or may choose not to nurse for other reasons. Did you try to write about the subject in a way that accurately reflects the science but also takes into account other considerations for new moms? I.e., did you write about it in a way that helps moms not feel guilty if they choose not to breastfeed?

Willingham: We did our best in every case to avoid any hint of shaming parents about the choices they make. In the absence of overt acute or chronic harm or abuse, our parenting choices shouldn’t involve any element of judgment or shaming.

Haelle: It was very important to use that no part of our book could be used as a cudgel in telling this mom or that dad that they “have” to do a particular practice. There are no recommendations in the book – just evidence – and we have a handful of notes that draw attention to the challenges of particularly emotional topics, such as breastfeeding, postpartum depression, and vaccines. In the sections on breastfeeding/formula feeding and alcohol in pregnancy in particular, we made sure to present the information as sensitively as possible and make it clear that choices will vary according to a person’s values and circumstances.

CB: What was the most challenging subject for each of you to write about, and why?

Willingham: Mine was home birth. I understand why many women seek it, having done so myself 16 years ago. I also understand why people view it very negatively. But the struggle with the data is a different problem: most of the studies are done by warring factions in the childbirth arena, so taking some level of stridency into account seems advisable. Also, much of the discussion is as much about access to healthcare as it is about anything else. Just reading the studies from European countries and seeing how the entire approach to childbirth is so widely at variance with what we do in the US was a little disheartening, especially as in the long view, this tension is just one element in a long narrative about women as a secondary consideration when it comes to healthcare and reproduction.

Haelle: For me, there were two subjects: co-sleeping (bedsharing) and alcohol consumption during pregnancy. Both of these are highly charged topics with a lot of controversy and disagreement among parents, particularly mothers. The evidence is very tricky with both of these as well because there are so many confounding factors that can influence the results, and randomized controlled trials would be unethical in both cases. Plus, I had my own personal biases with each of these topics based on my own experiences. I gathered more research (and went further back in time) on these two topics than on any others, and I decided to try to “prove myself wrong.” As it turned out, I succeeded with one and failed with the other, and I feel we were able to present the most balanced information possible as a result of that rigor.

CB: You both have kids, and have spent years writing about research. Did you learn anything new about the science of parenting while working on the book? Anything you found particularly surprising?

Willingham: Perhaps it wasn’t surprising, but it certainly stood out to me that fathers and other parenting partners were not as much a part of the research as they should be, given that they are, in fact, parents. Lots and lots about mother-child bonding, feeding, sleeping, and interaction, but less about fathers and other parenting partners. One area where there was some info about fathers surprised me, although when you think about it rationally it makes sense: fathers of infants can be even more sleep deprived than the mothers. In part, this result traces to the fact that fathers in the US often don’t get parental leave or, when they do, they don’t take it because of social pressures. So they lose their nighttime sleep and muddle through the day, semi-awake. Mothers, if they’re following some pretty wise advice, might catch up a little on sleep during the daytime if they’re able to stay at home with their infant.

Haelle: I was often surprised at the research gaps I found, such as those related to soothing babies or baby-wearing and any evidence related to cannabis use in pregnancy or while breastfeeding. I was also surprised that recommendations for reduced caffeine consumptions during pregnancy are based on some incredibly flimsy evidence. And then, I was surprised at much of what I learned while diving deep into cosleeping/bedsharing/SIDS and alcohol consumption during pregnancy.

CB: Do you have any advice for new parents who feel like they’re drowning in parenting advice?

Willingham: Get out of the pool. Take a break. Yes, it’s important to have some voices of experience from your village giving you insight. Yes, our book is important for people who want to tackle some controversial parenting decisions from a solid information base. But if all of the input is overwhelming you and making you anxious, walk away from it and go hug your child, instead. I’ve yet to find any research suggesting that hugging away anxiety and spending time with your child is the wrong decision.

Haelle: It’s really hard to screw kids up if you’re doing the basic stuff: loving them, feeding them, giving them shelter, making sure they get some sleep, not hitting them, ensuring they get regular access to healthcare, etc. A lot of the topics we discuss in the book don’t have “right” answers, and that should come as a relief. It means you’re most likely not doing something “wrong” and even if you are, kids are resilient. Hang in there.

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2 thoughts on “Science for Parents: an Interview with Tara Haelle and Emily Willingham

  1. Pingback: [BLOCKED BY STBV] Markierungen 04/06/2016 - Snippets

  2. Pingback: [BLOCKED BY STBV] Morsels For The Mind – 08/04/2016 › Six Incredible Things Before Breakfast

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