On Knowledge and (Bogus) Expertise

Before Luca, I didn’t know anything about babies. Or, nothing useful: I knew, of course, that babies cry a lot. And that if you swaddle them too tightly something bad might happen to their little legs. So, as the good little researcher that I am, I checked out books from the library and started to read. All the books I looked at said pretty much the same things. It is a wonder that there are so many different ones! How did cavemen manage to raise their offspring without knowing how to read? How did they survive without the great advice about a pregnant woman’s diet, to eat whole grains and lean protein? (big eye-roll!)

I was intrigued by the authors claiming expertise on such topics as feeding, pooping, sleeping, colic, etc., given that most authors also say that every baby is different and that we shouldn’t expect things to go by the book. What’s the point of advising parents on how many hours a day a baby sleeps, if it’s probably not true of many babies? (This is, indeed, a rhetorical question!)

I remember reading somewhere that we, in the US, are a nation of do-it-yourself-ers. But, to be able to DIY, you need to start somewhere. This starting point is the knowledge, or rather, the experience, of others who did it themselves. There are degrees of expertise, of course, and it really depends how you select your “guru”. Youtube might be good for wood-working, but you might want to choose a bit more wisely who to follow when learning how to care for your little one.

Here’s what I found to be wrong with books written by “experts”: they usually talk about the “average” baby.  It’s like medicine dosage: you read the label and find out how much to take. But, the dose is usually calibrated for the average white male. For babies, the average is set differently (one hopes that the experts have learned that babies come in all shapes, colors, and sizes), but the advice is still given for the average. Here’s the problem, though: no one is parenting the average baby. Parents must learn what the needs and communication style of their own offspring is. Watch Oprah and you’ll learn that there are 4 cries that an infant has: one for hunger, one for sleep, and the other two I forget, since this was all bogus anyway, in our case. I listened as attentively as I could and I could never hear the miraculous “neh” supposedly signifying hunger. With us, it’s always been only the “take care of my needs, NOW!” cry. This is just one example of expertise failure.

It would be good if new parents understood early that what they read is nothing more than rough guidelines, based, mostly on anecdotal experience. Investing in real studies is not considered a priority here. Real studies are also difficult to perform: having good sample sizes, when you’re dealing with newborns, is almost impossible.

In a previous post, I was saying that I started to relax after doing what my doula told me: forget about the internet and the books for a few weeks. Just try to meet Luca’s needs the best you can, as intuitively as you can. Forget about Karp’s 5 S’s. Some of the things he says are useful, but if your baby hates being swaddled, or being in an electric swing, away from you, that’s that. It doesn’t mean that you’re a failure for not managing to calm your baby down by using those methods. It just means that the 5 S’s are developed for an average and you’re raising a human being, not an average.

And sometimes, the expert advice is impossible to follow, so you’re left wondering why did anyone even bother coming up with it?! Case in point: you are told to breastfeed. And, moreover, to do it on demand. To learn what this means, you need to pay attention to “hunger cues”. When the baby gives you those cues, go ahead and offer the breast. So far, so good. But here’s the weirdness: never bf on a schedule, but make sure that your baby eats every two hours and if s/he sleeps, don’t let her go longer than four hours. Moreover, you are told time and again to bf every other hour during the day. How is that not putting the baby on a schedule? Many new moms are puzzled by this idea and you constantly see this question asked on forums: “Is it normal for my LO to feed more often than this during the day?” Yes, yes it is! The idea that a baby can follow a schedule is at least bizarre if not outright dangerous. This used to be the advice a while ago; after noticing that mothers lose their milk early and that some babies fail to thrive, the advice was reversed to “feed on demand”.

The main problem with “expert” advice is that it creates false expectations of normalcy. As with adults, for babies, “normal” comes in degrees. It’s perfectly normal for some to want to be held more than others. It’s perfectly normal to want to eat often and sleep seldom. I thought there was something wrong with Luca because she’s a snacker or because she wants to be held a lot. But this is absolutely normal: she loves to cuddle, just like I do!  

Here are more cases of “expert failures”, as I have come to refer to them, in no particular order. I’m enumerating them here, in the hope that others will take my very inexpert advice: do whatever works, so long as you do it safely!

  • give baby a bath before bed, to establish a routine. In the first few months, whenever we tried to bathe Luca, the bathing would not mellow her down. On the contrary; she would be so upset, that it took us twice as long to calm her down. We tried several times, because everyone says to do it, when it was really so easy to wash her with wipes. Fast and not traumatic. No more baths, then! And, definitely no routine.
  • use the 5 S’s to calm a colicky baby. Luca was never colicky, as in, she never followed the 3-3-3 pattern: cry for 3 h in the evening, 3 consecutive days, for 3 consecutive weeks. She would cry a lot on some evenings and she would go to bed easily on others. Her issue was reflux which most newborns have, but which bothers babies to various degrees. Luca was very much bothered by it, and nothing we did helped. Giving her Zantac, eventually, did.
  • on reflux and GERD: the expert advice here is super bogus. Raise the head of her basinet, they tell you, and she’ll be fine. Well, we tried it, but it had no effect and made everyone miserable. By that point we were co-sleeping, because I needed to sleep through the night, since otherwise I get killer migraine attacks, and Luca needed to eat during the night. Or, hold her upright after eating for 40 min, they tell you. Again, bogus advice, since if I don’t sleep, I get migraine attacks and then I can’t care for her. Here’s what I did: I would have her sleep with her head and upper body on my arm, next to me. I was extra careful to have her nose towards the ceiling, not me. This had her at some incline and allowed her to feed as often as she needed during the night. Not just twice, but many more times. Who came up with this number of 2 magical night feedings, at 8 weeks? On Luca’s on demand “schedule”, the number was 6 some nights, or 4 or 3 on others.
  • feeding, as in breastfeeding: if done on demand, then anything is normal. Not just 8-12 times per 24h, but 20 or 24 times, or really non-stop. The closest you get to learning this is by looking at kellymom. But there, they tell you it’s like this in the first 3 months, only. Well, it’s not non-stop anymore, but still about 12-14 times per 24 h, now at around 6 months. Initially, I was resentful: not because I couldn’t get out to have fun, or exercise, or take a shower. But because I couldn’t go take a leak, or eat, really. I got over the initial resentment once I put myself in Luca’s place: “I have a tiny stomach, huge heartburn, and a need to eat. Or suckle for comfort. I don’t do this to inconvenience you; I do it because I need to eat”. Once I realized this, I adjusted: I would go pee with Luca at the boob; go for long walks to exercise, with Luca in a sling; eat food that could be eaten easily with a spoon, so that the other hand would hold Luca while she was eating. Once I figured this out, the only lingering resentment was against the “experts” who didn’t prepare me for this, because it’s “normal” to feed baby then put baby down to sleep away from you. It might not be average, but eating non-stop is also quite normal (I have to hand it to Karp here, who says that in some cultures it’s normal for babies to feed about 100 times per day. But there’s no practical advice given on how to do this).
  • car rides. the way to calm down a colicky baby is to put her in the car seat and drive. If not, something weird is going on. Not true for us. Luca hated her car seat initially and she tolerates it now, but it was never good for her. Again, her issue was not colic (whatever that is), but reflux. To make it better, you need to be upright or on your belly. The only safe way for a newborn to be upright and on his belly is to be in a caregiver’s arms. 
  • baby wearing and wearers: unherd of in my neck of the woods. I had huge arguments with my mom about this initially, because she was sure we’re going to smother the baby, or drop her, and in general harm her. I knew it was right and I had to find a way to function while holding the baby to comfort her. As with all things, there are safe and unsafe ways to do it and manufacturers are usually good at warning you about the perils. The main beef I have with baby wearing design is that it rarely takes the wearer’s needs and comfort into account. Again, studies are lacking, but, somehow, in the Western world, where this practice is relatively new, the “experts” decided that the safest way is to wear the baby in front, in a pouch of sorts, kangaroo style. Now, I’m no expert, but we aren’t kangaroos! We are primates, for God’s sake and primates, especially our very close cousins, the big apes, carry their offspring mostly on their backs, with short breaks when the little guys come in front to eat. Of course, it’s a lot easier to do so for momma gorilla than momma Marina, because the former, but not the latter, has fur. Human babies still have the gripping reflex, but it’s useless. But I digress. My point is that it’s easier to carry things on your back. Books are carried in backpacks, why are babies carried in bellypacks, in the US? Especially when there are studies arguing that hip dysplasia is rarely encountered in populations that do wear the baby on their backs from the newborn stage onwards. So, wearing baby on your back is good for baby in at least one respect and it frees the mom in ways in which front carrying can only dream of doing!

The main point is that lives need to be adjusted when babies enter them, but to learn exactly how, listening to the experts may do more harm than good. The only expert one should listen to is the wonderfully tiring new person. Once you learn her needs, you’ll know how to address them.

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