The Missing Voice of Babies

A recent book, Cribsheet, by Emily Oster, attempts to guide new mothers with scientifically based guidance on what works. The author, however, seems to lack a sense of baseline norms for what human childbearing and child-raising looks like.

Any book author approaches a topic with certain biases. Let me first reveal mine before giving some of my responses to the book. I advocate for the wellbeing of babies and optimal human development, which are initially fostered by the evolved nest. I acknowledge that humans are social mammals and I pay attention to interdisciplinary research that contributes to our understanding of babies, to their basic needs and to optimizing human capacities generally. Societies depend on well-raised individuals for positive functioning.

Here are some of my critiques.

Early on, the author ricochets from one thing to another about mothers, but not babies, except for a few (improperly designed and interpreted) experiments. She takes the superficial, poorly designed studies as truth-bearing.

Oster has a brief section on research methods and describes the different designs of studies: randomized controlled trials, observation, case studies. The “gold standard” for experimental science is the first—randomized controlled trials. But there are several problems here.

Let them read what they want. Kids who read for pleasure excel academically—not only in language arts but, as recent research from the Institute of Education, in London, found, in math as well. So while you wish he would pick up Dickens, don't make him feel bad about a graphic novel. "A 'junky' series can be good if it gets kids hooked on the habit of reading," says Mary Leonhardt, a former high school English teacher and the author of Parents Who Love Reading, Kids Who Don't.

  • First, a randomized controlled trial is useful for something new, like a new drug, for which there is exists no robust prior knowledge. But we have prior knowledge about child raising. We are social mammals whose line has been around for 20-40 million years and have evolved a developmental system or nest for raising the young that helped our germ lines survive and thrive in the last 2 million years (Konner, 2005).
  • Second, we cannot ethically randomly assign babies to nest components (e.g., this baby will be carried all day, and this one left alone). So there are few studies of child raising components that can meet the “gold standard.” One must rely on animal studies for carefully drawn parallels.
  • Third, the author cites studies that use an “intent to treat” design, meaning that the researchers tell the experiment participants what to do and don’t necessarily tell the control group what to do; the researchers don’t measure what participants truly did, but they conduct pre- and post-tests and draw conclusions based on assumptions that participants did what they were told.

Oster says “sometimes you poke into a study and it doesn’t smell quite right” (p. 63). But she actually doesn’t do enough poking or smelling.

One example is the subject of breastfeeding. Oster says that breastfeeding does not matter long term—based on what evidence? She does not do much of a dive into existing data. While they cannot prove cause-and-effect, there are studies of breastfed versus formula-fed babies that indicate that breastmilk may be superior for brain development even in the short term. For example, at three months, breastfed infants show greater myelination (greater brain white matter, which fosters brain cell communication) than formula-fed infants (Deoni et al., 2013).

Remember: Kids will be kids. Kids will make mistakes using media. Try to handle errors with empathy and turn a mistake into a teachable moment. But some indiscretions, such as sexting, bullying, or posting self-harm images, may be a red flag that hints at trouble ahead. Parents must observe carefully their children's behaviors and, if needed, enlist supportive professional help, including the family pediatrician.

The overall tone of the book is that mothers can and should do pretty much what they want to do or is convenient. There is no “view-from-the-baby.” But this is not much of a departure in a country that is known for an emphasis on behaviorism and control (e.g., Watson, 1928) and with a history of advocating the breaking of children’s spirits from advisers guided by pessimistic religion about the nature of children (Dobson, 1992). Traditional societies are much more careful about how they treat babies and understand that babies are nurtured into being, shaped into humanity. For example, the Japanese traditionally act as if babies must be wooed into attachment and sociability (Doi, 1981). Humanity’s evolved nest provides the responsive, supportive care that helps babies grow their full humanity.
What children need to thrive—which we learn from developmental psychology, neuroscience , ethology, anthropology, and clinical sciences—is warm, responsive care attentive to their built-in needs. Cribsheet's recommendationssound more like cold calculations, with little joy assumed in the process of being a parent.