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When Parenting Studies Make You Feel Like a Crappy Mom

Young daughter looking at necklace while being held by mother
Photograph by Getty Images

You might know the following situation all too well: A new study on parenting practices (such as childbirth, infant feeding, co-sleeping, discipline, etc.) is published. The media picks up on that study. Their stories get circulated through our social media feeds. And then the headlines—and sometimes the accompanying stories—imply the following messages:

“New study warns that YOU’RE DOING IT ALL WRONG.”

“The latest research finds that YOU WERE RIGHT ALL ALONG AND YOU SHOULD PROBABLY RUB THAT FACT IN THE FACES OF YOUR FRIENDS AND FAMILY.”

“According to researchers at this prestigious university, YOU ARE A TERRIBLE PARENT AND YOUR CHILDREN ARE IRREPARABLY DAMAGED AND YOU SHOULD JUST GIVE UP NOW, YOU FAILURE.”

It’s enough to give many of us a twisted relationship with the science that pertains to ourselves and our children.

So how can we approach parenting-related research in a way that neither destroys our confidence nor undermines our capacity for critical thinking? Here are 5 ways:

1. Go straight to the original source … and then beyond the source

Single headlines or news articles can make us question everything we do as parents. But they are neither sufficient nor reliable means of making major parenting decisions. In fact, it’s probably best not to rely on any single source—including any single study—to make decisions about issues like our children’s eating habits, sleep, discipline and health.

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“Be skeptical,” says Sarah Schoppe-Sullivan, professor of Human Sciences and Psychology at the Ohio State University. “Most of these media bits and press releases are based on one study, [and] it’s almost always a bad idea to make really solid recommendations based on any one study.”

We should be wary of accepting only those studies that confirm our already-held beliefs, and we should be open to ideas that challenge our own.

So if a headline about a recent study sparks your interest, check it out. But if you really want to learn more about that topic, then read the actual study—preferably the full text. Skim the bibliography and then read some of those additional studies. Consult some generally reliable sources, such as the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Family Physicians, the National Institutes of Health or the Centers for Disease Control, and compare their recommendations to what you’ve discovered.

It’s a lot of work—but that's what it takes to explore such information in context. A random “EVERYTHING YOU KNOW ABOUT INFANT SLEEP IS WRONG” headline by itself is completely devoid of that all-important context. And without that context, the information itself isn’t all that dependable of a guide for you and your child.

2. Ask yourself: How does this finding impact my parenting and my child(ren)?

And then you might follow up with these questions: Do I really need to make any immediate changes? Is my child thriving? Does what we’re doing seem to be working?

“It’s going to be more valuable if the parent has a question and then goes and seeks information about that question than if they just happen on something that is in their email or Facebook feed,” says Schoppe-Sullivan.

That's partly because if we changed our minds every time a new headline came our way, we probably wouldn't be consistent in our parenting practices for more than a week. So try your best to keep anxiety at bay. If you and your child are thriving, “the latest study” might not be cause for any concern or major changes, at least not in the immediate future.

3. Remember that science does not have all the answers

“[It’s important to] understand that science is a process and not a body of knowledge,” says Tara Haelle, science journalist and co-author of "The Informed Parent." “It is a process in which we are continually trying to pursue answers to something, recognizing that we might not ever have definitive answers to it.”

So that article about breastfeeding? The one that 26 of your Facebook friends just shared? You might be able to glean some reasonable information from it and from the research it covers. But that single article or study is not the final word on infant feeding. It is simply one contribution to the ongoing process of questioning, observing, analyzing and reframing what we know about how and what and when we feed our children.

4. Practice open-mindedness and critical thinking

We’re all prone to confirmation bias. We tend to accept any new evidence that fits our current beliefs, and then reject any ideas that challenge those beliefs. And there’s no time like the release of a new parenting-related study to see confirmation bias run rampant.

You might be able to glean some reasonable information from it and from the research it covers. But that single article or study is not the final word on infant feeding.

But that’s precisely what we need to avoid when it comes to interpreting scientific information. We should be wary of accepting only those studies that confirm our already-held beliefs, and we should be open to ideas that challenge our own.

We can teach many of these skills to our children starting at a very early age, too.

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“The best thing you can do to encourage critical thinking is when they ask a question, don’t brush it off,” says Haelle. “Encourage them to consider what the possibilities are for answering the question in a way that makes them think about more questions.”

It just might give them a better appreciation for the scientific process. Better yet, it might reinforce for us the very skills that we should be practicing any time we scroll past or click on a link about the foods we need to feed our kids or the epidural that we "definitely should" or "definitely shouldn't" get.

5. Finally, remember that the goal of parenting (and the science about parenting) is not perfectionism

“Don’t blame yourself for doing things you think are bad or wrong,” says Haelle. “And don’t make yourself crazy trying to figure out the perfect way to do x. This is almost never a perfect way to do x, and it’s going to vary anyway.”

But here’s what we can do: We can try to base our decisions on robust evidence and reliable sources. We can think through each issue critically and in context. We can be open to challenging our beliefs. We can read far beyond the maddening links and headlines and articles we see in our inboxes and social media feeds.

It’s not perfect. But no parent (and no parenting science) is.

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