As a researcher and evaluator, I think it's important to consider where information comes from before making decisions based on it.
As a parent, I think it is important to know who's information to trust (i.e. your child's pediatrician), and how that information relates to your own knowledge and experience of raising your child before making decisions for your family.
There is a glut of parenting information available both online and off-line these days. It doesn't take much to search a few key terms and find loads of websites boasting best practices, recommendations, mandates, opinions, and more on any and all things parenting.
However, it takes more time and effort to decide how legitimate these websites and their claims are and, more importantly, whether they are appropriate for you and your family.
The need to be selective in choosing who and what guides your parenting practice can be illustrated by using almost any parenting decision. Let's take baby swaddling as an example. A good friend of mine just shared this article [No, Swaddling Will Not Kill Your Baby by Melinda Wenner Moyer] about a state-wide daycare ban on swaddling (thanks, D.)
Without getting into all of the details - you can read more here, here, and here - both sides of the issue (pro-swaddle/no-swaddle) highlight data used to stake their claim - to provide evidence that swaddling is dangerous to support this ruling, as well as research that suggests the alternatives to swaddling might be just as bad.
I understand that when there are so many parenting decisions to make, it is almost easier to just go with what the experts say, or what the majority says or what gets the most media attention, and hope that is the right way for you (take breastfeeding for example).
But, what if it isn't?
Consider this, anyone can make an apple pie, but no two apple pies will likely ever be the same. This is because every baker has their own preference of ingredients, method of baking, and resources available to them. But, at the end of the day, most apple pies are similar enough that no one would decide they are, for example, lemon meringue pies instead.
I believe that parenting is like baking an apple pie.
There are some basic ingredients needed to provide parenting (a child, love, patience) just as there are the basics for apple pie (apples, sugar, grain). After this foundation is set, anyone can modify the recipe to their tastes. In the same way I might use more or less sugar, graham crackers or pie crust, to give a different flavor to my apple pie. It's still apple pie. If I use a crib or co-sleep, swaddle or rock my baby to sleep every night - it's still parenting. And, there's no right or wrong way to do it.
Sure, there are plenty of dangerous concoctions of both parenting and apple pie to be had - and there are people who will purposefully poison the apple and those who will make bad decisions, for a number of reasons.
But, my feeling is why give parents more reason to make bad parenting decisions? I agree with Melinda Wenner Moyer's take on this swaddling issue - to paraphrase if I may - the decision to swaddle can be dangerous if not done correctly, but it is not in any parent or child's best interest to scare parents into not doing something that may, as a result, lead to more stress and create more danger for the family.
Like any decision we have to make in life, it is important to not only find out as much information as you can about it, but also to understand that information and where it is coming from. Take expert decisions based on research studies for example. It is commonly believed that research studies done well should be transparent enough that they can be replicated with the same results. This is pretty similar to baking, actually. To bake an apple pie, you might follow the recipe of a well-known baker taking careful steps to do everything as they did, trusting that their way is best (or at least one of the best) and that if you do what they did, you will obtain the same results.
But, results can and do vary. Maybe your oven is different, or the apples available where you live aren't the same, or you read tablespoon instead of teaspoon - whether it's human error or just for a lack of having the exact same tools and ingredients, it's not hard to understand why we may never bake an apple pie like Betty Crocker.
So, as much as we want to believe that information labeled as "research" is the best for making decisions about how to live our lives - from everything from where should I go to college and what car should I drive to is my drinking water safe and where should I invest my money - there are risks to being overly reliant on this type of information. Because research, like anything, can be flawed. This is especially true in social-science research (because there is no ethical way to design true experiential studies for people and therefore obtain the gold-standard of research design).
Depending on who funds the research and why, you may find completely conflicting evidence used to argue two sides of the same issue.
Is swaddling safe?
Yes, and here, read this research report...
Is swaddling dangerous?
Yes, and look at this research...
Research, in and of itself, is not the enemy - it's how we disseminate and use research findings that can be scary. And, this is why I think, parenting is a good example of when evaluation is more suitable than research. By evaluating the merits of both research findings and parenting practices in terms of what works best for your family, you can adapt and modify to suit your needs.
By reviewing multiple parenting techniques, instead of being dependent on one research study, you can inform yourself about what has been done, how, and what the successes and challenges were. You can use this evaluative information to make informed-choices for your life and your family based on additional information that you have (what works for you, what your resources are, etc.).
Although research is very important in almost all aspects of our lives, it is much like swaddling - if done right, it works well, but if not, it can lead to bad recommendations that might cause even more danger.
Which is why, I argue, if you're going to make parenting decisions based on data, just remember to do your homework and see where is it coming from. Is there an agenda being pushed and why? And always evaluate information in a way that benefits you and your family. Make decisions that are appropriate for what you need, in line with those you trust (doctors, etc.), and based on information that you find credible and reliable.
There are a lot of wonderful bakers in the world and each has their own spin on apple pie. There are also a number of parenting experts who each believe in their way of raising a child. No one baker or expert can be right for everybody. Find what works for you and embrace it. Try not to be scared into what everyone else is doing just because it's popular or gaining media attention.
Think, evaluate, decide for yourself. And remember, parents know best.*
*Okay, I'd be insane if I didn't include a disclaimer, that really you should always seek medical expertise for any issues or concerns you have about the health, development, and well-being of your child. I would just recommend seeking advice from a health provider that knows you and your family well and that you trust, instead of say, an article found on the Internet (this one included).