What’s so important – and stressful – about family dinner?

A recent study about the stress of getting family meals on the table has been getting lots of attention from both the media and moms. A Slate piece, “Let’s Stop Idealizing the Home-Cooked Family Dinner,” posted Wednesday, has already garnered 3.5K comments on the article itself and more than 26K Facebook shares. This has obviously struck a nerve. While feeding a family is a big and often stressful job, some perspective about why we do it and what matters most about family meals might be helpful to families feeling the mealtime crunch.

The study itself, titled “The Joy of Cooking?”, was published in Contexts, a publication of the American Sociological Association geared to be accessible to the general public. The paper itself is a really interesting read and freely available online.

Researchers in the sociology and anthropology departments at North Carolina State University conducted the study. This was a qualitative study, which means that the data came in the form of stories, generated from interviews with real people. From the paper:

“Over the past year and a half, our research team conducted in-depth interviews with 150 black, white, and Latina mothers from all walks of life. We also spent over 250 hours conducting ethnographic observations with 12 working-class and poor families. We observed them in their homes as they prepared and ate meals, and tagged along on trips to the grocery store and to their children’s check-ups. Sitting around the kitchen table and getting a feel for these women’s lives, we came to appreciate the complexities involved in feeding a family.”

These kinds of methods are common in sociology and anthropology research, and they allow researchers to understand the many complex variables that contribute to how people feel and why they feel that way. However, we have to be careful about interpreting these studies beyond the individual stories that they provide. For example, this study wasn’t a random sample of moms, and it can’t give us quantitative information like the percentage of moms who find cooking to be an unbearable chore versus rewarding or enjoyable. It doesn’t allow us to look at correlations between family income and nights of home-cooked meals per week, for example.

Here’s what it can tell us: Among the moms interviewed for the study, a common theme was that getting a home-cooked family meal on the table was stressful. The authors discuss the dichotomy of foodie standards for homegrown, home-cooked, preferably organic, meals, prepared with love and joy, and the realities faced by many families today. The moms interviewed in the study talked about how with both parents working long, irregular hours, there is simply no time to cook, much less sit down at the table at the same time. Others talked about the trade-offs between spending time cooking or spending time with their kids at the end of the day. Many noted that it was hard to please everyone with one meal, so they ended up sticking to tried-and-true, if boring, recipes rather than experimenting with new foods and flavors.

Family meals don't have to look like this. Credit: National Cancer Institute, Public Domain.

Family meals don’t have to look like this. Credit: National Cancer Institute, Public Domain.

Interestingly – though not surprising to me – poor moms in this study actually routinely cooked at home, because they recognized that it was the most cost-effective way to feed their families. That didn’t mean that cooking was joyful, but it was a necessary part of raising a family on a tight budget, even with barriers like not having reliable transportation, access to good food stores, or well-equipped kitchens.

 However, middle class moms cited financial barriers, too:

“To our surprise, many of the middle-class mothers we met also told us that money was a barrier to preparing healthy meals. Even though they often had household incomes of more than $100,000 a year, their membership in the middle-class was costly. While they did not experience food shortages, they were forced to make tradeoffs in order to save money—like buying less healthy processed food, or fewer organic items than they would like.”

Let’s face it: planning and preparing meals is hard work. It takes time, money, and effort, and doing it in the presence of children can make it more difficult. It may or may not be enjoyable, but it is definitely work and should be recognized as such. The Pinterest boards, food blogs, and gorgeous food magazines can be helpful inspiration, but they can also set us up for unreasonable expectations for family meals.

There is good evidence that family meals are important to kids. Eating regular meals as a family supports greater fruit and vegetable intake and displaces soda and fried foods. Not surprisingly, this results in better nutrition, and these same patterns can last at least into young adulthood. Research also shows that adolescents who eat family meals are protected from disordered eating, overweight, and substance abuse. There’s always debate about whether these association are because of the meal itself or the conditions that make family meals feasible, but there is evidence that family meals provide benefits to kids independent of other factors.

But let’s also consider how “family meal” is defined in the research. For example, in this paper, kids were asked, “On how many of the past 7 days was at least one of your parents in the room with you while you ate your evening meal?” There is nothing in that definition about meals made from scratch with all-organic ingredients. There isn’t anything in there about using real plates and forks or even the nutritional quality of the meal. All of those things might be desirable and might add more pleasure to a meal, but the most important thing about family meals is time spent together. If everything else is causing stress, then remember that as the first priority for family meals.

However, we do want to serve nutritious meals to our kids and support them in growing good eating habits, so let’s think about nutrition for a minute. Putting together a balanced meal means including all or most of the food groups. By offering this variety of foods, at least for most meals, you pretty much ensure that meals will be nutritionally adequate without having to fret much about individual nutrients. Your balanced meals may be elaborate and impressive, but they don’t need to be. Protein can be a scoop of peanut butter served next to apples, chickpeas from a can, or 3-minute scrambled eggs. The grain can be whole-wheat sandwich bread with butter. Vegetables can be the frozen variety, prepared in a minute in the microwave, then seasoned with a little butter and salt. (From a nutrition standpoint, these options are just as good as fresh. Also, conventionally grown produce is just as nutritious as organic.) These meals may not meet the standards of Martha Stewart or Michael Pollan, but they can still be nutritionally balanced, and their easy preparation may allow dinner to be more relaxing.

I enjoy cooking – to a certain extent – and I have the privilege of usually having the time and money to prepare the kinds of foods that I want for my family. Still, from my own qualitative research in the laboratory of my kitchen, I’ve observed a few things. First, there is zero correlation between the effort that went into the preparing the food and the quality of the interactions between children and parents at the table. Second, there is a high correlation between the complexity of the meal I’ve prepared and my stress level by the time I sit down at the table. For me, both of these observations are unique to cooking with and for young kids, and I expect they’ll get better as kids get older and can help in the kitchen and better appreciate good meals. In the meantime, though, I try to keep meal preparation simple and focus on enjoying food together.

Are family meals important in your house? Are they a source of stress? How do you pull them off?

 

P.S. – I’m sorry for my long and unintended absence from the blog. I’ve received several expert peer reviews on my book manuscript and have been working on finishing up edits – the book will soon be officially IN PRESS! We’ve also been doing summer things like swim lessons, camping, and refinishing the deck. The leaves are starting to turn, the fall college term is about to start, and we’ll be back in more regular routines in life and on the blog soon. Hope you all have had a great summer!

Caffeine and Breastfeeding

If anyone needs a little caffeine, it’s a new mom. My labor with Cee took me through two mostly sleepless nights, and when she finally arrived, we took a little time to nurse and get to know one another, and then our whole little family took a long nap. When we woke up, the first thing I did was send my husband to get me a latte. The second thing I did was breastfeed my new baby again. That dose of caffeine felt like good therapy to me, but what about for Cee? Was it good for her?

caffeine structure

Source: Wikimedia Commons

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the safety of caffeine in pregnancy, and several readers wanted to know about the postnatal effects of caffeine – how mom’s caffeine intake might affect her breastfed baby. I promised to take a look at the literature and report back, and so here we are.

 

When you drink a cup of coffee, how much caffeine ends up in your breast milk?

Several studies have examined this question, and although they are small, they give us a general idea of the transfer of caffeine from mom’s blood to her milk. After a cup of coffee, caffeine is rapidly absorbed into mom’s blood and then passively diffuses across the epithelial layers of the mammary gland. Caffeine appears in milk within 15 minutes of consumption and peaks within an hour. The concentration of caffeine in breast milk ends up being about 80-90% of that in mom’s plasma. However, taking into account the amount of breast milk consumed and adjusting for body weight, studies have estimated that the infant receives no more than 10% of the maternal dose of caffeine, and likely much less (see here, here, and here).

Is this amount of caffeine safe for a baby?

Just because levels of caffeine in breast milk are low relative to what adults normally consume doesn’t mean that these amounts are necessarily safe to a baby. Another important factor is how efficiently a baby can metabolize caffeine, and it turns out that newborn caffeine metabolism is really slow. Whereas the half-life of caffeine in adults is around 2-6 hours, it is an average of 3-4 days in newborns and can be even slower in premature babies. In other words, a morning cup of coffee for mom will easily clear her blood by bedtime, but caffeine may linger in her breastfed newborn for much longer. Metabolism gradually ramps up as the baby matures and the necessary enzyme levels come on board, and most babies can metabolize caffeine at rates similar to adults by 5-6 months of age. Continue reading

How My 3-Year-Old’s Sleep Fell Apart

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote that after I finished my book, I needed a sort of parenting reset with Cee. One of the big areas that we needed to work on was sleep. Bedtime had become a battle, and it was taking Cee a long time to fall asleep. This was leaving us all frustrated at the end of the day, and Cee was waking up grumpy in the mornings. I didn’t have the energy and attention to work on it while I was trying to finish my book, although in hindsight I’m not sure why we waited this long. Over the last couple of weeks, we’ve made some big changes to get us back to happy bedtimes.

Let me back up and tell you how we got into trouble with sleep in the first place. Last August, we moved to a new house. By this time, Cee had been in a toddler bed for almost a year, but she had no problem staying in it at bedtime or through the night. We had a sweet bedtime routine that ended with kisses goodnight, turning off the light, and then good sleep for Cee. After we moved, Cee started talking about being afraid of things like the deer and turkeys that wandered through the yard of our new house. We talked about these fears, got her a night light, and spent a little more time with her before saying goodnight, singing a couple of rounds of Twinkle, Twinkle and rubbing her back for a few minutes. All of that was fine.

Then Cee started getting out of her bed after we left her room for the night. She’d pad into the living room or my office to find me. I’d walk her back to bed and tuck her in again, but some nights this happened over and over. I would be shocked to see her in my office door at 9:00 or 9:30 PM, long after her 8:00 bedtime. She was also waking up during the night, coming into our room, and patting my shoulder until I woke up. I would walk her back to her room, often lying down next to her until she went back to sleep. Alternatively, I’d pull her into bed with me, but neither of us slept very well this way. All of this was adding up to fewer hours and less restful sleep for both of us.

When did the sweetness of a good nap become something to resist?

When did the sweetness of a good nap become something to resist?

Things seemed to get worse around the holidays. Cee was getting out of bed more and more after bedtime, and she was having a hard time separating when we tucked her back in. She started asking us to sit with her while she fell asleep, and this actually seemed like a reasonable solution. At least if we sat in her room we could make sure that she stayed in her bed, and maybe she would fall asleep easier and get more rest this way. I reminded myself that she was just 3, and if she was asking for more support in her transition to sleep, why shouldn’t we give that to her? (Never mind that she had been falling asleep on her own since she was a baby.)

There was something else going on at this time, too. I thought that maybe Cee’s struggles with sleep were because I wasn’t there enough for her in the day. I was going through a really tough period, approaching the 1-year anniversary of our first miscarriage and beginning some fertility testing. Continue reading

Caffeine Safety in Pregnancy

My first trimester of pregnancy coincided exactly with the last three months before my book deadline. I was lucky to have only mild nausea during this time, but I was really, really tired, especially in the afternoon. I tried hard to get enough sleep at night, but my body also seemed to want a 2-hour nap after lunch, when I just couldn’t stay awake, much less think and write. Pre-pregnancy, I responded to a post-lunch slump by pouring myself a cup of coffee or, even better, spending the afternoon at my favorite coffee shop, where a latte and the people around me helped keep me focused for a productive afternoon. A cup of herbal tea in the same atmosphere just made me want to curl up in one of the comfy chairs and take a nap, even as my caffeine-fueled coffee shop friends typed energetically around me.

But now I was pregnant, after 18 month of trying and several miscarriages, and I wanted to do all I could to minimize the risks of losing this pregnancy. In previous pregnancies I’d just given up most caffeine, and that wasn’t that hard to do. In this one, I was more afraid than ever of a miscarriage, but I also needed the caffeine boost more than ever to finish my book. I wanted to know what the research says about the safety of caffeine in pregnancy so that I could make an informed decision about whether to consume caffeine, and if so, how much.

Photo by Kevin Tuck

In her book, Expecting Better, Emily Oster includes an excellent discussion of caffeine in pregnancy. I consulted this for a quick answer to my question, and her analysis of the research on this topic helped me feel comfortable strategically drinking a little coffee in the afternoon. However, as much as I like and respect Oster’s book, I’ve also found that my approach to risk in pregnancy is a bit more conservative, and as soon as I had the chance, I wanted to look at the studies myself. Continue reading

Amylase in Infancy: Can Babies Digest Starch?

Several readers have emailed me to ask about babies’ ability to digest starch. Here’s one:

“I have noticed you recommending cereals for babies several times.  I am sure that you are aware that many people look at feeding a baby grains before the age of one or even two as if you have offered your child strychnine. One of the reasons cited is that they supposedly do not have amylase to digest grains before that time. I have often wondered what exactly is happening to the cereal if it is not being digested, but the only statement I could find is something about it “rotting” in the gut.

I would love to get information from a scientific point of view on this topic.  Everything I have been able to find thus far has been very biased towards one point of view or another. Either “cereal is the perfect first food. Easy to digest and enriched with iron” from the infant cereal companies or “Cereal is junk.  No infant should ever eat grains. It is not natural or traditional and they can’t digest it” from online parenting sites.

I need a little clarity and common sense.”

~Hope

I love the skepticism in Hope’s email, and I can also empathize with her frustration about how difficult it is to find good information about a seemingly simple question: Can babies digest starch? If you search for the answer to this question online, you will run into dire warnings of the dangers of giving starch to babies. But these sites might set off your woo detector – as they should. So, after receiving multiple emails about this question as well as seeing it mentioned in discussions on the Science of Mom Facebook page, I figured it was time to put some evidence-based information about babies and starch digestion on the Internet.

Researching this question has given me an excuse to read some classic nutrition physiology papers harkening back to the 1960’s and 1970’s, and it’s brought back memories of years in the lab, exploring nutrient digestion and metabolism. And starch digestion in infancy, it turns out, is a really neat story.

Let’s start with some basics about carbohydrate digestion.

What is starch? How is it digested?

Starch is a type of complex carbohydrate. Made from lots of glucose molecules bonded together in long, branching chains, it is a plant’s way of storing glucose – product of photosynthesis and source of energy – in a stable form. We find starch in grains, root vegetables, winter squashes, beans, and some fruits, like bananas. Starch is an important storage depot for the plant, and it also makes for tasty staple foods for cultures around the world.

One little section of starch, containing 3 glucose molecules. Wikimedia Commons, public domain.

A chain of 3 glucose molecules, like a tiny section of starch.

Glucose is the major fuel for the cells of the body. When we eat starch, we have to break the bonds in those chains of glucose molecules, liberating them to be absorbed from the small intestine into our blood. Starch digestion begins in the mouth, where salivary amylase starts chopping up those large glucose chains. When this partially digested starch gets to the small intestine, amylase made and secreted by the pancreas jumps in to do more bond-breaking and is responsible for most of starch digestion in adults. A suite of enzymes produced by the cells lining the small intestine, including sucrase, isomaltase, maltase, and glucoamylase, work on the remaining short chains, finishing up the job and making glucose available for absorption.

Starch Digestion in Infants

Infants go through some incredible nutritional transitions in the first months of life. Prior to birth, their growth and development is fueled almost entirely by glucose from mom, absorbed across the placenta. After birth, they have to abruptly transition to an exclusive milk diet, which is high in fat and lactose, still a relatively simple sugar. As they start solid foods, babies have to adapt to a much more complex and varied diet. Around the world, starch is a major source of energy in the diets of children and adults alike. But when infants are first introduced to starchy foods – often in the form of cereals and porridges – starch is a novel nutrient to their digestive tract. They need to turn it into glucose, but are they equipped to do this? Continue reading

Breastfeeding, Gluten Introduction, and Risk of Celiac Disease

A study published yesterday in the journal Pediatrics suggests that later introduction of gluten and breastfeeding beyond 12 months both increase the risk of a child developing celiac disease. These new findings add to the already muddy waters of our current understanding of the role of infant feeding in celiac disease.

Photo by Shree Krishna Dhital, via Wikimedia Commons

Celiac disease is an immune response to gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye. Celiac is characterized by inflammation and damage to the small intestine, leading to symptoms such as diarrhea and digestive pain. In the U.S., celiac disease is present in about 1 in 141 people, although many of these cases go undiagnosed. Infants that develop celiac disease often have poor growth or weight loss, because intestinal damage compromises nutrient absorption. They also may have chronic diarrhea and a swollen, painful belly.

Celiac can usually be treated with a gluten-free diet, but there isn’t a cure for the disease. Multiple genetic markers have been identified for celiac disease, but many genetically susceptible individuals tolerate gluten and never develop symptoms, leading to speculation about other risk factors, including early childhood nutrition.

This latest study was a large, prospective survey of infant feeding practices and development of celiac disease in Norwegian children. Parents were asked when they first introduced gluten and how long they breastfed their babies. Children that developed celiac disease were tracked through Norway’s national medical system. The study included 324 children with diagnosed celiac disease and 81,843 without celiac. The researchers then looked for patterns in the data that might help to explain why some children developed celiac disease and others did not.

There were two major findings to emerge from this study:

  1. Children that had not yet tried gluten by 6 months of age were more likely to develop celiac disease.
  2. Breastfeeding at the time of introduction to gluten did NOT appear to be protective. In fact, breastfeeding for longer than 12 months was associated with an increased risk, although it was borderline significant (P=0.046).

Both of these findings are contradictory to current infant feeding advice in the U.S. The AAP’s Section on Breastfeeding recommends exclusive breastfeeding for about 6 months before introducing solid foods, followed by “continuation of breastfeeding for 1 year or longer as mutually desired by mother and infant.” The same AAP policy goes on to say, “There is a reduction of 52% in the risk of developing celiac disease in infants who were breastfed at the time of gluten exposure.” But this Norwegian study effectively found that following the current advice of the AAP seems to increase a baby’s risk of celiac, not decrease it.

Obviously, we need more information here. And as usual, one study isn’t enough to give us the full picture of what we know and don’t know about this topic.

To understand the evolving hypotheses around celiac disease and infant feeding, we need to go back to Sweden in the mid-1980’s, when the rates of celiac disease in young kids suddenly quadrupled from an incidence of 1 in 1000 births to 4 in 1000 births over just a few years. It was an epidemic, and it appeared to be isolated to Sweden; neighboring countries weren’t affected. What’s more, celiac was showing up in really young kids. The median age of diagnosis during the epidemic was just about a year old. In 1995, celiac disease in Sweden plummeted back to pre-epidemic levels, and the median age of diagnosis increased to 4 years of age. Continue reading

The Magic and the Mystery of Skin-to-Skin

I meant to do skin-to-skin with Cee after her birth, I swear. It was in my birth plan. But after a long labor, Cee was born blue and limp, and the understandable concern about her health trumped any ideas I’d had about optimizing our postpartum experience. Cee was whisked away to a warmer on the other side of the room and encircled by the NICU team. Thankfully, I heard her cry within a few moments, and she was in my arms soon after. But by then, she was wrapped in a pink and blue flannel blanket, and I was too overwhelmed and taken with her to think of unwrapping her. Instead, I held her, and we gazed into each other’s eyes. She started rooting and was nursing within a couple of minutes. It was a magical first meeting, and it wasn’t until later that I realized that I’d screwed up and forgotten to do skin-to-skin.

IMG_3113

What’s wrong with this picture? (besides the fact that I hadn’t slept or brushed my hair in 48 hours)

I’ve been researching this topic for a chapter in my book about the postpartum period. I’m writing about what we know and don’t know about getting to know our newborns, establishing breastfeeding, rooming in, and yes, skin-to-skin. When I started working on this chapter, I thought the skin-to-skin thing was a slam-dunk, maybe even too obvious to be of much interest to my readers.

Modern-day interest in skin-to-skin, also called kangaroo care, began in 1978 in the NICU at San Juan de Dios hospital in Bogotá, Columbia. For every 10 premature babies born there, only 3 survived. There weren’t enough incubators or nurses. Babies were tucked two to three at a time in incubators, and infections were rampant. Parents weren’t encouraged to be involved in the babies’ care, and having little emotional connection to them, many abandoned their sickly babies at the hospital. Kangaroo care was a desperate attempt to care for these vulnerable babies. Mothers were essentially asked to be their babies’ incubators, holding them skin-to-skin 24 hours per day and breastfeeding on demand.

The results were astounding. The kangaroo care babies in Bogotá grew well, were more likely to be breastfed, and were less likely to get severe infections or be abandoned. The power of kangaroo care for low birth weight babies has since been confirmed in multiple studies. A 2011 Cochrane review concluded that skin-to-skin helps stabilize premature newborns, reduces mortality, infections, hypothermia, and length of stay in the hospital. These benefits are particularly clear in developing countries, but many hold in industrialized nations as well.

With the impressive success of skin-to-skin care for preemies, it seemed natural to assume that full term babies would benefit from it as well. But the research in this area is disappointing. Continue reading

What’s Your Feeding Style? (Fearless Feeding Review and Giveaway)

Do you have a feeding philosophy? What’s your feeding style?

These are not the most common topics in parenting discussions. We’re often too busy talking breast and bottle, baby led weaning or purees, organic or conventional, and how to get our kids to eat more vegetables. But the question of feeding style, I believe, matters more to children than any of these oft-discussed topics.

I am really pleased to have a new book on my shelf that covers the HOW and WHY of feeding children just as well as it covers WHAT to feed: Fearless Feeding: How to Raise Healthy Eaters from High Chair to High School, by Jill Castle and Maryann Jacobsen. Both authors are registered dieticians, mothers, and bloggers. They take a long-term view on feeding – that we shouldn’t just be concerned with what our kids are eating today, but also about teaching kids to eat well for a lifetime.

9781118308592_Castle.inddFeeding style is one of the first topics in Fearless Feeding, so if you’re not sure how to describe your own feeding style, here’s your chance to give it some thought. Castle and Jacobsen discuss 4 feeding styles, analogous to parenting styles that may be familiar to you: Continue reading

SIDS and Bedsharing: A Pediatrician’s Perspective

I’ve been thinking about bedsharing and sleep safety for the last few months. I have devoted an entire chapter of my book to this topic. Not only is it an important question for parents, but it’s an issue with so much complexity — wrinkles and folds of factors like breastfeeding, bonding, instinct, culture, and just plain reality.

I think it is vitally important to understand the relationship between bedsharing behavior and risk of SIDS and accidental deaths. But our ability to tease apart every factor that might impact sleep safety is imperfect; there will always be factors that aren’t quantified in these studies, not to mention the fact that case control studies have some inherent limitations. You’ve probably heard about the study published this week by Carpenter et al. in BMJ. It combines 5 historic case control data sets from Europe, the U.K., and Australasia to specifically look at the risk of bedsharing in breastfed babies in nonsmoking households. It concludes that bedsharing poses an increased risk of SIDS, even in these ideal situations. I think it’s an important study, but it also has some limitations and doesn’t answer all of our questions with certainty. In fact, no study will probably ever do that. (You can read some critiques of the Carpenter study here and here.)

But even if we accept that bedsharing increases a baby’s risk of dying unexpectedly during sleep, we still have to answer the bigger question of how we translate this information to families living in the real, difficult world of infant sleep. Many families value bedsharing as a cultural practice; others choose it because it feels right. Still others bedshare because it is the only way that anyone gets any sleep at night, and we all know that sleep deprivation carries some risk, too, as does falling asleep on a couch with your baby. This is the reality.

Pediatricians face this reality in their clinics every day, when they talk with parents of new babies about sleep. In my book, one of the questions I explore is how pediatricians handle this conversation, given that their professional organization, the American Academy of Pediatrics, recommends against bedsharing. Several months ago, I sent some questions to one of my favorite pediatrician bloggers, Dr. Melissa Arca of Confessions of a Dr. Mom. She had initially agreed to a Q&A, but then she didn’t respond with her answers. It was the height of the busy flu season, and I figured that she was just busy. Then, this week, she surprised me with her responses. She had been thinking about bedsharing given the news of this recent study, and she was inspired to restart this conversation. We’ve cross-posted our Q&A on both our blogs. Check out her post for more about her initial hesitancy to address these questions, and please feel free to share your experiences in the comments below.

Alice: How did sleep look for your two children?

Melissa: My first child was a challenge to say the least. He is the one who made me question the safety of bed-sharing in the first place. For the first 6 months of his life, sleep was virtually non-existent (or at least that’s the way it felt to me) because he needed my arms and constant soothing throughout the night. But I was terrified to bedshare. I was literally at the end of my sleep deprivation rope. I had tried everything. And instead of listening to my instincts, I was fighting them. Because I was scared.

I never envisioned myself as a bedsharing parent. As a pediatrician, I was adamantly against it. But it was exactly what my baby needed and we struggled and limped along until I finally realized that.

My second child was a breeze and that’s no lie. She was always (and still is) an “easy sleeper”. She needed her space and showed clear signs of being tired. When she was tired, that was it. I didn’t need to bedshare with her. She slept in her own bassinet next to our bed during her first few months of life before being transitioned to her own room.

They could not have been more different in the sleep department. Same parents. Same environment. Different children.

Alice: As a pediatrician, how did you feel about bedsharing before having children? Did becoming a mother change that?

Melissa: I didn’t think it was safe. At all. I had read the studies and the official recommendations. Back to sleep, crib and/or bassinet in the same room with no hazards such as loose bedding, pillows, etc.

I never thought in a million years I would have become a bedsharing parent. But kids don’t have our same agendas. Continue reading

Baby Meets World: A Conversation with the Author

Yesterday, I posted an excerpt from Nicholas Day’s new book, Baby Meets World. If you missed it, check it out to learn how modern hunter-gatherer societies raise children, and how that task is supported by not just by hard-working mothers but the entire culture. It’s good stuff.

After reading his book, I had lots of questions for author Nicholas Day. Today, I bring you our conversation about his book and on the roles of science, culture, and instinct in parenting.

Alice: Becoming a parent changes all of us. What was it about your particular transition to fatherhood that made you want to research and write this book, to dive into the history and the science of parenting in a way that extended beyond your own reality of parenting?

IMG_4413Nicholas: In a way, I think it was the part of me that wasn’t changed that led to this book: I had stupid questions about babies in the same way I have stupid questions about everything else. (It’s a personality flaw.) I didn’t see why I had to think of babies as simply problems to be solved. Most baby books have what I think of as the leaky faucet approach: if your baby is dripping, we recommend this socket wrench. And there were many, many times when all I wanted was that socket wrench. But I also thought babies were interesting subjects all on their own. I wanted a book that acknowledged that. And I wanted a book that was wide-angled. The study of infancy is highly compartmentalized: the different disciplines don’t talk to each other. The few good books about babies tend to be highly focused: they look at babies through the lens of a cognitive scientist, say, or a developmental psychologist. But there are so many lenses out there! It seemed a shame to only see a baby as like this or like that. There’s so much left outside the frame. So this book tries to show readers the many different versions of a baby that people have seen—and still see today.

It’s strange. You wouldn’t think that babies would be an obscure subject: they are everywhere. (In our highly fertile neighborhood, I sometimes feel like Hitchcock’s The Birds is being reenacted—but this time with babies.)  But they’ve been weirdly neglected. This is sort of hard to believe: any book about babies has to clear the high hurdle of being another damn book about babies. (Right? Like that’s what we need. Also, we totally need more diet books.) But I concluded that we really did need that. Babies are still strangers in our midst.

Alice: Your book focuses on four basic facts of infancy: “suck, smile, touch, toddle.” How did you choose these topics? Why not “eat, sleep, poop, cry,” for example?

Nicholas: I joke about this at the end of the book—that there’s so much going on in infancy I could easily have chosen spitting, shitting, screaming, sharing.

Part of why I went with these topics was that I actually wanted answers about them: I really wanted to know where a smile comes from and what a first smile might mean, for example. But I also thought these subjects had been overlooked. There’s been an enormous amount written on sleep, for very obvious reasons: any new parent is obsessed with sleep. But there’s very little written about smiling or walking. It’s the leaky faucet problem: because a smile can’t be fixed, no one writes about it. Continue reading