Why you should take experts with a grain of salt (and a FFF team project!)

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I recently switched from freelancing to a more steady form of employment. I’m lucky enough to have found a job which allows me access to some of the foremost experts in the parenting world, as well as an incredible roster of parents with unique situations and viewpoints.

These past few weeks, I’ve been a fly on the wall as these folks have been interviewed about their areas of expertise and experience. It’s been truly enlightening, both as a parent and someone who finds it fascinating to pick apart the human psyche. Some key observations:

1. Just because someone is a “world-renowned expert” does not necessarily mean they understand the real-world implications of what they are advocating.

For obvious reasons, my favorite example of this is the Male Breastfeeding Expert. There’s nothing like having someone with testicles school you on why it isn’t that big a deal to breastfeeding exclusively for six months. Or the 75-year-old parenting expert who tries to compare the way the world was at the time she was raising her sons to how it is now. Oh- and the expert who was born and raised in wealth and privilege, scoffing at the idea that poor, urban parents can’t find ways to feed their children healthier meals and get them 2 hours of exercise.

Look. These days, it doesn’t take much to be proclaimed an “expert”. You write a few books, get a few prominent clients, get yourself on the Today Show, and viola! World-renowned expert. Degrees help, but even these can be misleading – a PhD in philosophy can call herself a doctor and become an expert on child health with nary a pre-med course under her Prada belt. (Think of Dr. Linda Folden-Palmer, the woman who claims that formula feeding has killed more American babies than anything else in the world. She wears that “Dr.” title like a badge, neglecting to mention she’s a Doctor of Chiropractic.)

Even for those select few who really do have the research, education, and experience behind them to qualify as experts, it doesn’t necessarily follow that these folks have a clue what life is like outside their ivory towers. Theory and practice are two different animals, altogether. This doesn’t mean they don’t know what they are talking about – to the contrary, they can probably speak eloquently and informatively on their given subject. But academia tends to be insular; psychologists aren’t necessarily talking with anthropologists; biologists aren’t always having brainstorming sessions with sociologists. It’s a shame, really, because when it comes to parenting “science”, we need interdepartmental cooperation. As someone who has read research from a variety of fields on infant feeding, I can attest that hardly anyone is listening to anyone outside of his or her field. Even within the medical field, there’s stuff happening in gastrointestinal journals that is barely referenced (or likely noticed) by those who read Pediatrics. It’s a real shame.

2. Personal bias is universally prevalent

No matter how open-minded you may be, it’s very, very difficult to stop your own experience from coloring your opinions. This happens on a subconscious level, so while you might make a concerted effort not to do so, you’ll have visceral reactions to certain ideas which will in turn inform your point of view. For example, last week, we interviewed a well-respected expert on fatherhood. He was a great guy with an impressive resume and plenty of relevant life-experience to boot – the ideal parenting expert, if you will. At one point, we asked him a question about what to do if your partner isn’t taking care of herself during pregnancy. I took this question to mean, “What should I do if my partner isn’t eating enough, taking care of her health, stress level; working too hard; not following doctor’s orders in regards to pregnancy complications, etc.” The expert proceeded to give a speech about making sure your wife doesn’t “let herself go” during pregnancy – i.e., what men can do to ensure that their wives/girlfriends aren’t packing on too many pregnancy pounds or forgoing the gym. Obviously, what “taking care of herself” meant to him was something quite different than it meant to me. It’s all about perspective.

As for the parents we’ve interviewed, they have all been lovely people, but they’ve also shown me how our own hangups, successes, and failures end up informing our parenting philosophies. A woman who had a successful first pregnancy in her mid-40s spoke freely about how if other women just did more yoga and ate better, they’d be able to conceive as late as they wanted to, and that there’d be no need for extra precautions or the label of “high-risk”. I bet she would have been singing a different tune had she spent seven years in fertility treatments, or actually had a high-risk pregnancy. (As I’ve had. Twice. And I did plenty of yoga.) She also had an a-hole doctor, and a wonderful midwifery experience, which made her an advocate for home-birth and low medical intervention. The things that went right gave her strong opinions, as did the things that went wrong. It’s human nature.

3. To change minds, accentuate the positive

The most valuable lesson I’ve learned from my job thus far, though, is that no matter what your experience is, you need to own it.

The company I work for is committed to showing all sides of the story when it comes to parenting issues; this has exposed me to people on every end of the spectrum. The ones who are passionately positive are the most effective speakers. I personally had no interest in cloth diapering, but after I saw our cloth diapering expert interviewed, I ran home and tried to convince Fearless Husband it would still be worth doing for our one-year-old (I abandoned the idea as soon as I saw how expensive the cute accoutrements were – that was really what attracted me to the prospect. Those diaper covers are freaking adorable). She was non-judgmental, sweet, warm, and so excited about how she covered her baby’s ass that it was infectious.

The ones who live in a space of negativity come across as overbearing and unlikeable. They may convince someone to change out of fear or insecurity, but I believe that in most cases, they end up simply preaching to the choir. The people who are not already following their philosophy feel judged and condemned; that’s not a healthy space in which to make changes.

Once I realized this, I began worrying. As bottle feeders, we spend so much time defending ourselves; fighting against untrue stereotypes; struggling with guilt and fear and grief over not being able to breastfeed, or not being able to conform to what society has decided is Good Parenting.

Defending. Fighting. Struggling.

Not very positive words.

Which brings me to the end of this post, in which I will implore you to start using some positive words in regards to bottle feeding. Doing so is not anti-breastfeeding; it’s pro-doing- what’s- best-for-your-baby-and-you (not a catchy slogan, but I’ll work on it). I’m working with the brilliant team over at Bottle Babies to create a video using our beautiful combo-fed, exclusively pumped-fed, tube-fed, and of course formula-fed kids to show the world that bottle feeding can be a beautiful, strong, healthy choice. It’s time to give ourselves permission to feel proud of our method of feeding, whatever that method happens to be.

We’re trying to keep the details a bit under wraps for now, so if you are interested in participating (it would require taking a specific type of photo of your kiddo or kiddos) just email me at formulafeeders@gmail.com and I will send you the details.

I hope some of you will be willing to take a stand, because what could be more fearless than telling the world that you don’t have to feel guilty or incomplete – ah crap. Scratch that – what I meant to say is, what could be more fearless than telling the world that you feel proud and complete as a bottle-feeding mother? (This turning negativity to positivity is harder than it looks, people.)

Suzanne Barston is a blogger and author of BOTTLED UP. Fearless Formula Feeder is a blog – and community – dedicated to infant feeding choice, and committed to providing non-judgmental support for all new parents. It exists to protect women from misleading or misrepresented “facts”; essentialist ideals about what mothers should think, feel, or do; government and health authorities who form policy statements based on ambivalent research; and the insidious beast known as Internetus Trolliamus, Mommy Blog Varietal.

Suzanne Barston – who has written posts on Fearless Formula Feeder.

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15 thoughts on “Why you should take experts with a grain of salt (and a FFF team project!)

  1. As a positive-type person I applaud what you are saying… although easier said than done when you ARE feeling guilty and somewhat of a failure.
    These overwhelming feelings of guilt and failure are very hard to shake and a good first step is to join sites such as FFF and/or Bottle Babies so you come to realise you are NOT alone and that many of the so-called “studies” promoting bf and degenerating ff are completely flawed!
    The next step to recovery is to do just what you have suggested… realise that you are doing your best for your baby and you for your circumstances and to “feel proud and complete as a bottle feeding mother”… you don't need to defend yourself for successfully raising a well-fed and happy child!
    Child rearing is NOT a competition and it's a pity so many mothers seem to think it is.
    PS: Love your comments about “world-renowned” experts… I worked with one once who had written books on marriage and worked as a marriage consultant who was in great demand by talk shows on the subject… was completely flawed while chatting to her in the lunchroom one day when she admitted to me she had been divorced 3 times!!

  2. “No matter how open minded you may be, it's very, very difficult to stop your own experience from coloring your opinions.”

    Yes, but it's not necessarily true that this must result in subpar research. Most researchers have some bias, or may have a favored hypothesis. I sure have at times. But ideally the process of peer review and publication of research that is then critiqued by your fellow scientists allows for science to be self-correcting over time.

    For some reason, infant feeding is particularly susceptible to bias and operating without much input from other fields. For example, I was shocked to see how many relatively early studies on breastfeeding and IQ failed to control for maternal IQ. Any geneticist would see that as problematic immediately and subsequently discount any difference between groups. Yet this kind of poor methodology occasionally still persists in infant feeding.

    The only excuse for the poor quality of work in these fields that I feel is even remotely acceptable is that working with humans entails methodological constraints that can complicate interpretation of studies. Yes, that may be true. But the correct response to these limitations is to acknowledge the major caveats in your research and couch your conclusions appropriately, something we know is infrequently done.

    Sometimes it's hard to not to conclude that the researchers in these fields are either 1) unaware of the major problems plaguing studies of infant feeding–an extremely dismal prospect, because a lot of money is being spent on this work, or 2) don't care. I suspect it's the latter. The prevailing paradigm is that breast is best under all circumstances. It's the easy track to reaffirm that even when the study design or data do not support that conclusion.

  3. Meira, quite true about peer review. But I fear that with infant feeding research, there's sort of a worldwide halo effect on breastfeeding which may disturb this usual balance.
    In any case, I probably should've clarified that I was talking about media hungry, “talking head” types, not researchers. 😉

  4. I love the positive spin stuff – it's hard to do. It does seem the “advantages” of FF are sold as reasons you are “lazy”, “not trying hard enough”, “not making big enough sacrifices” when placed against the “advantages” of BF. My son was exclusively FF from 10 weeks, when we finally threw in the towel on combo-feeding (after the disaster of exclusive BF that led to his early stay in hospital). He's now 8 months: my friends, with babies the same age who are BF are now wrestling with going back to work, fitting in expressing, introducing bottles/cups, mastitis, clingy-ness, babies who won't sleep without a final suckle… all things I'm not facing. I feel I've reaped the benefits of the early heartache, but I don't really feel I can shout about it.

  5. Wow! I'd swear you were a mind reader! You have no idea how much of this (experts, men, personal experience, positivity etc.) is relevant to the FFF Friday piece I'm working on.

  6. I like to look at my happy, growing boys who seem pretty bright (perhaps they'd be geniuses if I BFed?), are not any sicklier than any other child in daycare, and are far on the other end of obese (they will be 3 next week, they wear 2T, some of which is too big) and reaffirm that formula is FINE.

    A lot of times, the “formula is so expensive” comes up. Yes, formula can be expensive…but eventually, I'll have two fifteen year olds who have hollow legs. Feeding a teenaged boy must be more expensive than feeding an infant formula for a year. Looking over the cost of feeding a child from birth to age 18, the cost of formula probably comes out to chump change. And I doubt anyone decrying the cost of formula will allow their teenagers to starve because all that food is too expensive.

    Also wanted to mention, like DT above, I think that being able to go back to work more easily is a positive.

  7. Fantastic post! I am a happy and proud full-time mother of one (I've been told I probably can't have any more kids, despite wanting them – you should hear some of the judgemental comments I've had to suffer in regards to 'only having one'!) – anyway my daughter (nearly 4) is a clever, articulate, healthy (very few illnesses), slim, loving/caring little girl. From my anecdotal experience, all the claims made by the breastfeeding 'experts' are total tripe.

    The judgement and discrimination against formula feeding mothers frustrates and angers me – especially given the bigger problems we face in society with child abuse/ neglect going on.
    Surely the most important things to do as a parent are to give our children endless love, food, clothing and keeping them safe? As long as these vital duties are carried out, it doesn't matter how they are achieved! Details are irrelevant!

    Every parent has to constantly make choices about their child throughout their life. Sometimes there are lots of choices (what to wear, where to go). But sometimes there is only one choice. To come out alive (c-section). To feed your baby so that they can grow/live. Everybody has a different story, a different reason for the way they are bringing up their kid(s). I am pro-choice in doing this in the best way we can – for us and our children.

  8. Suzie, I am right there with you experiencing the judgment over probably only having one child! How this is anyone's business, I have yet to discover, but boy they sure do feel the need to tell you how lonely that only child is going to be!

  9. Oh the experts… . I find myself re-reading David Freedman's gem of a book on the topic of expertise – Wrong: How experts fail us and how to know when not to trust them. You're so right about the lack of cross-talk among experts, academic or otherwise in addition to a dearth of accurate info in the media. I'd say the lack of nuanced research-based evidence is another major issue in the parenting sphere, partly because scientists/researchers tend to treat the media like an unwelcomed guest from speaking a foreign language but also it's difficult to get the complexities of research into the much-valued tiny bits of text and sound in the new media. I'd say we also need more science-trained journalists who aren't under pressure to cut out the important nuances. I'd add one more collarary that speaks to your expertise and pro-choice arguments – despite what very large, very good research projects find, it can't tell you what's best for your child. Research findings involve generalities, kids in general, the average baby in the sample, not individuals. Yes, studies are becomingly increasing precise (e.g., breastfed kids with adhd and two older siblings – I made this up) but it's still true that findings are merely a guide for children in general. Don't get me wrong, as FF knows, I love research and the scientific method, have spent years in the lab and field doing it, but I think we can do a much better job interpreting it, communicating it, and judging it.

  10. But how are your guest posters/readers/commentators going feel better after venting when you want everyone to be a little more positive? Can they still let everything all out? It is an admirable goal (one that I constantly try and tell myself), to try to be more proud of yourself for what you're doing or have done for your children and less defensive, but I feel like sharing the real, hard, mostly negative stories that don't all end with a happy twist or funny phrase helps in overcoming the guilt. I'm sure you'll keep up FFF Fridays. Maybe just change your background to delete the negative words? I'm just thinking out loud here.

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