Holding your new baby is sometimes a drag, especially when she’s sobbing and/or it’s 2am. Flashy headlines proclaim that "Babies Who Get More Cuddles Seem to Have Their Genetics Changed For Years Afterwards.” This would be a gratifying thought, for a tired parent. But is it even remotely true?
The (small, preliminary) study in question did not find that parent can literally change a child’s genes. That die has been cast. I hope you chose your co-parent wisely!
Epigenetics is complicated
Instead, there is some reason to believe that more holding and touching can change which genes get expressed in your baby (an “epigenetic” change). In other words, potential characteristics can possibly be brought out or suppressed a bit, via touch.
Unfortunately, there is no evidence yet that the epigenetic changes from touching a baby have any measurable impact on outcomes like longevity, happiness, etc. All the touch in the world won’t turn a constitutionally dour baby into little miss sunshine.
Hold them anyways
But babies who are touched more do cry less and grow better (genetics completely aside). Plus, ignoring a crying baby is painful for all involved. That’s all the reason you need.
Once again, Facebook repeatedly showed me an educational baby gadget that really exemplifies the fact that companies will do anything to scare parents and take their money.
Are you speaking to your baby enough?
The “Starling” by VersaMe is a little dongle that you attach to your child beginning as soon after birth as possible. It automatically counts how many words s/he hears. This way, the child’s caregivers can verify that they are reaching benchmarks for proper cognitive development (by some accounts, 30,000 words per day!)
There's an app for that
Not feeling scared — I mean, motivated to talk more yet? The Starling gamifies engagement with your kid. If you’ve been a little too quiet so far today, you can race to make up words over dinner. Read the dictionary out loud if you have to!
Hearing words does matter...
The people behind the Starling are well-educated. They're not wrong that hearing words matters for children’s development. Lots of parents are too buried in their phones, and lots of kids are buried in their tablets.
but give me a break!
But surely quality of speech matters in addition to quantity. The studies about words heard per day and children’s development are confounded by many socioeconomic factors. And do parents really need another opportunity to feel like they’ve failed?
At the end of a long day with my baby and toddler, I sometimes have a shred of energy left to consider what went well that day and what didn’t. Sometimes I realize I’d been distant. But it doesn’t take a popup notification or a piece of digital hardware.
There are better ways to improve your parenting
The “quantified self” need not begin at birth. Buy $150 of engaging books or open-ended toys instead, and leave your phone in the other room. You can find plenty to say by being joyfully present, even if you’re not using a gadget.
The other day, I was browsing Facebook when I came across a “sponsored” (i.e. paid) post from a natural health & beauty site. The post promised that a solution exists for eliminating parents’ anxiety about food allergies. I clicked through, and was hardly surprised to discover that the solution is an expensive product.
Spoonful One: an expensive supplement goo
"Spoonful One” is basically a supplement goo that you’re supposed to start feeding to your infant, mixed into their other foods. The company is trying to cash in on the growing body of research showing that repeated exposure to potential allergens is what prevents allergies — not protecting young children from them, as was previously recommended.
SpoonfulOne appears to offer convenience, as it includes several potential allergens: peanut, egg, milk, fish, shellfish, tree nuts, soy, wheat, and sesame. In general, I’m certainly not above paying a little more to save some time, and I do it often myself (hello, grocery delivery).
Your baby probably doesn't need supplements
But actually, as allergy parents know, it’s difficult to keep your kids away from most of those ingredients. Kids eating anything remotely resembling common American foods will already eat those allergens multiple times per day. Even sesame is pretty ubiquitous — if in doubt, add hummus (my toddler daughter eats it plain, with a spoon).
The exception might be seafood & shellfish, which plenty of kids don’t like. But, according to WebMD, just 0.6% of American children have a seafood allergy (and that’s even with most parents not doing anything special to prevent the allergy). Fish sauce and shrimp paste cost about $5 each, those could easily be added to children’s other foods for some umami and allergy-busting exposure.
I’m not saying you should (or can) make everything yourself. I bought plenty of commercial baby food, mostly non-organic to boot. My kid eats packaged snack foods sometimes now. Perhaps a few kids are picky enough eaters that parents genuinely can’t get them to eat ordinary allergen-containing foods
Spend your money on something else... *anything* else
But at $75-90 per month, SpoonfulOne offers a pretty poor cost to benefit ratio. And they have the audacity to suggest that you should feed it to your kid for five entire years (you know… just to be safe. If you were a good parent, you’d do it!).
Think of what else could you do for your young child’s health & happiness for a cool $5,000! Just about anything is better than forking it over to a fear-mongering operation in exchange for a few dollars’ worth of ordinary food slurry.
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Americans are mostly interested in science
A recent Pew survey shows that over 70% of Americans are interested in science news. This makes sense — science news is often relevant to your everyday life, interesting, or both. For women, health, medicine, food, nutrition, and the mind top the list of specific science interests.
But there's a big gap between curiosity and consumption
Unfortunately, there’s a big gap between curiosity and actual news consumption. Only about a third of Americans actually get any science news at least a few times per week. This wouldn't be so terrible if the news that's readily available were high-quality... but it's not.
Readers stumble across their science news — and they know it sucks
About half of Americans just stumble across the science news they do manage to get, and social media doesn’t turn out to be a reliable source of science news. Just 16% of Americans think their friends and family are an accurate source of science info, and over half distrust the stuff shown to them on social media.
This is the opposite of conscious consumption, and a good way to accidentally fall into the clickbait trap. You’re much more likely to stumble across sensationalized garbage than measured reporting.
What’s the answer? According to Pew, Americans trust “specialty sources” for science news much more than regular, mainstream news sources. This impulse isn’t all wrong, “specialist” can mean “expert," but specialty sources like documentaries, online forums, and info published by advocacy organizations aren’t a total fix. Many “alternative” sources of science news are clearly biased and ideological, even worse than the mainstream places. Think anti-vaxx sites, or those with a hidden agenda of selling bullshit dietary supplements.
Science news directed towards moms definitely sucks
Americans now spend 10+ hours per day looking at screens. Converting just a tiny portion of that time from mindless entertainment or pointless Facebook wandering into genuine learning could have such a huge impact on our lives, especially for moms — whose choices have such an impact on their family’s lives.
And yet, the mommy world online remains flooded with low-quality non-journalism that, at best, wastes our time and more often preys on our emotions and plays to our biases. When I became a mom, I found I didn’t like what I saw on news sites for moms. (When was the last time you saw calm, even-handed coverage of children't nutrition or healthcare issues, eh?) So I created something better.
The fastest way for moms to get news that matters
Just the Facts, Mom is the fastest way for moms to get news (especially sciencey news). It takes just 10 minutes per week to read, and costs less than a good latte. Just the Facts focuses on parenting science, nutrition, psychology, relationships, and whatever matters to moms.
Moms like you aren’t dumb, they’re just busy and scrambled. That’s why you end up reading crap — or nothing at all. But there’s a better way.
Ready to join the exclusive ranks of deliberate science news consumers? Subscribe to Just the Facts, Mom for a few bucks per month or sign up to receive the free weekly updates.