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A Shifting Certainty

When my eldest child was born, my midwife, GP and health visitor all urged me to lay him down to sleep on his stomach, with his head turned to one side. Together with the baby care books of the time, they informed me that, if I placed him down on his back, he would choke if he brought back any of his feed. There was no doubt about it: any sleeping position other than flat on the stomach was dangerous, and I would be taking risks with his life if I didn’t pay enough attention to this.

Fast forward thirteen years, to the birth of my youngest child. I was told, by every doctor, midwife and nurse we met during routine appointments and at the baby clinic, that lying a baby down on their stomach was irresponsible, as research showed that this increased the risk of SIDS. I was urged to place my baby down on his back: this, they all agreed, was the safest position.

That was twenty-one years ago; I have no idea what is “definitely” the correct way to lie a baby down now.
Such is the stuff of parenting decisions. So much certainty, so much good advice, so much fear of getting it wrong. And these circumstances crop up so frequently, and authoritative wisdom pendulum swings from one extreme to the other so often! One generation is told to establish regular four-hourly feeds from birth, as anything more flexible will result in a spoilt child and lifelong digestive problems, while the next is advised to feed on demand, as denying a baby nourishment as soon as it asks is cruel. Formula milk, we were told, is an immense improvement on nature, a more consistent and complete infant food – but if we believe them, we are soon castigated for not realising that breast is best! One minute the experts are advocating sharing a bed with baby, with the aim of better bonding and increased security, and the next they tell us that such behaviour is irresponsible and dangerous, because we risk smothering the child in our sleep.

These authority figures are no less certain, and no less fickle, when our children are a little older. Send them off to pre-school, they urge: they need the stimulation, and to widen their circle of familiar adults. No, no, they insist not much later: keep them surrounded by the love of their parents, cosy and safe, for another couple of years. Then they inform us that boarding school will teach them independence and self-confidence – although, of course, it will deprive them of the security and parental closeness that best foster independence and self-confidence!

Now, I do understand that scientific knowledge grows by refining a model and bringing it more and more in line with the real world. I do realise that those who worked out that planetary orbits are slightly elliptical were not cancelling out the work of the earlier thinkers who modelled the movement of the earth as a circle around the sun: they were merely making an earlier theory more accurate. And there are scientists who try to use this argument to demolish the feelings of those who mistrust experts in child-care. But this issue is not about refining an earlier assertion; much of the advice of one generation of experts is totally contradicted by that of the next.

Most parents soon realise that they need to pick their own way through the minefield of mutually exclusive and ever-changing authoritative pronouncements. And most “coal-face” experts – those who work with parents and children, such as midwives and health visitors, rather than those who research them from the safety of an ivory tower – are pragmatic about the way that parents do so. Each mother and father have to decide for themselves which advice resonates with them, and which they find distasteful. And because there is no true and enduring certainty, we end up making the decisions that we, personally, can live with, rather than some ideal “right” decision.

But the “ivory tower” experts – those who research and investigate, perhaps with little contact with real families, are often so very sure that their advice is the only “right” way, and hence that anyone who disagrees is “wrong”. And they are the ones who write the books and the research papers, who are asked to proclaim on these topics by newspapers and chat show hosts, whose pronouncements from on high, issued with absolute certainty and authority, are the ones that we hear.

So parenthood can be a very unsupported calling. We feel alone in our uncertainty, surrounded as we are by definitive statements from scientists, doctors and psychologists that cannot possibly be denied – that is, until the next about turn.

Is it any wonder, then, that parents treat such shifting certainties with suspicion? Should it really be a surprise, that we listen attentively, and then go our own way, often in spite of so-called expert advice to the contrary?
If such experts want to regain the confidence of parents, they need to embody one of the most fundamental axioms of science: that everything that we think we know is merely our best understanding at the present time. There have been so many scientific discoveries that have turned what we thought we were certain of on its head, that we should be wary of claiming that we now have the last word on anything. Whatever advice was given to parents fifty years ago was given in good faith, but with hindsight we can see that much of it has now been superseded or overturned by research in the intervening years.

It would be lovely if experts would bear this in mind, when they are irritated by parents’ supposedly illogical refusal to do as they recommend. Such parents, out of sync though they may be with today’s absolute certainty, may well be perfectly in tune with that of tomorrow!