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Debunking Parenting Media with Polly Palumbo, Ph.D.

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We were so excited to track down Polly Palumbo, Ph.D., for an interview to share with you all! Polly is a research psychologist by training and experience; one who many of you may already be familiar with as the founder of Momma Data, which monitors claims in the media about the latest scientific evidence on children and parenting. As a research consultant, Polly reviews and decodes studies for parents, educators, journalists and organizations. In the past she has conducted and collaborated on numerous research projects in psychology, health and education across academia, government and the private sector and has co-authored articles in leading academic journals and texts. As an outspoken critic of the parenting media, the only thing she enjoys better than reading a great study is debunking a bad one. It's her mission to flush out misinformation in the media and coach parents how to judge news and evidence about kids.

 At The Baby Box Co. it's important to us that we put forth well researched information for our followers, and you'd be hard pressed to find a more qualified researcher than Polly. We hope you all find this interview as fascinating as we did and please reach out to Polly on Twitter @MommaData with follow-up questions or simply to join her savvy Momma Data community.

Please tell us a little bit about yourself and your background. What inspired you to start Momma Data? 

My first child was born 14 years ago near the beginning of the scare that vaccines caused autism. As a research psychologist, I spent my days in a lab conducting studies, mentoring students, writing and teaching. Basically I lived and breathed research, some of it involving children and adolescents. By night I caught up on the latest parenting and child health news. Naturally I turned to the empirical evidence, the journal articles for answers. I couldn’t help but notice a disconnect between the science and what the media reported not just on autism and vaccines but practically any topic. 

So much news and advice lacked nuance, context and just wasn’t right. At times it was simply flat-out wrong (and still is today). So I started to write about the latest scientific discoveries about kids, trying to make it engaging and accurate. Parents shouldn’t have to put up with bad or empirically-questionable advice and recommendations. Nor should they have to deal with boring material or scientific mumbo jumbo to keep informed. As we’ve seen with recent measles outbreaks not just this year but over past years, there are real lasting consequences to the media (and child health professionals) not portraying the empirical evidence accurately. Over the years I discovered it’s not just parents craving better information but professionals and journalists too so I started working with a number of organizations to help demystify scientific research, empirical evidence and statistics about children. There’s a real need for this clarity as science has become increasingly complex and quantitative in addition to the growing body of experts and opinions.  

There's so much information available to parents nowadays, it can be overwhelming to decipher what's accurate and important.

What are a few of the most pervasive parenting myths you currently see the media propagating? 

Thanks to the new media and the Internet in particular parents have more information than ever, more than they could ever skim between homework, laundry, speech therapy, travel sports, piano and extracurricular activities we so often feel compelled to have our kids participate in. All this advice and news perpetuates the notion parents can and should take efforts to control every aspect of their child’s emotional, social, cognitive and physical development from before pregnancy (e.g., pre-natal vitamins, limited mercury-exposure). When so many studies get coverage complete with dramatic headlines and exaggerated results, the covert, sometimes overt message is that a responsible parent should vigilantly attend and intervene at every opportunity or else there will be unfortunate consequences. 

While parents can influence their kids’ lives in countless ways, any one decision or behavior is not as great, meaningful or long-lasting as the media and even health experts or officials portray it. The benefits and risks routinely get distorted. A perfect example is breastfeeding, often referred to as the best thing a mother can do for her child. This sounds like breast milk far outweighs any single thing in a child’s life. It also suggests a mother who doesn’t breastfeed at all or possibly even not long enough has already failed. This is just not true and as a psychologist and a mother of three (all breastfed) children it strikes me as deeply unfair and ungrounded in terms of all the other ways in which parents can help their child’s health and well-being. 

The benefits of early childhood cognitive or educational enrichment also generally get exaggerated. We read or hear about the advantages of toddler reading programs, sign language, a bilingual home, early music exposure (Baby Mozart), etc. It’s true that a portion of children do benefit significantly in the long run from extra tutoring or special interventions but it’s because they started off at a disadvantage. Most kids don’t reap the same rewards if only because they began with a certain level of skill or experience and the supplemental efforts don’t make much difference. This is not to say parents can’t or shouldn’t teach their babies to read or sign. Go ahead. These endeavors can be fun and maybe even useful but not necessarily the means to early reading or an impressive vocabulary. 

 How would you advise parents to avoid becoming confused and overwhelmed by all the noise out there?

Keeping informed can be a real challenge with so many places to get news and so many people appearing as experts or authorities. Too many choices can be stressful and yes, confusing, as is the case with conflicting advice, a pet peeve of many parents and rightly so. One week video games turn kids into aggressive, impulsive sociopaths, the next week, techno geeks with finely-honed spatial- and fine-motor skills. Pregnant women should eat fish. Pregnant women shouldn’t eat fish. Only the longer, more detailed articles will bother to explain why studies appear to conflict (e.g., different age groups studied, outcome measures). So I recommend a critical, skeptical stance in the sense of asking lots of questions of every claim, every piece of advice and study. For instance, ask what else could account for a study’s findings. Come up with several different explanations, it can be quick and amusing, and see if the research addressed those possibilities. Also know the media will likely 1) play up the risks and benefits of the study, 2) find an expert to praise the findings, 3) not find an expert who is blasé or concerned about the results, 4) find a mother with a dramatic story that confirms the results and 5) try a number of other tricks to keep you glued to their content. 

In your opinion, what are some of the most interesting studies regarding children's health that you've seen lately?

Great question. I’d love to see more experts answer this question in a honest manner, that is, without trying to promote their own work or research focus. Personally I find many areas fascinating like epigenetics, the study of how the environment, say, nutrition or stress, alters the expression of genes across generations without changing the DNA. So through my diet today I might be “turning off” the switch for cancer and it might stay off for generations. So even though I’ve passed along the cancer gene, I might have prevented its expression in my grandkids and great grand-kids. Of course I could also be switching it on, the field hasn’t progressed much beyond mice but I’ll stayed tuned. So far though these studies seem like science fiction and I react to new findings with a mixture of awe, hope and worry that I might be messing up future generations. 

The development of allergies, food allergies in particular remains a knotty, dense and at times controversial area with significant and severe real world implications where we’ve seen real swing just in the past decade or so in terms of the official advice and the research findings. For several years women were told to avoid nuts during pregnancy, breastfeeding and their child’s first few years (i.e. early avoidance) then evidence started trickling in that this approach not only wasn’t preventing allergies but maybe backfiring and producing allergies. Now there’s the idea that there might be windows or key periods in life, likely very early on, when exposure to specific foods matters in preventing (and creating) allergies – and these periods vary by food.

What to eat and not eat during breastfeeding is a puzzle many mothers face.

Throw breast milk and formula into the equation and all the complexity that research entails, both substances with mixed results in terms of preventing and triggering food allergies and wow, it becomes a highly intricate and crucial puzzle or really series of puzzles. I have several food allergies and so have been following this issue. I ate peanut butter in my first pregnancy, then the recommendations changed and I refrained from nuts for the next one. By the third time around, the evidence was starting to change and I ate a bit. None of my kids have nut allergies or any food allergies, knock wood but I’m still surprised. 

The most curious studies, perhaps the ones I really want to see are the ones we don’t have and in fact, can’t do for logistical or ethical reasons. For instance, I’d love to know if randomly assigning some women to breastfeed and some to formula feed would produce any significant differences not just in the first few months of life but let’s say first five years maybe ten years. I’d throw in not just physical health outcomes but cognitive, social and emotional ones too. Wouldn’t that be something to behold? One of the problems with breastfeeding research remains the differences between women who breastfeed and those who do not, in other words factors that might be responsible for any supposed breastfeeding benefits. 

 We noticed that you wrote an article about the Finnish tradition of baby boxes, which of course were the inspiration behind our company. What are your thoughts on taking the baby box tradition beyond Finland, and what do you think can be done to maximize the benefits that it might provide? 

First off I have great respect for your mission. While there has been tremendous progress in reducing infant mortality over the past couple decades, over 4 million infants die each year before their first birthdays, and a large percentage of those in the first months and many deaths are preventable with just minor actions like the cheap suction device that helps infants take their first breath. It costs less than a dollar. The factors behind their deaths are complicated and vary by continent, country and even here in the US, socio-economic status, but certainly one of the most critical ones across the globe remains access to pre-natal care. In Finland, pregnant women have to visit a doctor or pre-natal clinic to receive one of the boxes. Surely any attempt to get women pre-natal care would be beneficial. In this wealthy nation there are still as you know pregnant women who can’t easily get that care or who need support in that regard. Anything you can do to help them or new mothers adjust, even if it’s just helping to make motherhood a positive experience, should have benefits.

An expecting mother receives her Baby Box from The Baby Box Co. as part of her Alaskan community's maternal health program.

I don’t discount the possibility that part of the beauty of the Finnish boxes is the message that Finnish moms and their babies matter. It sends hope and though it’s difficult to pin down quantitatively speaking, I like to think it does matter. Thank you for making a difference.  


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