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"Science of Mom" author on evidence-based parenting

Overwhelming amounts of information, well-meaning but sometimes contradictory advice from friends and family, and doctors' guidance that may not always mesh with personal instincts can leave new parents bewildered about what's best for their baby.

Alice Callahan, who has a Ph.D. in nutritional biology and spent two years investigating fetal physiology before becoming a mother herself, also found the mass of competing advice frustrating.

Using her background as a research scientist, she began to search for solid scientific answers to the big health questions of the infant years. As she blogged about the experience, she found many other new parents had similar questions.


Callahan calls her approach "science-based parenting." She combed through hundreds of research studies to help guide parents on the major choices they'll face in a baby's first year on feeding, sleep, vaccines and more. Her process of discovery and the results are featured in her new book, "The Science of Mom: A Research-Based Guide to Your Baby's First Year."

Callahan spoke with CBS News about her findings. (This conversation has been condensed and edited.)

Q: How did you transition from a career in science and as a researcher to writing about early childhood and parenting?

A: When my daughter was born I felt like I wanted to spend more time with her, so I left the research lab, at least temporarily.

I felt good about being able to be with her. But when I left academia, I really missed the workplace and I missed studying science and talking and writing about science. So I just started to blog as an outlet for that and at the same time I was sort of bombarded with questions that I think all new parents have: questions about the best way to help our babies get good sleep and how to feed our babies and how to keep them healthy.

I was really dismayed by the quality of the information I found on the Internet because I really wanted to know that I was looking at science-based information and not just a lot of opinions from random people. So I started using the skill-set I had as a researcher to dig into the research literature.

Let's talk about the science-based parenting you refer to in the book. The book is called "The Science of Mom" -- is it that you're approaching motherhood in a scientific way or is it that we are looking to science for the answers as parents?

First of all, we have to recognize that there are many different types of parenting questions, especially in the first year, starting during pregnancy and then thinking about childbirth and the first year of a baby's life.

There are actually a lot of questions parents have that affect our children's health. Things like choices around childbirth or how we feed our babies or vaccines -- things like that are really health decisions. So there's a lot of science, a lot of medicine behind those choices. I think science is really helpful with those questions and parents have a lot of anxiety about making sure that they get these things right.

If you search for information [on the Internet], you'll find a lot of contradictory and inaccurate information. Particularly when we're dealing with questions of children's health, we really want to look towards science.

I think part of parenting with science, or evidence-based parenting, is recognizing what we do know and what we feel really confident in because there's so much science behind it. And then also recognizing what we don't know. That's part of science, too.

You have science training and can go through these scientific studies, but the average person wouldn't really have the time or ability to do that. What do you say to parents who are seeing conflicting advice about what to do in their baby's first year of life?

I think it's really tough as a parent today because we have access to so much information. There is conflicting information and there's inaccurate information in there.

If I'm searching for information on the Internet, I like to start with the sites that I know are really trustworthy, like a site that comes from a children's hospital or a medical organization or a university or a governmental organization. I know that's usually going to give me the consensus on a topic that's backed by science.

The problem with a lot of those sites is they often don't explain 'why' very well. Or they don't tell you what science is behind that, even if it's good advice, if you're curious and you want to learn more. You might find that there's not enough information there.

If you dig into other sites like blogs, then you want to be really careful about asking yourself: What are the credentials of the person who's writing? Do they have some expertise in this area? Are they giving you peer-reviewed scientific research?

You address several hot topics in your book that are widely debated. At one point you write about breastfeeding, "The frenzy over this one study shows just how personal science can feel." I thought it was an interesting entrée into the idea that a lot of parenting choices can be about how you feel.

That's a great example. Even if our science says that breastfeeding is beneficial to babies, some women when they breastfeed feel -- and I wrote about this in the book, there's studies that back this up -- that some women feel more anxious when they breastfeed or they just really struggle with it because it causes them pain, or it may be that the challenges they're facing with breastfeeding are exacerbating postpartum depression. Those are very real experiences that women can have and they're documented in studies.

I think that we have to recognize that that emotional response is really important, especially during those early weeks and months of parenting. It's really important to take care of the mom as well as the baby. Because the mom is, of course, so important to taking care of the baby and giving the baby that really secure and safe environment.

"Science of Mom" author Alice Callahan with her baby. Courtesy of Alice Callahan

So, yeah, I think a lot of parenting choices are very personal. There's not necessarily right or wrong answers to a lot of the questions I discuss in the book. But I think as parents we want to make informed choices and it's really important to be aware of the sort of balance of risks and benefits with every choice.

It's also important to recognize that those risks and benefits might be very personal and breastfeeding is a great example of that. I think every mom has to make that choice for herself based on her own personal factors.

I think it's OK to recognize that your risk/benefit analysis is different than the mom you meet at the park. And you can each be making a science-based decision that may be different.

You look at a lot of research on the benefits of breastfeeding. Can you summarize that for us?

When I look at the literature on the benefits of breastfeeding or how the outcomes are different between babies that are breastfeed and babies that are formula fed, there's some parts of that evidence base that are really strong. Those parts are mostly in that area of breastfeeding reduces the risk of infections in early infancy -- things like ear infections or gastrointestinal infections that cause diarrhea. It's not a huge difference in developed countries, but there is good evidence that breastfeeding is beneficial in that way.

A lot of the other benefits of breastfeeding that we hear about, if you look at the evidence, you look at all the studies together, you see that there's a lot of contradictory results. Part of the reason for that is that it's very difficult to account for all the confounding factors, which are the factors that come into play in different families. When we're comparing breastfed versus formula-fed babies we can't do these randomized controlled trials, which would be the best way to answer these questions from a science-based perspective.

We, instead, have to do these observational studies where we look at babies that were breastfed and babies that were formula fed and see if they turn out differently. But there are a lot of underlying factors that might be different in those two groups to start with. That's some of the limitations we have to be aware of when we're looking at those studies.

A lot of them are contradictory or don't show some of these long-term benefits like protection against obesity or asthma and so I think we really need to be honest about that. It doesn't mean the benefits of breastfeeding aren't important because they are.

For parents where breastfeeding is not working out, for whatever reason, it's important for them to not feel like they're dooming their child to all these poor outcomes for the rest of their life, because obviously the research doesn't really support that.

It's not surprising because there's so many factors that go into our long-term health and breastfeeding is probably not impacting our kids decades down the road.

Sleep is also something parents think and worry about a lot. I though some of the information you had was surprising, given that the American Academy of Pediatrics has the campaign "Back to Sleep" and says no bed-sharing. You offer a more rounded view of sleep.

This is a really tough area. There are limitations to the research [on preventing sudden infant death syndrome, or SIDS].

A lot of the SIDS deaths that occur with bed-sharing do have these other factors involved, like maybe alcohol use or heavy bedding, or sometimes it might be a parent sleeping on a couch or a chair with a baby and not a flat surface. So those factors are really important. The studies attempt to control for those, but it's really difficult to do.

Studies show there's this increased risk of bed-sharing with babies, and that's especially true with young babies. So I would say that, yes, that's evidence-based to say let's try not to bed-share with babies. Let's put them in a separate sleep surface next to ours. Our best evidence [is] that's the safest place for babies to sleep.

But in that chapter I acknowledge that real life sometimes changes those decisions that we make. An example that I give is that if you're really determined not to bring your baby into bed with you, so you end up sitting up on a couch or chair feeding your baby in the middle of the night and you fall asleep in that position with your baby -- that's a much more dangerous place to be than on a bed that you've very carefully arranged to be as safe as you can without pillows close to the baby and without blankets close to the baby and without swaddling your baby, without another adult right next to the baby.

I think it's also important to recognize that we can never eliminate that risk. What we know about SIDS is that some babies are predisposed to it. So we want to do everything we can to keep them safe. The best thing is to put your baby on a separate sleep surface. But, if you're choosing to bed-share, I think you want to do as much as you can to make it safe.

In the chapter on food, when to introduce solids and more on nutrition, I though it was funny that you said your fancy Ph.D. in nutrition didn't really help you. So what's the average mother to do?

What I mean by that is that I didn't learn all these specifics about feeding babies during my Ph.D. program. When I really sat down to think about what makes sense in terms of feeding baby, that background certainly helped me to make sense of the science.

There's so much different advice on feeding babies, particularly online when you get outside the sort of mainstream nutrition advice.

I think a lot of parents aren't that interested today in following what's been the tradition in the last couple of generations of starting with rice cereal and moving on to pureed fruits and vegetables and then slowly adding in more texture.

A lot of parents are more interested in feeding their babies more whole foods and maybe making their own foods for their babies. That's great, but there's not a whole lot of science-based guidance about what types of foods are most important for babies.

So that fortified cereal that's been sort of the foundation of the advice about starting solids for a while, the reason why it's fortified is because iron is so important to babies. It means that you really need to pay attention to nutrition and make sure that you're offering your baby foods that are high in iron.

That's not that difficult to do, but I think sometimes that message doesn't get across to parents. They think they're giving something better for their baby by offering more whole foods. But if they're just eating fruits and vegetables, the baby's not getting the nutrients that he or she really needs.

You're going to encounter a lot of people who say that traditional advice or my instinct is a little different than what the science is telling me.

I think it's possible to have both. I do think that instinct is important, particularly the way you sort of adjust your choices based on your child's personality or individual needs.

But I still want to know what the science says. Even if in a particular situation I might disregard it and say I'm going to do what feels right. In particular, if it's a decision that's going to affect the health of my child, then I want to make sure that that's a science-based decision.

The choice to vaccinate your child is a really useful one I think. Because, I write in the book, if we just relied on our instincts to tell us whether or not we should let the pediatric nurse stick the needle into our child's thigh, you just wouldn't do it. It's going to cause your baby pain and you can't, in that moment, see all the science behind that choice.

That's the kind of choice where you really need to step back and look at all the science and think critically about it, not just make an emotionally-driven choice. You know that it's going to provide your child with long-term protection and probably prevent discomfort in the future. That's the kind of thing that science can help us do.

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