Expecting and new parents are heavily targeted by people or ads wanting to sell them something. Our 21st century world is dominated by extremely powerful and often quite insidious or difficult-to-identify market forces. Marketing pressures on parents have seriously ramped up in my lifetime.
New parents are a lucrative market because parents are naturally and passionately committed to protecting their babies. We want the best possible developmental trajectories for our little one – cognitively, emotionally, physically, and sleep-related. We want to be the very best parents that we can be. We want to breastfeed. We want to help their baby sleep well and be as settled as possible. Unfortunately, you’ll receive enormous amounts of conflicting advice about how best to do these things.
Historically, there is a relative lack of research into what works for parents and babies when problems arise. Small and large businesses step into this gap and try to sell you products which promise to prevent problems, or to help with them. New parents are targeted by people marketing products which are things, stuff, and by people marketing products which are information packages and programs or services. The people and providers who promote products, whether stuff or programs and services, genuinely believe their own explanations about why you need these products, so it can be hard to figure out what’s going on.
It may surprise you just how much market forces shape not only the products and services parents buy, but the research that is performed, how researchers interpret their own data, and how easy it is to access that research. The phrase ‘evidence-based’ is now used as a marketing tool. But most providers are not trained to understand what it really means to have a research evidence-base supporting their work.
When we look closely, many of the products being sold are not evidence-based, may even make life with baby harder rather than more enjoyable, and may impact negatively on developmental outcomes.
It helps to make decisions about what products you and your baby actually need by thinking about your baby’s ‘environment of evolutionary adaptedness’, that is, the things that your baby evolved to need over our long evolutionary history. These basic biological expectations are:
1. The mother’s breast and milk – unrestricted access, which makes life easier rather than harder (once underlying problems are sorted out);
2. A warm and loving adult’s body – frequent or constant contact, which also provides irregular postural stimulation against gravity during the day;
3. Responsive care from a loving adult when the baby communicates that things aren’t quite right;
4. Rich sensory-motor experiences for large parts of the day, that is, lots of input across the senses from both the physical or natural environment and from the social environment. We might call this environmental enrichment; I have called it sensory nourishment for short.
The latest research clearly shows that these four factors not only improve developmental outcomes, but make the days with a baby more enjoyable, rather than more burdensome. This is because if our baby’s ancient evolutionary needs are met (and any underlying clinical problems properly addressed), babies tend to be dialled down and easier to care for.
I’ll share with you some ideas about how these evolutionary needs might help you decide what products are worthwhile investing in. Actually, it seems to me that you’ll experiment. You might buy a range of things, some of which turn out to be helpful and some less so. But experimenting is a normal part of the journey!
Products which are stuff
Stuff your baby really needs
1. Items that support basic hygiene and baby’s temperature regulation:
i. Nappies, ideally 85% biodegradable disposable nappies if you can possibly afford it, or cloth nappies. I personally don’t promote the approach to early potty training known as Elimination Communication. I have reasons for that, which I won’t discuss here.
ii. Soft (non-prickly) loose-fitting garments
a. T-shirt until the umbilical cord separates
b. Bodysuits: snap-crotch, onesies
c. Socks or booties, depending on the climate
iii. Soft (non-prickly) blankets
iv. Non-alcohol wipes or very soft soap for nappy area (for use when necessary only)
v. Barrier cream such sudocrem for the nappy area at night, a light balm for during day
vi. A bowl of some sort for bathing (which doesn’t have to be every day) prior to baby being ready to use the family’s bath tub or shower
2. Car capsule fitted to comply with your country’s regulations, to bring baby home or drive around safely
3. Baby carrier (since the body of a loving adult is the baby’s primary home)
i. A wrap or ring sling which holds baby vertically against you in the first weeks
ii. Soft structured carriers once you and the baby are ready
Avoid developmental dysplasia of the hips and airway obstruction by using the TICKS safety guidelines https://raisingchildren.net.au/newborns/safety/equipment-furniture/baby-carrier-sling-safety
iii. For most of us, baby carrying devices include a pram or stroller. For some families, the carrier is all they need early on
4. Sleeping arrangement that minimises risk of Sudden Unexpected Death in Infancy or Sudden Infant Death Syndrome
i. Supine (baby on back, not side or tummy – very important)
ii. Bed-sharing in a way that minimises risk (see basisonline.org.uk for information and photographs) which for some families is all they need
iii. Bassinet, cot or side-car in the same room as parent. Most families move through a range of sleeping arrangement options in the night
Other stuff that is sensible and useful for life with your new baby
· Breastfeeding bras + soft pads
· Portable nappy change mattress
· Heavy rug or quilt to place baby on the floor
· Bag for carrying nappies, change of baby’s clothes and other items
Examples of what you are unlikely to need, and why not
Breastfeeding chair with solid arms
Might undermine breastfeeding success, because solid chair arms often interfere with fit and hold
May worsen risk of nipple pain and damage due to moisture associated skin damage
Commonly undermine breastfeeding success, because pillows on the lap interfere with fit and hold
Hakaas may disrupt fit and hold; plastic applications to the nipple and breast risk of nipple pain and damage due to effects of moisture over time
Breast pump – before the birth
Rent or buy a double-pump after the birth if you need it; by then you’ll have a better feel for the kind of pump that is necessary or for what you want
In my research papers, I have lists of products which are recommended to breastfeeding women but which have been shown not to work!
Swaddling muslin or love-to-dream jumpsuits
Babies don’t necessarily sleep better overall when wrapped or swaddled, despite what you might hear. Startling is normal in young babies and won’t interfere with sleep when the baby’s sleep regulators are working well. Babies need to be unwrapped for breastfeeding; wrapping baby up again may cause disruption at night without benefit
Sleep positioners, pillows, and cot bumpers
Increased risk of SIDS
Possible negative (sensory-motor) developmental effects
White noise machines
The belief that sleep associations improve infant sleep misunderstands the actual stimulus for sleep, which is high sleep pressure
Low sensory environment around the cot
May make baby more unsettled since babies need rich sensory nourishment to stay dialled down
Sensory-motor development or to settle the baby
Activity gyms and mobiles
Only occupy babies for very short times inside the house – babies need much richer sensory experiences overall
Bumbo floor seats
Possible negative (motor) developmental effects
Possible negative (motor) developmental effects
Products which are information packages and services
Primary healthcare in Australia is a small business model, so health professionals and providers, whether traditional healthcare provision or complementary medicine practitioners, are competing for the parent dollar in order to make a living or accrue wealth. This competition for your attention is dramatically amplified by social media.
I recommend you ask yourself the following when it comes to the various programs and providers you see being marketed.
1. Is this approach genuinely supported by research? That is, has this approach been detailed as a theoretical framework and then evaluated in peer reviewed and published studies?
2. If the person has done their own research, promoting themselves as a researcher in the absence of a university role or postgraduate qualifications, be aware that the program is likely to be one person’s cherry-picked selection of strategies, rather than genuine translation of existing evidence into a clinical program or education package, which is then evaluated
3. If the person providing the program promotes themselves an educator, check out that they actually have qualifications as a teacher
4. If the program looks very much like an older pre-existing program, but the pre-existing program isn’t acknowledged, ask yourself why. Any ethical researcher acknowledges pre-existing work. Failure to acknowledge sources is driven by the desire to make money and is unethical.
5. How aggressive is the business’s marketing practices? How ethical?
6. Who benefits financially from this program? Is it an individual and her business, or a non-profit? Of course, there’s no problem with someone aiming to make a living from offering a program or service – it just helps to be aware of context as you make decisions.
I hope these thoughts are useful as you decide what things and programs to buy!
Dr Pamela Douglas
CEO Possums & Co.
Associate Professor (Adjunct), School of Nursing and Midwifery, Griffith University
Senior Lecturer, General Practice Clinical Unit, The University of Queensland