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'Science Of Mom': Scientist Sorts Through Studies So Parents Don't Have To


If you're a new parent, you've probably been bombarded with advice from friends, family, of course from publishers hawking their how-to books. Alice Callahan has written one of those how-to books, but hers is a little different. It's from the standpoint of a research scientist diligently trying to sort through the piles of studies, evidence and so-called evidence now available to every mother and father with Internet access. Dr. Alice Callahan has a Ph.D. in nutrition science, and she studied fetal physiology. Her new book is called "The Science Of Mom," also the title of her blog. She joins us now from member station KLCC in Eugene, Ore. Welcome to the program, Alice.

ALICE CALLAHAN: Thanks, Rachel. It's great to be here.

MARTIN: So I remember this feeling, completely overwhelmed, when I was pregnant for the first time. All this information is out there about what to do and what not to do. And it was hard to make sense of which sources to consider reliable and which to just kind of discard. Before we get into the particulars, do you have some overarching principles that can help new parents sort through all these resources now?

CALLAHAN: Oh, definitely. I think that first, start with websites that come from, say, a university or a children's hospital or a major medical organization or a governmental organization like the CDC. And generally from those you'll get good summaries of the scientific consensus and good evidence-based information. And then there are articles that you might find from the news media. So when you're looking at those kinds of sources you have to be a little bit more careful, and make sure that the author has some professional credentials or is a really good science journalist and has brought outside input into their story.

MARTIN: All right, let's dig into some of the specifics that you write about. We're getting right into it quick. I want to talk about cutting the umbilical cord. Now, I had no idea there was anything to think about here...

CALLAHAN: (Laughter).

MARTIN: But you say there is and that timing matters. Explain how.

CALLAHAN: We have emerging research that's coming out just in the last decade or two, I think, that's really telling us that we've been cutting the umbilical cord immediately for a while now, and maybe we should rethink that practice and wait for a minute or two to let blood that's in the umbilical cord drain towards the baby. And the baby gets a little extra blood at birth. And in pre-term infants, this is really important. For full-term infants, it's not as important, but it does give them this boost in their iron stores that helps them later in infancy when iron deficiency can sometimes be a problem.

MARTIN: I want to move on and talk about the vitamin K shot. This is, again, something I had no idea that newborn babies were supposed to get until I was actually in the hospital, and they said, now it's now time for your newborn's vitamin K shots. Aren't babies - aren't they born with everything that they need?

CALLAHAN: Right, so actually babies are born with really low amounts of vitamin K in their bodies, so we give babies a shot of vitamin K at birth because vitamin K is really important to allow your blood to clot. So without vitamin K, there's a rare but potentially devastating disorder called vitamin K deficiency bleeding, when babies can hemorrhage inside their bodies. And it's particularly dangerous if it happens in the brain. And, again, it is really rare, but getting this single shot of vitamin K at birth protects them from that.

MARTIN: OK, another big question out there, co-sleeping, which, for non-parents out there, that just means sleeping in the same bed with your baby. This was surprisingly controversial as I started getting into this literature when I was pregnant for the first time. Is there a scientific consensus on sharing a bed with your baby?

CALLAHAN: You know, this is a really tough topic, and it's controversial among scientists even. I think the consensus is that probably the safest place for a baby to sleep is in a bassinet or crib next to your bed. We have studies that show an increased risk of SIDS to bringing your baby into bed with you.

MARTIN: SIDS, or Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.

CALLAHAN: Right, so that's something that's important for parents to know. On the flip side, I think if the only way that your baby seems to sleep is on your body...

MARTIN: (Laughter).

CALLAHAN: Or right next to your body...

MARTIN: I know that one.

CALLAHAN: And you are so determined - right? (laughter) - you're so determined to not bring your baby into your bed that you end up sitting up in the middle of the night with your baby on a plush chair or a couch, and you're feeding her baby. If you fall asleep in that situation, it's far, far more dangerous for the baby than falling asleep in a bed that you have carefully arranged to be as safe as you can.

MARTIN: I mean, have you come up against this tension between science and just the everyday commonsense parenting instincts that we all have as parents? Have there been moments when you have thought to yourself, oh, science tells me I should do this...

CALLAHAN: (Laughter).

MARTIN: But my gut tells me I should do something different.

CALLAHAN: Sure, yeah, and, you know, science is going to give us averages and show us correlations between different factors. But it can't necessarily tell us exactly what to do with our baby in the middle of the night.

MARTIN: Alice Callahan, her new book and her parenting blog are both called "The Science Of Mom." She joined us from Eugene, Ore. Thanks so much for talking with us, Alice.

CALLAHAN: Thanks, Rachel. This was really great. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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