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Parents are increasingly worried that they’re blowing it: It's not their fault.


Figure with too many sources of information
Is too much information actually causing harm?

I hate the term “helicopter parent” —the notion that some parents swoop in too quickly to solve their child’s problems. It’s just too easy to slap this kind of negative label on a parent. I don’t believe for one second that this impulse to swoop in is parents’ fault. In truth, the parenting advice industry has made parents so incredibly worried about so many things that it seems necessary to swoop in quickly. I mean, to read parenting advice, you’d think that every decision you make as a parent has massive and enduring negative impacts. “You’d better get this right or else baaaad things will happen.” No wonder parents are a little quick to act.


Since the dawn of “the childrearing expert” in the late 19th century, parents have been made to feel like they really don’t know what they’re doing and can’t be trusted to make decisions about their child. Is there good, solid information that parents should know? Yes. Can we, as parents, always do better if we have this information? Yes. However, there is a dark side to all of this.


Consumer culture. Dr. Philip Cushman suggests in his book “Constructing the Self, Constructing America” that there are economic incentives to keep individuals doubting themselves. At the simultaneous dawn of both psychology and advertising in the late 1800s, the masses were “educated” about how to be “healthy.” Soap companies and tonic companies used advertising to convince consumers that their usual habits were wrong and what they needed to be “healthy” was their product.


Even today, instincts can’t be trusted and there are millions of products and experts (and books) to fill that gap. Monitors, gadgets, trackers, online courses – we get the clear message that the real knowledge is outside of ourselves and can (and should) be gathered and bought. Let’s just look at the tone of some typical sleep advice:

  • Parents “cave” to their inability to withstand a baby’s crying (something that we’re wired to respond to)

  • Parents create sleep problems and “bad habits” by holding, rocking, or soothing

  • If parents don’t start with sleep training early, the baby will develop ADHD, obesity, or any number of behavioral problems

The message is: “If you just buy this book/program/special crib, you’ll be parenting correctly.”

Look at just how many sleep training “methods” there are out there. LOTS of them. Almost all of them are just a repackaging of the usual Ferber-type graduated checking approach. These are sold under different names as if they are completely separate and brand-new methods. They’re not. Here’s a big secret that the sleep training industry doesn’t want you to know:


There’s really only one method: do less.


You could even make your own method. Yup! It’s seriously not magic (I’m a sleep coach, I know.)


The Guardian columnist, Oliver Burkeman, calls it the “diabolical genius of the baby advice industry.” It whips up your anxiety and worry, makes it impossible to determine which strategies are best, confuses you with conflicting opinions, and then sells you something that cuts through all of the chaos that it created. Genius, right?


A world of risk. Consumer and information culture also identifies and highlights the massive number of risks that parents should avoid—from SIDS to non-optimal brain development to behavioral problems. To be a parent today, it’s all you can do to avoid the minefield of risks (plus, the information makes it seem so easy to blow it.) “Don’t do THAT or you’ll ruin your child’s development long-term.”


I talk to brand new parents every day who think that the choices they’re making about their baby’s sleep now could ruin their chances of ever sleeping well and may doom them to a life of— (I’m not sure)—badness. They are told that if they do X, Y, or Z with their four-week-old, the baby will never learn to…whatever. As a result, parents turn to Google in hopes that they’ll find the information they think will help them avoid these terrible risks and help them do it “right.”


Some refer to this as “intensive parenting” (or “intensive mothering”), making sure you are doing every conceivable thing you can at all times. It’s not necessarily lessons or flashcards or baby Mozart…it’s understanding development, being structured (but not too structured), making sure everything is as good as it can possibly be (meaning YOU are as good as you can possibly be). In our world of access to information, because we can know it means we must know it (and evaluate it and apply it properly—all by ourselves).


Here's my big point:

Intensive parenting wasn’t parents’ idea.

Intensive parenting is a response to a culture that says: “You don’t know what you’re doing. Bad things will happen if you go with your gut. Here’s a product/expert who can tell you the ‘right’ way.” It’s bananas. Our culture sets parents up to be super anxious about every possible threat and then criticizes them when they work hard to avoid those threats.

For you parents of livewires, you are maybe really up a creek. I know you are even more down on yourselves because none of this information works well, even if you really wanted it to. So, I say to you:

Step away from the Google (Instagram, TikTok, Facebook). The answers are probably not there.

Take a moment to tell yourself that even if you don’t feel like you’ve got this, you totally do.

Know that parenting is a journey, not a minefield. It’s a long road. Pace yourself.


Resources
Åström, B. (2015). A narrative of fear: Advice to mothers. Literature and Medicine, 33(1), 113–131. https://doi.org/10.1353/lm.2015.0001
Burkeman, O. (2018, Jan 16). The diabolical genius of the baby advice industry. The Guardian.
Cushman, P. (1996). Constructing the self, Constructing America: A cultural history of psychotherapy. De Capo Press.
Eaves, K. L. (2006). Moms in the middle: Parenting magazines, motherhood texts, and the “Mommy Wars” [Master thesis]. Wichita State University.
Meeussen, L., & Van Laar, C. (2018). Feeling pressure to be a perfect mother relates to parental burnout and career ambitions. Frontiers in Psychology, 9, 2113. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2018.02113
Shortsleeve, C. (2022, Dec 19). Does Baby Sleep-Training Culture Fuel Postpartum Anxiety? Parents.com.
The VOICE Group. (2010). Motherhood, marketization, and consumer vulnerability. Journal of Macromarketing, 30(4), 384–397. https://doi.org/10.1177/0276146710378170

Macall Gordon has a B.S. from Stanford in Human Biology and an M.A. from Antioch University, Seattle in Applied Psychology, where she is currently a Sr. Lecturer in the mental health counseling and art therapy departments. She researches and writes about the relationship between temperament and sleep, and the gap between research and parenting advice. She is a certified pediatric sleep consultant working with parents of alert, non-sleeping children in private practice, as well as on the women’s telehealth platform, Maven Clinic. She comes to this work because she had two sensitive, intense children and she didn’t sleep for 18 years.
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