Problematizing infant safety in the world of natural parenting

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There has never been a safer time or place to be an infant and small child than 2016 in industrialized countries. Ironically, there has never been greater anxiety about the physical, emotional and intellectual status of those same infants and small children.

Why is there an extraordinary disconnect between reality and anxiety? You can thank the cultural conceit of “natural parenting” for problematizing infant and child health … at the very same historical moment when infant and child health are extraordinarily good.

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Natural parenting problematizes infant safety in order to pathologize women who don’t conform.[/pullquote]

Perinatal mortality, infant mortality, and child mortality are at historic lows. Vaccine preventable diseases have been nearly vanquished. Rates of sudden infant death syndrome are falling. Congenital defects like heart disease can be treated. Malnutrition and vitamin deficiencies are rare. Foods and medications are safer than ever because of government oversight.

But you’d never know that if you are part of the natural parenting culture, which justifies its intrusiveness into maternal choice by promoting fear in regard to infant and child health. Natural parenting advocates inflate risks of rare events to monstrous proportions or invent theoretical risks that have never been seen in real life.

For example, childbirth is inherently dangerous, but has been made dramatically safer by the liberal use of obstetric interventions. Yet to hear natural childbirth advocates tell it, childbirth is inherently safe and any dangers that exist are caused by technology.

Obstetricians are desperate to prevent brain injuries from lack of oxygen. Natural childbirth advocates pretend that the placenta is a miracle organ that never deviates from perfection and that “drugs” used to control labor pain threaten neonatal health.

Infant formula has never been safer or more nutritious. Yet to hear lactivists tell it, breastmilk is lifesaving and formula is deadly.

Vaccines have never been safer or more effective (as evidenced by the bottoming out of incidences of childhood diseases), but anti-vaxxers utterly ignore both medicine and history in denying the public health triumph of universal vaccination. Instead they obsess about rare or even fabricated vaccine injuries.

Food has never been safer. Natural parenting advocates have never been more afraid of food, wasting money on organic produce, blithering about GMOs, and dosing their children with unregulated supplements.

Pediatrics has never been safer or more effective at preventing disease and suffering. Natural parenting advocates have never been more sure that nonsense — homeopathy, cranio-sacral therapy, and herbal preparations — is the key to good health.

Why is there such a tremendous disconnect between reality and belief? Two reasons: privilege and problematizing.

The privilege issue is distressingly blatant. The only fears that count in the world of natural parenting are the fears of Western, white, well off parents.

Poor children and children of color face a plethora of truly life-threatening issues including hunger, lack of access to healthcare and gun violence. Poor children and children of color die each and every day because of these problems, but many privileged Western, white well off parents could care less. They oppose life saving free school meals, Obamacare and sensible gun regulations. Instead they are preoccupied by birth plans, brelfies and baby slings, though none of those do or could save lives.

What’s even more outrageous is that they are so insulated by privilege that they actually believe they are promoting safety by fetishizing birth, breastfeeding, organic food, vaccine opposition and homeopathy.

Using and misusing the language of science, natural parenting advocates problematize infant and child safety.

The natural childbirth industry of midwives, doulas and childbirth educators claim it is evidence based when the truth is that it is based on no evidence at all. They publish papers in industry trade papers disguised as scientific journals like the Lamaze International’s Birth: Issues in Perinatal Care.

Lactivists howl that low breastfeeding rates compromise infant health despite the fact that breastfeeding rates have no correlation at all with infant health. Infant mortality rates dropped precipitously through the 20th century despite the fact that for most of that time period breastfeeding rates dropped like a rock. Indeed, the countries with the highest infant mortality rates in the world have the highest breastfeeding rates.

Attachment parenting advocates have hijacked attachment theory (which postulates that children need only a “good enough” mother) in order to problematize infant attachment. The truth is that mother-infant attachment happens spontaneously, easily and is not contingent on any specific behaviors. In contrast, attachment parents obsess about promoting “bonding” through ritualized behaviors like baby wearing.

The philosophy of natural parenting is a “regime of truth” that has little to do with infants and children and a great deal to do with controlling women’s bodies and women’s lives.

As Sunna Simmonardottir writes in Constructing the attached mother in the “world’s most feminist country”:

…[T]he discourse on attachment has become another site for the medicalization of motherhood and maternal emotion… The role for women as mothers within attachment theory is considered to be narrow and conservative, promoting beliefs that are contrary to the interests of women. Cleary states that any feminist consideration of attachment theory should be mindful of the way it “not only describes but actively prescribes the nature of our psychological lives and ills”. This prescriptive nature of attachment theory has in turn led to the objectification and pathologization of women and presented women with the need to monitor themselves when it comes to their behavior toward their children.

By promoting fear about their children’s well-being, the philosophy of natural parenting causes women to tightly regulate their behavior so it conforms with the “rules” of natural parenting and to pathologize and blame themselves when they fail in conforming to those rules. Hence the outpouring of guilt and recrimination for epidurals, C-sections, formula feeding and other deviations from natural parenting diktat.

In other words, natural parenting problematizes infant safety in order to pathologize women who don’t conform.

  • Natural childbirth problematizes pain relief in childbirth in order to pathologize women who don’t accept that pain ought to be part of mothering.
  • Lactivism problematizes infant formula in order to pathologize women who don’t breastfeed.
  • Attachment parenting problematizes maternal independence in order to pathologize women who think there is more to life than mothering.

Why has natural parenting become popular despite the fact that it imagines threats to children that don’t exist?

Simmonardottir notes:

… According to Hays, the answer lies in the way the theory fits so neatly with our pre-existing cultural beliefs about the appropriate role of the mother and “operates so effectively as a means to keep women in their place”. Attachment theory “makes sense” for us as it taps into pre-existing ideas about the essential nature of men and women as well as the biological and evolutionary purpose of women’s reproductive abilities, where the relationship between mother and child is made to seem biologically determined but not socially constructed and historically specific…

And, of course, it reinforces the privilege of the privileged:

Additionally, it is important to acknowledge how middle-class, hetero-normative, and Anglo-centric norms of child rearing are assumed within the discourse of attachment theory, making it impossible for certain groups of women to discursively position themselves within the narrative of “good mothering”…

The bottom line is that children are not facing unprecedented threats to health that can only be ameliorated by natural parenting; they’ve never been healthier. Natural parenting problematizes infant/child health and safety in order to enforce a “regime of truth” regarding the appropriate role of women, robbing women of the opportunity to make the choices for themselves and their families that they deem best.