The problem with the ‘happy mom = less colicky baby’ headlines

Joy Victory is Deputy Managing Editor of She tweets as @thejoyvictory.

As if having a newborn wasn’t challenging enough, some news headlines last week erroneously implied that research now shows moms better be happy–or be in happy relationships–or they’ll face hours on end of a crying baby:

I know colic all too well–many parents do. It’s a very typical–and very taxing–torturous rite of passage for some new parents, with estimates of relentless crying affecting anywhere from 25 to 40% of all babies in their first month of life.

less colicky babyIf you’ve been in the tear-stained trenches, you were probably as unsurprised as I was to read the findings from this study, which looked at the rate of colic (as self reported by mothers–it wasn’t objectively confirmed) with various levels of social and emotional support and happiness the mother reported she had during pregnancy and in the first month of her baby’s life.

The not-so-surprising summary? Higher levels of “relationship happiness”–particularly with partners–was associated with lower rates of colic.

The keyword here being “associated.”

Association does not equal causation. This study did not–and could not–prove that the more social and partner happiness a mom reports during and immediately after pregnancy, the less fussy her baby will be. That’s due to the main weakness of observational research like this: It can detect patterns, but it can’t detect cause-and-effect relationships.

In this study, for example, researchers also saw that single moms reported the lowest rates of colic, directly at odds with the summation that partner support matters a whole lot.

Had they asked moms, they also might have found that watching reruns of The Simpsons was more associated with colic. This doesn’t mean babies hate Bart, it just means there’s a lot of patterns and associations out there, and it takes further, more rigorous experimental, controlled trials to tease out the signal from the noise.

To hedge against this uncertainty, some of the headlines threw in a “may” or “might,” e.g., “How your unhappy relationship might be making your baby miserable.” The problem with this kind of headline is that the opposite is still true–“your unhappy relationship might not be making your baby miserable.”

And such headlines, despite their qualifiers, imply that one factor caused the other in a way that’s simply not supported by the evidence.

All of these headlines are not just misstating the research, they’re also potentially harmful to bedraggled new parents, particularly mothers, who despite all the effort in the world, may not be very capable of feeling happiness from their relationships–postpartum depression, maternal complications, infant complications and/or any of the other common, complex challenges can make the first few weeks feel interminable.

As the writer of the CafeMom story pointed out (whose story, by the way, was the most refreshing to read; the rest felt like slightly upcycled versions of the news release), “honestly, new moms are already stressed, exhausted, and overwhelmed — the last thing they need is to feel like marital bickering or their lack of trustworthy childcare is giving their baby colic.”

I’d add that the other last thing stressed, exhausted, overwhelmed moms need are news stories that overstate the research, drawing conclusions that couldn’t be concluded, but carry a world of implication.

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