When two white nubs appeared on my son’s lower gums, I was ready. I’d already bought and sterilized Amazon’s three top-reviewed teething toys and stored them in separate sealed bags within one of my diaper bag’s seven pockets. Any yelp or cry was met with a cheery dragonfly, plastic keys, or a pebbled figure eight, a process we repeated from incisor to molar. Mom to the rescue.
There’s just one problem: my son didn’t need rescuing, because he wasn’t in as much pain as I thought he was. That’s the conclusion of a study of children of Cleveland Clinic employees. Researchers tracked 475 tooth eruptions in the employees’ 125 children, as well as parents’ perceptions about their children’s teething. The parents reported a long list of symptoms they attributed to teething, including ear rubbing, poor appetite, and low fever.
The researchers, however, found that more than thirty-five percent of the children had no symptoms associated with teething. Furthermore, many symptoms identified by the parents as teething symptoms occurred in both teething and non-teething children. In short, parents — who, as a reminder, were employees at a hospital — were not able to accurately link their children’s teething and symptoms.
After reading the Cleveland Clinic study, I realized that my teething strategy was as much about my psychological pain as it was my son’s actual pain, a sort of parenting by placebo.
In medicine, placebos are a harmless and inexpensive substitute for expensive and risky interventions. A “drug” that’s really a sugar pill or a “knee surgery” that’s really just an incision and a bandage provides benefit at considerably lower cost and risk than its alternative.
In parenting, however, placebos are increasingly expensive, pseudo-scientific solutions to our infants’ ailments. Because they generally do no harm to babies, objects like my teething toys are fantastically expensive sugar pills. They probably pose no danger to babies. But they do pose a danger to us. Parenting placebos re-route our critical thinking skills, with harmful ripples into our consumption of not just parenting advice, but all news.
Here’s why I’ve cut the placebos from my parenting.
There’s probably no problem.
When forming baby registries, many parents become expert researchers, scouring Amazon reviews and parenting websites before choosing the best for our babies. In honing our sense for the safest, most effective, and on-trend baby products, we forget that “best” does not mean “necessary.”
Parenting placebos bake problems right into their names: a teething necklace resolves teething pain, a snot sucker removes snot. Just because a product is parents’ most trusted brand for teething pain doesn’t mean that the product actually addresses teething pain. Just because a device is the best at removing boogers from your child’s nose doesn’t mean you need to remove boogers from your child’s nose.
Neither the placebos nor the conditions they solve are actually urgent. A sick baby won’t perish for lack of a snot sucker, because a stuffy nose is not a closed airway. I may feel more involved in my child’s care if I dislodge his mucus at Sisyphean intervals, providing temporary relief for both of us.
While chaining myself to the snot sucker may seem a small price to pay, that purchase contributes to an overall sense that I can gear myself out of any problem, paving the way for 18 years of nonexistent “problems” and unnecessary purchases.
If there is a problem, I can’t solve it.
When confronting that real-or-imagined teething pain, I turned to plastic chew toys. Other parents turn to jewelry. Neither option appears to reduce pain. The succinic acid contained within amber teething necklaces is a pain reliever, but only in large quantities and only if ingested. The necklaces are so unlikely to benefit children that they don’t warrant the investment of time and money required for the scientific gold standard of a randomized controlled trial.
But this very lack of evidence is often used to justify a parenting placebo. “I don’t know that it doesn’t work,” the reasoning goes, “so I might as well try.” Because there’s no evidence either way, parents feel free to invest in whichever narrative we find most comforting.
Instead of buying gear, we would be better served by acknowledging that sometimes, our children will be in pain and we can’t fix it, an important lesson for them and for us.
It isn’t about me.
A parenting placebo creates a clear “before” and “after period that allows us to make a causal link. “The baby was crying for hours until I tried the gas drops. I was skeptical at first, but was desperate for anything that worked, and to my amazement, it did!”
This before-and-after reasoning allows us to claim mastery over unfamiliar territory. Gas drops allow for a whole chain of reasoning: that the baby was crying because of pain, that gas causes pain, that gas pains were the cause of this hurt, and that gas drops resolved the problem. That chain of reasoning leaves out at least one person placated by the gas drops.
Parenting placebos please parents.
It’s we who are feeling helpless, scared, ashamed, and vulnerable in the face of an uncertain future. The baby products we buy are stories that reassure us what we’re doing is working, that we are thoughtful, nurturing, successful parents.
I care about critical thinking.
The majority of parenting placebos are harmless. We feel good about doing something for our babies, and they are no worse for the experience.
But they are dangerous. Retailers love expecting parents because they are vulnerable and therefore malleable shoppers. The habits we form during this stage — changing grocery store allegiances, for example — can last for decades. What if our research and analysis habits also cement during this time, with lasting effects on our critical thinking skills?
Understanding that a lack of data is not evidence for or against a phenomenon can keep us from jumping to conclusions about the latest internet bogeyman. Questioning cause and effect can help us evaluate the latest scientific breakthrough to splash through the headlines. Acknowledging how much we don’t know can help us avoid falling for the latest simple trick to hack our parenting.
Lessons learned from parenting placebos can extend to all of our digital citizenship. By interrogating the truth claims of our beloved baby products, we’ll be better equipped to evaluate the truth claims we read in the news, being as wary of political news that smugly satisfies us as that which outrages us. By questioning cause and effect we can better understand any number of topics, from fitness to health to climate change. By acknowledging how little is known about many scientific processes, we’ll be suspicious of any person we find who speaks with complete conviction about a scientific breakthrough.
Freed from spending on parenting placebos, we could put our money in the college funds that will help our kids become stronger critical thinkers and citizens.