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Sometimes Doctors Don’t Know Best (But Mom Does)

Image Source: Monica Bielanko
Image Source: Monica Bielanko

Editor’s note: This piece is is not intended to be used in place of medical advice. If you or your child have a medical issue, please consult your physician. This essay addresses non-life-threatening parenting topics that are a matter of opinion, not science.

It was drilled into my head from before I gave birth to my first child: co-sleeping is a big no-no. For responsible parents who don’t want to accidentally suffocate their child, anyway.

A first-time mother anxious to follow all instructions, I unquestioningly obeyed my doctor’s advice. So fearful was I that something terrible would happen that I didn’t even nap with my daughter, something I now view as a rare opportunity lost. I was so convinced that doctors and “experts” knew what was best for my child that I didn’t even question it.

But then, a few days after the birth of my second child, a funny thing happened.

I’d spent most of the night waking to my son’s cries and pulling him out of the bassinet next to my bed to nurse him and then lay stiffly in bed waiting for the cry that would herald the next session. By 4am I was exhausted. He wouldn’t go back to sleep after nursing on both sides and my sleep deprivation was so intense I felt as though I were drunk. I turned to my side, cuddled his tiny body to my chest, gently pushed a nipple into his mouth, and we both promptly fell asleep for four much-needed hours.

I’ve been co-sleeping ever since.

From the moment my third child was born, he has spent every waking second next to me. Lying in bed while I write articles during the day, snuggling into my face as we sleep at night. The difference between his first year and my daughter’s first year is stark. He slipped gently into our lives — co-sleeping allowing us to get 7 hours of sleep a night by the end of his first week.

That newborn is now 13 months old and has recently started waking up throughout the night. Everyone has an opinion, of course, about what I should do. “Let him cry it out!” I’ve been told. “He’s got you wrapped around his finger.” But nothing in my being would ever feel like letting my child cry — for any reason — is the right thing to do. My love affair with co-sleeping taught me an important parenting lesson: Mama knows best.

It’s why a recent article on Jezebel gave me a chuckle. In “Let’s Admit It: We Have No Idea If Sleep Training Makes Sense,” the always-brilliant Tracy (can we be best friends?) Moore elaborates on something it took me three children to fully understand:

Doctors and experts don’t always know best.

Moore uses an article in The New York Times called “Sleep Training at 8 Weeks: Do You Have the Guts?” to illustrate how common it is for doctors to replace opinion with science when it comes to giving parenting advice. Specifically, a doctor who advised parents of an 8-week-old that they should begin sleep training their baby.

While I take issue with whether or not ignoring your baby for 12 hours takes “guts” or is just the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard, is beside the point. For me, ignoring my child will never be within reason. But for others, this may make perfect sense.

The issue is that over the years we’ve all been bombarded with articles for and against nearly every single aspect of parenting. But did any of them ever really change your mind? Or did you kind of already have a feel for what works best in your world?

There’s a very real (but often fuzzy) distinction between parenting advice and medical advice. Think about your visits to your pediatrician’s during the first year of your child’s life. It’s likely you were asking dozens of questions that weren’t medical. Whether or not to sleep train your child, for example.

As Moore notes on Jezebel, “It’s a trick question, because it kind of depends on your kid. I submit that the biggest crux of parenting is figuring out not the most correct theory about best practices, but rather, figuring out what works with your kid, within reason.” Moore asserts that parenting is an art, not a science — and I couldn’t agree more. It’s the art of blending medical expertise with following your gut.

When I asked my Facebook friends to share a time when a doctor or expert gave them parenting advice that they ignored because it didn’t jive with their instincts, the stories came rolling in. Let these stories give you strength and think of them the next time you are faced with the decision to follow a doctor’s advice or your own instincts …

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“My two girls slept on their tummies as infants — against all of the warnings of friends, doctors, you name it. They had really bad reflux and slept better that way; it was something I felt comfortable doing.” — Devry Rogers Lamb

“[My] doctor told me to wean my first born at 12 months but she is now 3 and still nursing. Some kids need to nurse longer and docs just don’t get it. Doc told me to let her learn to “self soothe” and to let her cry it out but we have a family bed and she is now the best sleeper because she learned to fall asleep without nursing … on her own time.” — Elizabeth Sweeney

“I signed my young daughter up for swim lessons and when we got there she absolutely hated it …  She spent 30 minutes in tears. She was 3 years old and I told the swim school owner that we’d be back when she was more ready. His reply? ‘You must force her to put her face in the water and now is the time to do it.’ We didn’t go back until she was 5 and ready to put her face in the water.” —  Corky St. Clair

“My first ob/gyn absolutely INSISTED that I have an amniocenteses because of my ‘advanced age’ (I had turned 35 two weeks prior). She said if I refused, I’d have to find a new doctor. So I dumped her ass and went on to have a perfectly healthy baby via natural childbirth.” — Kate Pogue Rau

“I let my kids jump on a trampoline despite the numerous public safety posters up in the pediatricians’ office listing the injuries sustained from falling off, or bumping into other kids, etc.” — Alison Kroll Arendt

“My least-favorite doc at my daughter’s peds office once gave me useless advice about handling her sleeping difficulties. She insisted that, by comforting her when she cried (she was 15 months old), I was encouraging bad sleep [habits]. She said I HAD to allow her to cry it out and get herself to sleep. Turns out … she had sensory issues and a messed-up circadian rhythm. She needed melatonin and specialized therapy to be able to learn to fall asleep and stay asleep on her own. The doc’s advice was completely wrong for her, and I knew it right away. We eventually got her sorted out and then she was fine.” — Kristi Myers

“I have received a lot of good advice from medical professionals, but I remember going my own way twice. First, when my son was 6 weeks old and sleeping most of the night, the doctor wanted me to wake [him] up to feed him. He wasn’t underweight, but the doctor felt it was too early to sleep through the night. Um, no. The second was when the same child was in jr. high and the dermatologist wanted me to pull him out of jr. lifeguards (a wonderful local water-safety program) because he would be in the sun too much. We live at the beach, sun happens.” — Colleen Nickerson Adams

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If something doesn’t feel right to you, don’t do it.

Just because a doctor offers an opinion or tells you about a technique that works for someone else, that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily right for you and/or your child. In the end, when it comes to personal choices like co-sleeping or how long to breastfeed or a thousand other parenting decisions we’re forced to make: trust yourself first.

It doesn’t mean doctors are terrible, it doesn’t mean they don’t provide excellent medical care, it just means they’re real people too and often confuse their professional opinion with their personal experience when they may not have the same priorities as your family. As my good friend Iva-Marie Palmer says, “people aren’t clones; we can’t expect everyone to do everything the same way and be okay with it.”

Don’t ever be afraid to disagree with an expert. Ever. Listen, consider, seek a second opinion even, and then go with your gut.

You got this.

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