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Parenting in the Age of Information

The difference between what is subjective and what is ‘right’.

Dr Lydia Yarlott

Dr Lydia Yarlott is a parent and a paediatrician. She co-founded Pando with the aim of improving the lives of clinicians and patients through technology.

As a parent, I know that right from the first time you take your child home from hospital, information comes flying your way thick and fast. It can seem that parents are expected to know a huge amount about their children’s health from day one (how many ounces of milk IS enough? Is this rash normal? When IS my baby “supposed” to start babbling?). And not only that, but to process that information to make sensible decisions (should my child sleep in bed with me? Is it OK to choose NOT to breastfeed?). Not to mention the different vaccines your baby has to get, including the MMR vaccine.

Information overload

One advantage of the information age is that we can usually find answers to our most pressing parenting questions, but the caveat is that those answers might be conflicting. These days, strongly held views exist on everything from sleep to weaning, potty training to positive parenting, attachment theory to discipline. For us parents, not only must we cope with the onslaught of differing opinions on just about everything, we must somehow make sense of them all and decide who we’re going to listen to and how we’re going to do things.

In theory, diversity is a wonderful thing. Everyone does parenting slightly differently. I love watching my sister’s mothering style – distinct from my own approach, but just as good. She’s done her research and she’s found her niche as a parent; the result is a healthy and happy child.

Why the MMR vaccine is important

Unfortunately, however, not all parenting choices are subjective, and not all decisions have two equally good “right” answers. I sometimes wonder if the onslaught of information we’re bombarded with from everyone from family and friends to social media and online fora, creates the illusion that we must make an individual choice about everything. We’re surrounded by opinion, yet there are some aspects of child health that really are just facts.

Childhood immunisations do fall into this category. I was saddened to see that the uptake of the all important MMR vaccine (measles, mumps and rubella) has dropped significantly, leaving hundreds of thousands of children at risk of catching these preventable diseases. Measles can and does kill, whilst mumps can cause permanent deafness, and rubella can lead to miscarriage and stillbirth in pregnant women. I would be surprised if parents who knew how real the risk of their child catching measles is (95% of the population must be vaccinated in order to prevent outbreaks of measles – rates are currently way below this) the lengthy list of short- and long-term complications (including permanent brain and other organ damage), would settle for refusing a safe vaccine.

I love hearing about parents who are doing things their way, based on the vast array of information out there. It’s great to read about home schooling or debate the pros and cons of baby led weaning, and chances are that if you want to make alternative parenting choices you’ll find the information you need to help you get the best for your child. But it bothers me when opinion is couched as fact, and the opinion that children are best left unvaccinated is wrong. This generation of parents is lucky enough not to remember the days before MMR, but that doesn’t mean we should forget the science, or forget measles’ deadly history. If we do, we might be back there sooner than we bargained for.