Evidence-based parenting: What is it?

© 2009-2014 Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., all rights reserved

“You’ve heard of evidence-based medicine? This is evidence-based parenting.”

That’s how I explained the purpose of my website, Parenting Science, when I started it back in 2006.

For people familiar with the approach, it got the point across. Evidence-based medicine has been defined as “the conscientious, explicit, and judicious use of current best evidence in making decisions about the care of individual patients” (Sackett et al 1996).

I wanted to help interested parents do the same for their children.

But it wasn’t actually a question of my being inspired by evidence-based medicine. I was simply applying the same standards to parenting information that I used in my work as a behavioral ecologist and evolutionary anthropologist. The same standards that my friends, colleagues, and readers used in their work in the natural and social sciences.

If someone believed my parenting was wrong, and they expected me to change my ways, they needed to present me with a rational case. They needed to persuade me with logic, data, and — if possible — compelling tests of competing hypotheses.

Many other parents – trained scientists and logical laypeople alike – felt the same way. But unless they wanted to spend hundreds of hours reading a new scientific literature, analyzing studies, and communicating directly with the researchers – there wasn’t a good way to get answers. So I invested the time, applied my interdisciplinary academic training, and offered up my own, evidence-based reviews to readers.

Over the years, I’ve heard from a lot like-minded people. Many were demographic clones of myself, people trained to do science, who had run their own experiments or research projects and now found themselves confronted with the wonderful but highly peculiar experiment of raising a child. Others had different backgrounds, but plenty of interest in what anthropology, psychology, neuroscience, pediatrics, and zoology had to tell them about child development and parenting.

What everybody had in common was an interest in testing ideas in a rigorous way. They weren’t going impose a new sleep practice or change their approach to discipline based on somebody else’s opinion. They wanted to weigh the evidence and make an informed decision. They wanted evidence-based parenting information.

But as the evidence-based movement has become more popular, the original concept has gotten stretched and bent out of shape.

If we want the term to be meaningful, we shouldn’t use it to describe someone repeating a few lines from the latest press release. Press releases can be misleading. So can the impressions of an untrained observer who has read a few scientific abstracts, or gotten a few choice quotes from the lead scientist. 

To get value from published studies, we need quality, in-depth analysis from people who have been trained to interpret the data and who are familiar with research in the field. We need science writers who can put scientific claims in context.

Unfortunately, a lot of what gets promoted as evidence-based parenting doesn’t meet these criteria.

So where can you go to find good examples of evidence-based parenting information?

Here are some examples.

Resources: Evidence-based parenting

Developmental psychologist Charles Fernyhough, whose work is profiled in my article on mind-minded parenting, has an excellent blog where he analyzes the latest research about child development. If you’re interested in how kids think, don’t miss it.

The University of Michigan Evidence-Based Pediatrics website features a database of “critically-appraised topics,” i.e., brief, thumbnail summaries of recent studies on medical topics like peanut allergy or the influenza vaccine. The summaries provide key information—like study design and results—at a glance. Full references provided.

Polly Palumbo of Momma Data is a psychologist and mother who battles irrationality with her evidence-based blog about health and child development. Check out her posts about the ways that the media misreports important medical and pediatric stories in the news.