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Data Geek vs. Data Cynic: On Becoming A Parent

First in an occasional series.

Kiljoong Kim is the Beachwood's sociologist-in-residence. He holds a Ph.D. from the University of Illinois at Chicago and works as a policy analyst at Chapin Hall Center for Children at the University of Chicago. He believes all data has a story to tell. Natasha Julius has nothing against data, she just doesn't want to hear any data stories when she's trying to get her kid to bed.

Data Cynic: I have no idea how long your baby will sleep.

Last spring I started receiving messages from a friend. His wife was expecting their first child and he had questions. The most specific - and persistent - questions revolved around sleep. How much sleep did my child get when she was a baby? When did she start sleeping through the night? On average, how much sleep did I get per night during the first six months of my child's life? Was I exhausted all the time, or could I function normally? Ha ha, that's funny, but seriously, how fucking miserable were the first three to six months of my child's life, sleep-wise?

Having a child is a uniquely unsettling experience, and freaking out about the anticipated lack of sleep is a lot easier than freaking out about the crushing inadequacy you feel at the prospect of guiding another human being through life. It is completely natural to feel anxious, and completely understandable to seek out information that might quell your anxiety. It is also completely useless. Because, as I told my friend, nothing I can tell you about my child's early sleeping patterns will reveal anything about your child's early sleeping patterns.

How much a baby sleeps is influenced by a complex web of factors, some of which you can control and others you can't. Do you breastfeed or bottle feed or a little of both? Are you feeding on a schedule or feeding on-demand? Does one parent handle all the feeding duties or do you take it in turns? Is the baby sleeping in a crib in a separate room? In a bassinet at the end of your bed? In a basket in the rushes down by the old canal? Are you co-sleeping? What sort of diapers do you use? How often do you change them? Do you swaddle or let it all hang out? How much leave are you taking from work? How much leave is your spouse taking? Are you both taking it at the same time? Will you be using a nanny or daycare when you both return to work? Do you plan to soothe your child or let your child cry it out?

All of the above choices, and countless more, form part of the context that informs your child's sleeping behavior. The chance that my answers to these questions and yours will overlap in any meaningful way is extremely slim, and even if they did we have no idea what other genetic or environmental factors might come into play. You're not going to know how long your child is going to sleep until you can observe your child doing the sleeping. Even if you've assembled a comprehensive list of soothing strategies from every person with a child you know, none of this information is likely to be of any practical use if your child isn't sleeping well. Why? Because when your child isn't sleeping well, no one in your household is sleeping well, ergo no one is making rational decisions anyway. In that moment, you have to focus on what your child needs, not what your friend's child needed three and a half years ago. That's the meat of parenting. All the shit you worry about and prepare for doesn't matter. Your child does.

There's one other reason to forgo the futile exercise of surveying your friends: parents lie. They lie because parenting is a competitive sport. If you say your child slept like a dream from day one, then you executed your parenting strategy to perfection and you win. If you say your child didn't sleep a wink for five months, then you are an unparalleled parenting martyr and you double win. No one wants a boring, middle-of-the-road sleeper because that's not what scores the big points in parenting conversations. Accuracy is for losers.

Parents also lie because by the time your child has made it out of toddlerhood, you honestly can't remember how your child slept or how tired you felt. Unless your child is particularly colicky, changing your sleeping habits becomes as mundane and unremarkable as changing a poopy diaper. I've seen friends stumble zombie-like through the first 18 months of their child's life only to blithely remark two years later how lucky they were said child was such a good sleeper. No one remembers what it was like because in most cases it doesn't really matter.

So if you want to know how long your child will sleep, wait a few months and find out. Here's what I will share from my own experience: we all slept. We all lived. We all still like each other. That's all you need to know.

Data Geek: Sleeping hours = 24 - non-sleeping hours. Let's start there.

Before we begin the debate, I would like to clearly define data. In my world, data is simply a set of information - whether numbers, letters, artifacts or what have you - that has been gathered but not yet aggregated, analyzed, interpreted and understood. Scientific research is the process that does all the work using data. As a quantitative professional for the past 21 years, five months and two-plus weeks, not a week goes by without someone telling me how much he or she loves data. To my dismay, an overwhelming number of those who confess their love for data simply mean they like looking at pretty charts, maps and tables. In fact, most of them have no interest in quality assurance, rigorous and challenging but sophisticated statistical methodologies, or ever-changing software packages that take months and years to learn. What I refer to as data in this piece would be better described as science and scientific research rather than a mere set of numbers or letters, or pretty charts and maps.

This debate about usefulness of data in everyday life is an age-old battle between those who believe that science is all around us versus those who believe that there are realms of our world science simply cannot reach. Yes, having a child is a uniquely unsettling experience and can be a frustrating one. But then, so is battling a brain tumor or HIV, being homeless, or being severely beaten by a spouse. In each one of these challenges, there are hundreds and thousands of scholars and researchers dedicating their careers to solutions just as there is a similar level of interest, if not more, in child-rearing.

I completely agree, Data Cynic, that freaking out and scrambling to gather information are understandable reactions (note: I would not consider them "natural reaction," which implies that being a parent is instinctive. If being concerned about children was a natural reaction, we would not have parents who neglect or abuse). But can data help us be less irrational when it comes to child-rearing? This question in and of itself is a very good sociological question we have yet to explore (unless someone has done the research already).

All the attributes listed by our Data Cynic as possible factors in determining how much a baby should sleep, I have no doubt, have been studied already. Science is often a process of accumulating knowledge over years and decades. Sometimes scientific findings are proven wrong and we have to start over (see the benefits of egg white and egg yolk for the past 50 years). And for these sets of knowledge to be disseminated the public and used in everyday life takes even longer. Advancements in communication, particularly the prevalence of the Internet, has made the process much faster than it once was. Still, there is a very large gap between scientific findings, which are written in professional journals, and the general public, most of whom do not have the access or technical training to read such journals.

Despite this gap, the signs are everywhere that we think and wonder about our everyday questions scientifically. For example, Data Cynic's friend began the sleeping question with "on average . . . ," which is not an unusual way of posing a question. That is because most of us find points of reference, or in this case "what others do," valuable. Knowing what has happened to others in the past allows us to seek certainty in uncertain tasks.

Through cumulative knowledge, we do have those reference points when it comes to sleeping behaviors of infants. Most scientists would agree that the ideal amount sleep for most little children is sporadic but long (15-17 hours) at first and then should settle at around 8-12 hours for healthy development. I'm sure some readers would say they already knew that without having to look up scientific studies. I would argue that, yes, they didn't have to look them up because some scientific knowledge and findings have become so prevalent that they became embedded into most people's belief systems and then reaffirmed by experiences, and not because they are common sense or intuition.

I do not expect all parents to raise their children based on scientific research or practice data-driven child-rearing, just as I do not expect everyone to adhere to one religious belief. Diversity, and ultimately inequity, occurs largely because of varying degrees of access to information but also because we all have different belief systems. If we all raised our children in identical fashion with the same values, how boring would that be? And more importantly, what would researchers who make careers out of measuring inequalities do for a living?

Essentially, my point is that we care about numbers because we are social beings who crave information about others and constantly validate ourselves against what we know about others. Asking others, and lying to others, is all part of that craving.

Data doesn't make a person wiser or smarter. Nor does data provide absolute certainty in life. Data, however, has the ability to predict those events that are most likely based on what has happened in the past. Scientific knowledge and data do not make many aspects of parenting easier. But hundreds of years of data-gathering and analysis have led to low infant mortality and healthier babies in large parts of the world. And such grandiose results over time are worth losing sleep over.


Comments welcome.


Posted on February 17, 2015

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