Let's face it. The dilemma a modern-day mother finds herself in is not fleeing from a hungry wolf to save her newborn baby, nor travelling at lengths to escape frosty winter months with her nomad tribe to find a new home that offers warmth and sustenance. It is one of the countless blessings that Allah swt has bestowed many of us with that we have safety and security of our livelihood and health. With that being said, as much as clean water and plentiful food supply accounts for the thriving of this generation, advancements in technology by leaps and bounds has proven to be indispensable as well. Surrounded once by her close knit tribe and learning about birth and breastfeeding through observation and real life story telling, a modern day woman, although distanced from observing labor and birth and other womanly practices as a normal event, has a ton of information at the tips of her fingers. A quick Google search for keywords containing birth, breastfeeding, postpartum will reveal a ton of results that is easy to overwhelm any sane adult. Not to mention social media platforms which are brimming with information and discussions as well.
In the midst of this digital overload, it is interesting how our brains respond to research and scientific evidence being presented every few days/weeks. In this ever changing landscape where once-rigid facts are being thrown out as unfounded fallacies and discredited as "trashy" science, it is crucial to analyse our own biases and approach scientific data/research study pertaining to the fields of pregnancy, birth, breastfeeding and postpartum with a neutral stance. In spite of regarding ourselves as logical and critical thinkers, the reality is that when presented with a new piece of research conflicting with our own pre-existing beliefs pertaining to a specific topic, the inherent tendency of our brains lead us to either reject the evidence or skim and glaze over data to reach to the conclusion without exerting much efforts to nit pick any potential loopholes that may make the next best scientific discovery a piece of total shambles and click-bait. To illustrate, many mothers of small babies will attest the societal pressure and their own ingrained beliefs regarding their infants' sleep patterns and the haste to start the babies on complementary foods to help the young ones sleep through the night without waking the parents up. Elder advice as well as several infant-care books insist on feeding the babies before their bed time in order to catch and control the elusive phenomenon known as baby sleep! Despite evidence proving no association between feeding patterns and night time wakings, mothers (and those supporting her) continue to feel perplexed and defeated while chasing this "dream" of nailing their babies sleep patterns. Another example of how our brain "anchors" to a belief and resists changing our habits, is the dietary advice continued to be given to pregnant women where they are recommended low fat diets by their care providers, as endorsed and informed by government guidelines. A group of French researchers showed that a deficiency of polyunsaturated fatty acids--particularly the omega 3s and DHA--affects the fetus' visual and cerebral areas and impairs intellectual ability. Moreover, a predominant amount of research studying affects of fat and cholesterol levels on pregnancy outcomes have been conducted on rats, instead of humans, by feeding the animals high doses of omega 6 fatty acids (which exert their own fair share of detrimental affects on human health). Again, amidst this poor body of evidence, pregnant women still find themselves with little to no nutritional counseling regarding including healthy and considerable amounts of fat rich foods in their diets.
It is therefore prudent to view standard information handed down as "advice" with our critical lens as well as to remain open to adapting our practices to new evidence (provided the data proves its credibility and satisfies the points that make a study sound and valid) keeping aside our prejudices.
Here are some of the ways our brain likes to keep us from doing so:
Confirmation Bias: Our brain is wired to avoid conflict, do less work with thinking, and find comfort by seeking out information that supports or enhances our beliefs. This is why it is hard to convince someone who has their mind firmly set on a concept/idea/practice to accept an evidence/research that challenges them.
Social Norms: Humans have a tendency to fit within their wider societal group, and when it comes to being pregnant and mothering, making decisions based on what other mothers are doing, can be both comforting as well as reassuring as this saves us from the arduous task of thinking for ourselves and making decisions based on our unique individual circumstances, rather than a collective, public health approach. Psychologically speaking, the need for acceptance and assimilation in a group sharing similar beliefs as our own may mean that pregnant women and mothers forgo their own instincts and solid research at times and make choices just to get the nod of approval from other mothers.
Reflexive vs Reflective Thinking: Since thinking rationally is complicated and exhausting, our brain has developed several quick-fixes to avoid the various pathways we will require in order to reach a decision. Rather, to simplify this task, it relies on the already stored information, knowledge and "heuristics" (fancy name for short cuts) to perform when presented with new information. The ability of our brains to employ heuristics to carry out daily jobs without exerting excessive energy is an integral component for our survival. However, when it comes down to making decisions regarding our pregnancies, birth and motherhood, decisions that actually demand slowed-down reflective thinking; the consequences can range on a spectrum of possibilities and jumping through hoops, but clutching tightly onto heuristics can spell less-than-ideal situations.
Here are some ways to instigate a more well grounded, astute and sensible approach to drive our decision making processes while being fully aware of our 'brains' doings':
- When reading a piece of new research or information, slow down, pause and reflect. If need be to digest the information and make sense of it, take your time and read it more than once.
- Now that you are aware of how your brain can lay down hindrances on your path, own up your biases. Acknowledging is the first step to correcting our shortcomings.
- Avoid making decisions based on sensational stories or headlines that evoke strong emotions such as fear or excitement. Wherever possible, try to source the actual research paper as they will usually have less drama about them.
- If you are a part of a social media group/platform, investigate how balanced they are. If you disagree politely with them on a certain issue, do they raise hell by calling names or shouting/criticizing or do they respectfully consider your perspective and "agree to disagree"? With the amount of information floating the internet, it is virtually impossible that everyone will come to terms with a single ideology. If you have a practice/idea that is backed by the sciences of human physiology and credible data, stand by it.