Is Data-Driven Parenting Really Necessary?

Don’t laugh: I keep a feeding and diapering chart for my baby. If you think that’s insane, you haven’t surfed the app market lately. Mine’s only in Excel. Most parents in my generation give up their personal information to track every time their kid eats or poops.

When I showed the log to my mother she nearly fell into hysterics. “I don’t know what I did wrong,” she commented. “I just let you and your brother eat until you were full and changed you when you made a mess.” My mother also came from the generation of 2-week post-birth hospital stays that were designed for real recovery. Want a mom to nosedive into postpartum depression? Have her room-in with her baby post-birth and wake her up every 2 hours over the course of her 2-day “recovery” period before kicking her out per insurance requirements. If I didn’t write down my kids’ eating habits he’d never eat, because I’d be too tired to remember to feed him.

Then again, I only have to “remember to feed him” per hospital requirements. Sure, the baby will inevitably wake up to eat, but will he wake up in time to eat enough to meet pediatric weight gain requirements? Parents are now advised — to the point of paranoia — to wake their newborn every 2-3 hours to eat until they’ve regained the weight they lost after birth. The baby is expected to do this by their 2-week doctor’s appointment. Mine did, thank God, so we could finally stop setting an alarm and just let our kid and ourselves get an extra hour of shut-eye.

Weight gain isn’t the only requirement placed upon a newborn child. My poor baby had to suffer nearly 10 heel-sticks in 48 hours for no less than 5 blood sugar tests and 2 complete blood-count panels. Why? Because his blood sugar level was 2 points below the requirement 4 hours after birth and his bilirubin level was 1 point off a day after arrival. Without the right numbers, discharge would be impossible. The proof wasn’t in a happy baby that ate well and cooed through his sleep, it was in the numbers.


Medicine isn’t the only area of child-rearing that is data driven. General parenting is guided by data. Everything from mesh bumpers to breastfeeding to pacifier use is determined based on the latest statistics derived from aggregated studies funded by a variety of federal, for-profit and non-profit institutions. As a result, there are enough stigmatized “rules” out there to drive a new parent insane with fear. If you aren’t jumping up 10 times a night to be sure your kid hasn’t succumbed to SIDS, you’re taking his temperature 20 times a day because you’re sure he has a fever.

What the studies don’t tell you is that, to your baby, they are completely irrelevant. Your baby will eat, sleep and poop on his own schedule. He’ll sleep on his side, instead of his back, whether you like it or not. She’ll suck on a pacifier when she wants and she isn’t letting it get in the way of eating, whether it’s from a bottle or your own breast. And some babies, like mine, are going to be so talkative in their sleep that you’ll never need to get up to check on them. So much for the data.

A week in, my husband and I had a chat about the data. “You know,” he observed, “what we’re doing is generational. Think about it: We were raised with standardized tests, benchmarks, goals and performance reviews. We’re used to researching everything and getting reliable answers within minutes via the web. We aren’t designed to just go with the flow of a baby.”

He’s right, which is why our baby was dubbed our Invariable Variable, because invariably this baby will vary from day to day, even hour to hour. And we just have to learn to roll with it.