Alice Callahan 380x285 On Parenting, Science, and Trust – and Choosing to Vaccinate

Alice Callahan and her baby daughter. Photo credit: Lori Cole

Having a PhD in science makes my job as a mother easier, but maybe not in the ways that you might expect.

My PhD is in Nutrition, so you would think that getting my kid to eat well would come easy for me. Unfortunately, that has not been the case.

I’ve logged more than two years of postdoc research on fetal programming, which is basically how the uterine environment affects outcomes in babies. You might think that this has helped me to do everything right during my pregnancy. Instead, I think it just led to more worry about all of the ways I might be damaging my unborn child. Stress! Sugar! BPA! Lab chemical exposure! OMG! More stress!

Sure, I have had access to more scientific information than the average mother. Sometimes this is helpful. But sometimes it is not. For instance, knowing how to do a literature search to answer my parenting questions often leads to further sleep deprivation, especially since slogging through Pubmed hits leads me to come out on the other side with more confusion. Sometimes my drive to find scientific answers for my parenting questions just distracts me from my instinct – not that my maternal instinct is all that amazing, but I do know my baby better than anyone else in the world.

So how does being a scientist make parenting easier for me? As a scientist mother, I trust other scientists. And I trust doctors.  I even trust government agencies, which bring together the best scientists and doctors in a field to review the research and make recommendations for the good of public health.

I trust scientists and doctors because I have worked side-by-side with them for a decade, and I know that they are not only knowledgeable, but by and large, they are overwhelmingly good people. At some point, you have to trust someone. For me, those “someones” are scientists and doctors.

I trust scientists because I know that the vast majority of them are just underpaid nerds who are really passionate about what they do. They are driven by the desire to find the truth about a question and work, day in and day out, in that pursuit.  In addition, I know that scientists don’t always agree, so when there is a general consensus among the majority of scientists about something, such as vaccine safety or global warming, I feel confident with the majority conclusion. Contrary to many claims on the Internet, scientists are not in bed with Big Pharma, conspiring make millions at the expense of your child’s health. They are in bed with their husbands and wives, probably chatting about their latest failed cell culture experiment.

I also trust science because I understand the peer review process all too well. Although it has its flaws, and as maddening as it is when I am the one being reviewed, I have confidence that the peer review process is highly effective at weeding out the kooks and pseudoscientists and the conflicts of interest. (Unfortunately, there are a few kooky psuedoscientists out there with serious conflicts of interest, and it just so happens that one of them managed to publish fraudulent research linking the MMR vaccine and autism. Many studies have since shown that such a link does not exist, but it took 12 years for Andrew Wakefield’s Lancet paper to be retracted. How many dollars have been spent and how many people made sick or worse in the continuing fallout and confusion about this public health scare? When the peer review system fails, it can be truly devastating.)

I trust doctors because I know that most of them are, first and foremost, humanitarians at heart, especially those that have chosen to work in primary care. I know how hard doctors work to become competent in the vast ocean of information about pathologies of the human body. I know how seriously they take their responsibility of our health. I especially trust pediatricians. They have chosen one of the lowest-paid specialties simply because they love working with kids. I know that every pediatrician, at some point during her training or career, has likely cared for a child who was dying of a disease that could have been prevented by vaccination, and that memory haunts her as she faces parents afraid of vaccinating their children. Doctors are not conspiring against us. They want to help us make the best choices for our children, more than anything in the world.

Because I trust scientists and doctors, I didn’t question the CDC’s vaccination schedule. I didn’t pore over vaccine research or agonize about the decision to vaccinate my child. Instead, I trusted that the committees of experts at the CDC and AAP carefully make the best recommendations possible based on the data available. Maybe that is naïve. Maybe I am a lazy mother for not trying to become a vaccine expert before I allowed those first needles to enter my daughter’s thigh. Or maybe not.

What would be naïve is for me to think that I could become an expert on vaccinations.  It would be naïve for me to think that I could understand the vaccine field better than the committees of scientists and doctors who have made this their life’s work. I know how much work it took me to become an expert on one or two corners of nutrition and fetal physiology. It took thousands of hours of reading textbooks and journal articles, sitting in lectures, attending conferences, and struggling at the lab bench before I started to feel even a little bit comfortable calling myself an expert in any field. So I think it is naïve for a parent to think that she can become an expert on vaccines by spending some time on the Internet reading questionable sources, almost all of which have some agenda. I accept that I can’t know everything, and I have enough faith in humanity that I trust others who know more than me.

It is not that I don’t question scientists and doctors. I do. For example, I recognize that government agencies and medical organizations often have a lag time for adopting the latest science into their recommendations. I recognize that tradition, culture, politics, and economics all influence those recommendations, and they are not without fault. I certainly question my doctors because I know they are each fallible human beings and they can’t know everything.

For example, I brought a stack of journal articles to my OB to convince her to delay cord clamping at my delivery. I did so much research on infant iron nutrition and came to my daughter’s 9-month checkup with so many questions that my pediatrician looked me in the eye and said, “You’re worried enough for both of us about BabyC’s iron.” Although I question my doctors, I also trust that they are adept at discerning fake science from real science. If I bring my doctor the sources I am using to inform my questions or concerns, she should be able to judge whether or not they are trustworthy and have a real discussion with me about factors that I may not have considered.

In truth, I do follow the vaccine debate closely, but not because I wonder if I am doing the right thing by vaccinating my child. I follow the vaccine debate out of interest for how misinformation can explode in a way that creates a public health crisis. I find myself increasingly concerned about the low rate of vaccination in my own community. I worry for the newborns in our town who have not yet had a chance to be vaccinated and for the individuals who cannot be vaccinated due to health conditions. I am starting to feel like I have a responsibility to share accurate information with mothers and fathers struggling with the decision of whether or not to vaccinate, because misinformation is doing real harm.

It is good to question our parenting decisions and in doing so, become more educated about them. However, as a scientist, I’m happy to defer to other scientists about some of the biggest parenting decisions I have faced. I am grateful for their decades of research forming the foundation of our understanding of child health and for the good-hearted doctors who care for my family. They have made my job as a mother a lot easier. I can spend less time worrying and more time playing with my daughter and soaking up the time with her as she grows up way too fast.

Thanks, science, for making it easier to be a mom.

Alice Callahan is a research scientist turned stay-at-home mom. She writes about the science of parenting, as well as her adventures in mothering, at Science of Mom.  You can also find her on Twitter as @scienceofmom and on Facebook.

This article was originally published on Mother Geek and has been republished with full permission.

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