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Doctors have good advice for new parents — but don't necessarily share it


The media can't always be a trusted source of advice when it comes to women's health. Yet while there's no end to the wisdom celebrities like Kim Kardashian and Gwyneth Paltrow dole out to new moms, doctors' advice can be surprisingly absent on some important aspects of child care.

That's what a new study in the journal Pediatrics shows. Researchers from Boston Medical Center, the Yale School of Medicine, and Boston University asked more than 1,000 new moms at 32 hospitals about where they got important advice regarding immunization, breastfeeding, sleep position, sleep location, and pacifier use. Was it from doctors, birth hospital nurses, family, the media — or no one at all? They then compared the advice itself to the current American Academy of Pediatrics recommendations, to see if it was consistent.

Here's what they found:

(Javier Zarracina/Vox)

Doctors often didn't advise on some of the very basics

As you can see above, doctors gave moms the most advice, compared with the other sources, but there were massive and troubling gaps. Docs seemed to be doing it right on vaccines — most moms got appropriate information on this topic. But one-fifth of mothers said their doctors gave them no advice on breastfeeding and the safest sleep position for their babies. (You can reduce babies' risk of sudden infant death syndrome by making sure they sleep on their backs.) Half of the moms surveyed reported that their doctors did not advise on sleep location (a crib or bassinet is much safer than the parents' bed) or pacifier use.

In fact, moms got remarkably little advice on how (or whether) to use pacifiers, as you can see in the chart below:

(Javier Zarracina/Vox)

Doctors' advice wasn't always backed by the best available pediatrics guidelines, the researchers found: As much 15 percent of what they told mothers was not consistent with the current recommendations for breastfeeding and pacifier use, and a quarter didn't match recommendations on sleep position or location.

Moms get less-sound advice from families and the media

But even more troubling was that the media and people's families were filling the gaps left by the medical professionals, and their advice was more likely to deviate from the AAP's guidelines than input from medical professionals.

For example, check out this chart on breastfeeding information, in which mothers got nearly the same amount of advice from the media as from their doctors:

(Javier Zarracina/Vox)

In terms of accuracy, media advice fared poorly. "It was frequently not consistent with recommendations," the study found.

On vaccines, doctors seemed to be guiding new moms correctly, and moms seemed to be relying on the media less here:

(Javier Zarracina/Vox)

Could funneling better information through families and the media help?

This study had some noteworthy limitations. For one, it relied on moms describing who told them what. On this issue, though, the study authors note that moms' perceptions of where they got info might be really important.

Another limitation is that the authors didn't look at which advice most influenced mothers' decisions about child care. So just because they got a lot of health information from the media, say, it doesn't mean they necessarily listened to it all. The survey also excluded fathers.

Dr. Staci Eisenberg, a pediatrician at Boston Medical Center, said she sees the gaps in advice from her peers as potentially having a silver lining.

"There's a great opportunity for the public health sector to engage with families and media," she said. Previous studies have found that giving moms evidence-based advice from more sources can lead to higher adherence to those recommendations. "We hope there's real opportunity here to engage proactively with families and how families get information, and how folks in media help get out accurate information."