Rachel, in the comments to my last post, pointed out a new study claiming that
Parents who choose a stroller that seats their baby facing away from them could risk long-term development problems in their children, according to a study published Friday.
Parents are less likely to interact with children in forward-facing strollers.
The research found that children not facing the person pushing them were significantly less likely to talk, laugh and interact with their parents.
Based on a study of 2,722 parents and children, the study by Dundee University’s School of Psychology calls into question the designs of many of the world’s most popular baby strollers.
“Our experimental study showed that, simply by turning the buggy around, parents’ rate of talking to their baby doubled,” said developmental psychologist Suzanne Zeedyk, who led the research.
Zeedyk’s study, published by British charity National Literacy Trust, included an experiment in which 20 babies were wheeled in buggies for a mile, spending half the trip facing their parents and the other half facing away,
Parents using face-to-face strollers were more likely to talk to their children, who were less likely to exhibit signs of stress, the study said.
We’ll be going into what, exactly, the babies were exhibiting in a while. The real kicker, however, is Zeedyk’s own interpretation of her study’s results:
“Our data suggests that for many babies today, life in a buggy is emotionally impoverished and possibly stressful,” Zeedyk said.
“Stressed babies grow into anxious adults.”
Got that? Let your baby see something other than your face while riding in a stroller, and he’s doomed! Stressed! Emotionally impoverished! Why are you still sitting here reading my rant, instead of rushing out this very minute to buy a Mommy-facing stroller instead of the crappy forward-facing one you undoubtedly have?! Perhaps the cost of the newer, more expensive stroller can be recouped by the lawsuit you’ll undoubtedly be bringing against the company that made your old one…
My initial reaction upon reading that CNN article was, verbatim: “Good. Effing. Grief.” (I would have used the actual swear word, but my kids were nearby and despite being incorrectly strollered and not constantly talked to, they all somehow managed to pick up the nuances of not just one language, but two). Once I recovered, I went to look for the actual study over at the website of it publisher, the British National Literacy Trust. Here it is for your perusal.
Study I was carried out by 57 volunteers located throughout the UK. Each volunteer sat in a location overlooking the main street of a given town/city for a period of 30 minutes, and was asked to make certain observations about each and every child under the age of 3 who passed by during that time: The estimated age of the baby (0-1/1-2/2+ years old), who they were with (Mom/Dad/both), the baby’s mode of transport (buggy/carried/walking), whether the buggy was facing toward or away from the adult pushing it, what the child was doing (vocalising/silent/seeking parent/crying/sleeping), and what the adult was doing (talking/not). Note that unless the child actually stopped within view or earshot of the observer and were the only child on the scene at the time, the baby and parent/s were probably seen for no more than 10-20 seconds, all told.
I was thinking of dissecting this part of the study in detail, but truth be told, it’s enough to read what was done in the study itself and compare that to the rather far-reaching, definitive statements arrived at by the researcher. Can we say “jumping to conclusions” here? I would like to point out a few things that jumped out at me, though:
The researcher claims that since the seconds-long observation of the infant/parent dyad was made at a random point in the child’s journey, “Statistical logic allows us to predict that, if talking behaviour was random, we should have observed parents talking (to their children) as often as we observed them not talking”. However, she fails to take into account that some people are less likely to talk to their infants in crowded public places. Not everyone is comfortable talking in a high-pitched singsong in front of others, but that doesn’t mean they don’t talk to them when unobserved (at home or on a deserted side street).
Even if we assume the proportion of time spent vocalizing by both parents and infants (some 20% overall for both groups) is accurate, I’m left wondering why Zeedyk thinks this is an insufficient amount of time, and what amount would she consider sufficient – 40%, 75%, 100%? Is a parent never allowed, while pushing their baby in a buggy, to be lost in their own thoughts, or focused on getting to wherever it is they’re going, or even – good heavens! – have a conversation with someone else? Talking to the baby and baby ‘talking’ back each on an average of 12 seconds out of every minute sounds plenty to me. I get that the study was done with the collaboration of the ‘Talk to Your Baby Campaign’, but does that necessarily mean ‘Talk to your baby incessantly’? I doubt it.
Study II, upon which lean most of the press release’s claims, involved 20 mother-infant pairs, most of whom were of high educational and economic status. The infants were 9-24 months old (average 13.6 months) and, for the most part, were accustomed to riding the “wrong” way (at least as defined by Zeedyk). The mothers first took their babies in one type of stroller along a predetermined route for about 15 minutes, then switched midway to the other type of stroller for another 15 minutes. The babies were attached to heart rate and audio monitors (the latter for picking up mom’s and baby’s speech); this was known to the mothers. Half the babies started their journey in the stroller facing away from the mother, and the other half in the stroller facing toward her.
Zeedyk found that mothers in the study talked more to their babies when in the Mommy-facing strollers, and the babies also vocalized more. Additionally, she found the babies’ heart rate was slightly (and non-significantly) lower when the babies were in the Mommy-facing position. The higher heart rates were taken to be a sign that the babies were stressed by the stroller’s orientation. It was also noticed that more babies (10 vs. 4) fell asleep during the Mommy-facing ride than the away-facing one; this, too, was attributed to the de-stressing effect of the interaction with Mom. More babies also cried during the Mommy-facing ride as well (also non-significant), but the author declined to attribute this to the babies being stressed, for some odd reason.
However, both groups of mothers talked an awful lot – even when using the away-facing stroller, they spoke to them at an average rate of 6 sentences per minute (as opposed to 15 sentences/minute in the Mommy-facing stroller). I suspect this has a lot to do with the mothers’ knowing they’d be recorded. While there’s a good chance the infant’s positive response caused the mothers to talk even more, either way, they were yakking their poor babies’ ears off.
Zeedyk admits that obtaining a reliable heart rate measurement is problematic in a moving buggy; in any case, elevated heart rates, even reliably obtained ones, are not necessarily due to stress. The away-facing babies could have been excited (in a good way) by the new sights and sounds, whereas the familiar sight of Mommy (not to mention all that talking!) could have bored them to sleep. It’s of value to note that heart rate goes down while asleep – so the proportion of sleeping babies on its own could explain why the average heart rate was lower during Mommy-facing stroller rides, and neither parameter need have anything to do with stress. (One way to partially get around this might have been to have a third journey, this time in the babies’ own strollers. The familiar stroller environment might be expected to be a stress-buster. And of course, to exclude the periods in which the infants slept).
Most mothers rated the Mommy-facing strollers as providing the better perambulation experience, however they didn’t see any difference in their babies’ enjoyment of the rides. One wonders if the mothers were told the study objectives and working hypothesis in advance.
To make an already long story short…what we’ve got is a study which claims to show far, far more than it actually does, and whose author makes statements about harms to babies which are far from being demonstrated here. Zeedyk is neither a novice nor, as far as I can tell, an incompetent researcher; I wonder what caused her to run with these half-baked results to the press, instead of submitting her study to a peer-reviewed journal?
Of course, the AP/NP types (who aren’t exactly known for their understanding of what makes a good study to begin with) are smugly lapping this up. Here’s one example:
Just one more reason why babywearing is such a great way to promote attachment with your child or at least get a stroller that can be turned around or at the very least make sure you think about talking to your children when they are facing away.
Not so fast, Toots. See, if you believe the study’s results are valid – i.e., having your infant facing away from you when moving around makes you talk less to her, her talk less to you, and raises her stress level, then carrying your baby in a sling with her back to you, or even worse – with her on your back, maybe even like so – should have a similar, emotionally-impoverishing effect. Unless you talk to her at the rate of at least 15+ sentences per minute, all the time… ;) .