Are You the Happy Parent?

Happy father with daughter

It turns out, what we bring to parenting impacts our happiness in parenting. That may not be a surprise result of psychological research, but grasping the idea can make a difference in your approach to your job as parent.

As my children are older, I’m honest with them about how difficult parenting can be. I don’t want them to have unrealistic expectations, if they decide to be parents, but I also don’t want them to block all desire to be parents. It’s a hard job—and the hard job is worth it. My 14-year old son is less likely to just accept such talk now, so I decided to dig into the research to figure out if I could tell him how the ideas of “hard job” and “worth it” could go together.

The research turns out to be fascinating—and not at all simple.

I’ve been writing about paths toward happiness with our children over the past month: cultivating compassion, grateful kids, and teaching mindfulness for self control. All of that addresses helping our children to ground their own happiness, though. What about your happiness as a parent?

A study published earlier this year asked “when, why, and how is parenthood associated with more or less well-being?” Studies that ask a simple question of “Are parents more or less happy than non-parents” contradict one another. This study (Nelson et al.) reviewed studies to ask the more nuanced question. Their review finds a complex relationship between parenting and happiness.

“We propose that parents are unhappy to the extent that they encounter relatively greater negative emotions, magnified financial problems, more sleep disturbance, and troubled marriages. By contrast, when parents experience greater meaning in life, satisfaction of their basic needs, greater positive emotions, and enhanced social roles, they are met with happiness and joy” (Nelson et al.).

What the parent brings to parenting can make the difference. The Berkeley Greater Good Science Center broke down the links to happiness, as outlined in the study, in age, gender, parenting style, and emotional bonds. Though there are still questions to be asked in more research, it is quite clear from long research that attachment leads to secure adults. If we are the parents are not secure in our attachments, though,

For us, that could mean that

“parents who do not feel secure in relationships seem to be more susceptible to declines in their relationship with their spouse during the transition to parenthood” (Nauman).

The review study (Nelson) looked at that transition to parenthood as a particularly important time. That is the phase many of our customers are going through as they meet us to talk about baby stuff, but we always understand that their underlying needs are much bigger than a cloth diaper or a pair of socks. We try to address the immediate needs as well as the deeper needs.

If you are interested in a review of the review, I suggest you read the full article at the Greater Good Science Center for an outline of factors in well-being and characteristics of those parents found to have greater well-being.

The conclusion may seem obvious that parents who know what they are getting into are more likely to find happiness in their parenting.

It’s important to know, as well, that

“happy parents often mean happy kids: Research has shown that happier parents engage in more positive parental behaviors and also influences positive outcomes in their children, like their child’s motivation, achievement, and relationships with peers.” (Nauman)

It’s worth finding your happiness in parenting. It does matter for the happiness of your children.

Resources

S. Katherine Nelson, Kostadin Kushlev, Sonja Lyubomirsky, “The pains and pleasures of parenting: When, why, and how is parenthood associated with more or less well-being?” Psychological Bulletin, Vol 140(3), May 2014, 846-895.

Emily Nauman, “What Makes a Happy Parent?” August 19, 2014.

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Sugar: 7 Reasons to Break the Addiction

Baby eating a sugar lollipop

Several articles and studies in the past week give even more reason to consciously and relentlessly reduce sugar in your family’s diet, especially in the diet of your children as they grow and develop.

Sugar consumption is high, probably higher than you realize. Sugar isn’t just in cookies, ice cream, and sodas. Sugar sneaks into places you wouldn’t expect to find it: canned soup, mass-produced bread, processed meats, Kraft dinner, ketchup.

Statistics Canada reports that the average Canadian consumes 110 grams (or 26 teaspoons) of sugar a day. That’s over half a cup of sugar a day. Why not just wake up to a glass of water and pour in half a cup of sugar. Mmm. Sounds, well, terrible. Even if the number is half that, as the Canadian Sugar Institute claims, it seems high when you translate that into 44-88 lbs or 20-40 kg a year.

Just pause to visualize that much sugar. Not so appetizing all at once.

That fact is, the average North American is eating a lot of sugar.

This past week, National Geographic and TIME magazine published features on sugar, and a new study from the University of Utah suggests that the effects of sugar are far more than just weight gain.

What Is the Effect of Sugar?

1. Sugar leads to disease. Sugar overload can lead to high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, and higher risk of heart attack. The process of metabolic disease is clear.

2. Sugar leaves you without enough energy to exercise away the extra calories it leaves. Double whammy.

3. Sugar’s effect on your body is addictive. Sure, the immediate effect is pleasurable, as is the effect of cocaine or heroin, but most of us know enough not to slide down that slippery slope.

4. Sugar is toxic to you. To quote TIME on a new study published this week, “even safe levels of sugar could have serious negative effects on people’s health.”

5. Sugar shortens your life, at least it may have subtle biological effects that lead to shorter lives. Research is ongoing in this area, but findings point to higher mortality.

One of the researchers on the Utah study released this week said in the Salt Lake Tribune,

“I think the big takeaway is the level of sugar we readily eat and think is safe causes major health declines in mice. . . . We’re not just talking about some minor metabolic thing. We’re taking about increased rates of death and [lower rates] of reproduction.”

6. Sugar or marry your cousin? A diet high in sugar has similar effects to inbreeding—at least in a recent study with mice. To quote my local paper on this local study: “Would you rather be on the American diet … or have parents be full cousins?’ said senior author Wayne Potts, a biology professor. ‘This data is telling us it’s a toss up.’”

7. Sugar can even make you stupid, or so it appears from a different rat study. National Geographic quoted the study researcher: “‘I was very shocked to see how strong an effect these diets could have on the brain—I have high concern that the foods people eat can really affect mood and cognition,’ Gomez-Pinilla said.”

How I’ve Handled Sugar with My Children

My solution when my children were very young was not to forbid sugar, since I didn’t want it to become the desired thing they binged on away from home, but to give them no refined sugar at home and allow some away from home. I had to have grandparents’ cooperation in this, since they were the sugar pushers.

Now that my children are older and more logical, we can talk through the consequences of lack of nutritional control. We even took a college class together on nutrition to keep our discussions science based. They know how they feel when they overeat junk food or super-sweet food, and they don’t like it. I don’t have to exert MY control as a parent because they are exercising their own self control.

This is not to say that we don’t still have trouble. Having read the recent articles in National Geographic and TIME magazines, I know we have to push our sugar consumption even lower. What we think of as moderation is not moderate. It’s exceedingly high consumption of sugar, and our bodies did not evolve to handle this onslaught.

Don’t just replace refined-sugar sweets with other sweets. Get past the sugar addiction yourself and don’t let it grow in your children. I know that just makes it sound easy, and I know that it isn’t actually easy if you are stuck on sugar. But, your health and your children’s health and normal development depend on it.

Even though it can be difficult, just do it.

Recent articles on the effects of sugar

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Toxic Threats to Child Development

In Harm's Way Toxic Threats to Child Development

Are you looking for some substantial reading you can do over the weekend? I’ve been reading more about the toxic environment in which our children grow and develop. I’m not concerned about the good dirt and exposure to naturally occurring bacteria that help children build their immunity naturally. I’m concerned with the heavy toxins introduced into our environment through industrialization.

In 2000, a group of physicians released In Harm’s Way, a long, peer-reviewed study of toxic chemical influences on developmental disabilities. The study is written in more plain language that most medical studies, so it’s easier for most of us to read and understand.

Though trends are difficult to establish with certainty, there is a growing consensus that learning and behavioral disorders are increasing in frequency. These disabilities are clearly the result of complex interactions among genetic, environmental, and social factors that impact children during vulnerable periods of development. Research demonstrates that pervasive toxic substances, such as mercury, lead, PCBs, dioxins, pesticides, solvents, and others, can contribute to neurobehavioral and cognitive disorders.

Greater Boston Physicians for Social Responsibility, “In Harm’s Way: Toxic Threats to Child Development,” 2000.

If you want to understand your child’s normal brain development and how chemical toxins alter development, you will find it in this study.

You can buy a paperback version of the 149-page study for $100+ or you can download it for free in pieces or as one long PDF.

The themes that emerged from this research were:

  1. Neurodevelopmental disabilities are widespread, and chemical exposures are important and preventable contributors to these conditions.
  2. Our initial understanding of the impacts of neurotoxic substances regularly underestimates the potential for harm.
  3. Carefully conducted, long-term epidemiological studies have proven to be much more sensitive measures of developmental neurotoxicity than animal studies.
  4. Regulatory policy has repeatedly failed to protect children from widespread harm due to exposures to developmental neurotoxins.
  5. The failure of the regulatory system to protect public health can often be traced to the influence of vested economic interests upon the regulatory process.
  6. Neurodevelopmental disabilities impose social and economic costs upon impacted families and the economy as a whole.
  7. Special interests are not merely tolerated but are actually an integral part of the regulatory process.

The conclusions point the way to improving a regulatory system that has not yet adequately protected children’s health. Who, though, is going to say that they don’t have children’s health as their goal? This is common ground we all share. Starting from there, we can look at what barriers stand in the way, name them out loud, and make the changes necessary to prevent such damage to our children’s present and future.

The project didn’t stop with the publication of this study. Training programs have been created to act on findings, and they have produced many more guides for clinicians and for parents. If you find yourself intrigued by this study, there is much more where that came from.

We have to be well informed as parents if we are going to make the best decisions for our children.

Breastfeeding Research in the News

Doctor talking to a mother

When the British Medical Journal two weeks ago published a review paper, an opinion piece, on the nutritional INadequacy of the World Health Organization’s recommendation that infants exclusively breastfeed for six month, a wave of media coverage followed. As often happens, the adequacy of the publication was of less importance in media coverage than the potential audience share that fear-based headlines could pull in.

A few articles did point out that the review acknowledges that 3 of 4 authors “have performed consultancy work and/or received research funding from companies manufacturing infant formulas and baby foods within the past three years.” This seems like a very interesting point worth pursuing, especially in light of the historical context of marketing breastmilk replacement products globally and the original catalysts to the WHO recommendations.

Just planting a doubt in a mother’s mind can sometimes be enough to change behavior. The use of fear, uncertainty, and doubt (FUD) through careful so-called research or careful framing but avoidance of research is a tried and true propaganda technique. Unfortunately, it works.


Backlash Against Poor Research

Responses to the review on the British Medical Journal (BMJ) website, including those by researchers active in the field, by physicians, by activists, and by interested observers, bring up interesting points about the quality and content of the view as well as about the context. Research is not conducted in a vacuum. Researchers have life experiences, personal interests, and paid positions to protect. Peer review is intended to bring up issues within the design and execution of the research, but it seldom addresses the hidden push and pull that subtly shapes outcomes and reports. Having spent a good portion of my life in graduate school and specifically addressing the biases of scientific research in my doctoral work, I know how flexible the concept of “truth” can sometimes be. Sometimes intentionally, sometimes not.

The BMJ will no doubt publish formal responses. There will probably be women who were looking for a reason not to keep breastfeeding who find it in superficial news stories. Serious breastfeeding research will continue. And, policymakers will keep looking for ways to support exclusive breastfeeding as the best way to feed babies.

The review was published January 13, 2011. Since then, on January 20, 2011, the U.S. Surgeon General issued a “Call to Action to Support Breastfeeding.” This is not a quick response but an extensive report from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. They have made it easy for community members to understand what they can do to support breastfeeding.

“A study published last year in the journal Pediatrics estimated that the nation would save $13 billion per year in health care and other costs if 90 percent of U.S. babies were exclusively breastfed for six months. . . . ‘I believe that we as a nation are beginning to see a shift in how we think and talk about breastfeeding,’ said Dr. Benjamin. ‘With this “Call to Action,” I am urging everyone to help make breastfeeding easier.’”
Everyone Can Help Make Breastfeeding Easier, Surgeon General Says in “Call to Action”

Health Canada also has a very short open period for comments on “Nutrition for Healthy Term Infants – Recommendations from Birth to Six Months,” their “evidence-informed recommendations to assist health professionals in communicating consistent guidance on infant nutrition to Canadian parents and caregivers.”

Policymakers understand that breastfed babies are healthy babies, and, among all of the other benefits, healthy babies save money. Your reasons and mine for breastfeeding might be closer to home, but it is easy to see that the support is widespread outside circles where there is profit to be made from breastmilk substitutes or early weaning foods.

When it comes down to it, most women aren’t reading research papers. They want to do the best for their babies, and they trust their healthcare providers and others in positions to support their choices. Yesterday, January 25, 2011, TIME Magazine published an article about U.S. Surgeon General Regina Benjamin’s call for community support of breastfeeding: “It takes a village to help moms succeed.” We may not want to be swayed so easily, but the messages we get in the media about parenting influence us. Not all of those messages are negative. I embrace those messages that ask us to support women rather than isolating them in fear, uncertainty, and doubt.

Next week, we’ll look at research into breastfeeding support.

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What to Eat While Breastfeeding

Baby feeding her mother a banana

You might wonder whether you need to eat more, eat different foods, or drink more water during lactation. How much does your nutrition effect your baby? What should you eat while you are breastfeeding?

The short answer is very simple: your normal healthy diet is good already.

That’s the catch, though. Many of us don’t eat a consistently healthy diet. You probably watched what you ate during pregnancy, and you should continue to make the most healthy choices during breastfeeding. This is a good time to solidify eating habits that will serve you and your family well over time.

In recent years, research has confirmed that even if some nutrients are missing in a woman’s daily diet, she will still produce milk that will help her child grow. There is very little difference in the milk of healthy mothers and mothers who are severely malnourished.

Sheri Lyn Parpia Khan, “Maternal Nutrition during Breastfeeding,” NEW BEGINNINGS 21:2 (March-April 2004), 44.


A Good Diet

A good diet for breastfeeding women looks a lot like a good diet for the whole family. The National Academy of Sciences Institute of Medicine did a thorough analysis of Nutrition During Lactation. In their recommendations for clinical implementation of their guidelines, they offered the following “Special Recommendations for Lactating Women.”

  • Avoid diets and medications that promise rapid weight loss.
  • Eat a wide variety of breads and cereal grains, fruits, vegetables, milk products, and meats or meat alternates each day.
  • Take three or more servings of milk products daily.
  • Make a greater effort to eat vitamin-A-rich vegetables or fruit often. Examples of vitamin-A-rich foods include carrots, spinach or other cooked greens, sweet potatoes, and cantaloupe.
  • Be sure to drink when you are thirsty· You will need more fluid than usual.
  • If you drink coffee or other caffeinated beverages, such as cola, do so in moderation. Two servings daily are unlikely to harm the infant. Caffeine passes into the milk.

Nutrition During Pregnancy and Lactation: An Implementation Guide, Institute of Medicine, National Academy of Sciences, 1992.

Even this advice needs to be looked at carefully, since a vegetarian mother will likely get her calcium from almonds, spinach, or other calcium-rich foods rather than from animal milk. You don’t need to drink cow’s milk to make human milk.


Supplements

You aren’t likely to need vitamin supplements if you eat a nutrient-dense diet. Again, whether your usual diet is giving you the nutrition you need can be an issue. You may want to evaluate your overall food intake to see how it compares with daily recommendations and adjust to increase your intake of particular kinds of foods.

Lactating women who meet the RDA for energy are likely to meet the RDA for all nutrients except calcium and zinc if the nutrient density of their diets is close to the average for young U.S. women.

Nutrition During Lactation, Institute of Medicine, National Academy of Sciences, 1991.


Drink Water

The usual advice is to drink more water, but you don’t need to over-think (or over-drink) this. Your body will tell you when you need more water. Drink when you are thirsty. To be sure that you have water available when you are thirsty, keep water close by at your usual nursing stations. Keep a water bottle in your diaper bag. If the water is available, you can easily drink when you feel the need.

Does it have to be water? No. Your body will work with whatever fluids you drink, though you should avoid sweet and caffeinated drinks as you would when pregnant. That is just part of a healthy diet.

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