RESEARCH-BASED PARENTING NEWSLETTERS
The parenting newsletters are “Researched-Based,” but what do we mean by this? Well, we DON’T mean technical, boring, or impractical. One look at the newsletters should convince you of that! “Researched-Based” means the newsletter content is based on the most up to date research on child development and parenting.
Moreover, the newsletters themselves have been evaluated for impact, and we know they help parents become more competent at their job of parenting. Check out the links below for summary information on our evaluation studies, and a statewide press release you can use.
WHY IS RESEARCH-BASED INFORMATION IMPORTANT?
Most child rearing advice on the internet or print media comes from people who have terrific experience and insight (thank goodness), but who have seldom read the research literature on child development and parent-child relations. They develop philosophies of child rearing, which are useful tools for teaching and learning, but we should not be surprised that these philosophies disagree with each other as you move from one expert to another.
The authors of Parenting the First Year and Parenting the Second and Third Years have some practical experience, as parents and parent educators. But we also have advanced degrees in child development. One of us is a professor who conducts research, and we read and teach the research results of others. We have tried to keep our advice as close as possible to a base of knowledge that has been confirmed by actual observations on large numbers of real families. We focus on what really works for most families, rather than what ought to work according to some philosophy.
FOR EXAMPLE: SHOULD YOU COMFORT A CRYING BABY?
Some “experts” think you should comfort a baby whenever it cries, while others think you will raise a spoiled child if you go to baby every time he/she cries (i.e. if you “reward” baby for crying). In Parenting the First Year we support one side of this argument, but not because of our philosophical leanings towards nurturance or independence training. Research shows that babies stop crying sooner when parents respond more quickly to their cries. On the other hand, the research is equivocal about whether responding quickly to crying in the first three months of life leads to less crying later on. An earlier study by Bell and Ainsworth (1972) showed quicker response to crying led to a reduction in later crying. In contrast, a replication study by Hubbard and van Ijzendoorn (1991) showed less responsiveness to crying led to an initial reduction in crying (during the first six months), although unresponsiveness did not lead to less crying in the second half of the year. While responding quickly may not necessarily reduce the amount of crying, it does not appear to increase it in the long term. And we know from attachment research that sensitive responding to babies’ cries helps them learn to trust that caregivers will meet their needs, which leads to a secure attachment.
We also know that when a group of parents are induced to hold their babies more minutes per day (i.e. in a field experiment), actually carrying them around more, then the babies end up crying less than comparison babies. Other research shows that when mothers hold and sooth their extremely fussy infants more at six weeks of age, their babies are rated lower in negativity by fifteen months.
The idea that we will spoil a baby and encourage it to cry more by responding to its cries just doesn’t hold water once you see this evidence. These are research findings, and regardless of your parenting philosophy, it is tough to argue with results.
ANOTHER EXAMPLE: INBORN TEMPERAMENT
In our early issues we have several articles on infant temperament: the inborn individual differences in such characteristics as mood, intensity of response, activity level, biological rhythms, and adaptability to novelty and changes. The information and advice in these articles is based largely on several books and scientific articles from a large, longitudinal study by Thomas and Chess (Temperament and Development, 1977). Their work is largely consistent with many other studies, so we can be pretty confident about the findings. This is what we mean when we say the newsletters are “research based.”
RESEARCH AND VALUES
We owe you two warnings. The first is that researchers can never tell you what the AIM of your child rearing OUGHT to be, for that is a matter of values. Different cultures, and even different families on the same block, have different values and therefore seek to raise different sorts of children. And values don’t hold still: for example, our society’s ideas of a “competent female” have changed dramatically in the past quarter century. If you tell us what kind of person you wish to raise, we can tell you how to increase your chance of success. But we have no business telling you to what you should aspire.
For the most part, then, we have tried to give advice based on values that nearly everyone in North America has in common. There is little disagreement on the basics of what a “competent” child is: able to be calmed and comforted by parents, respectful of adults, cooperative with peers, intellectually inquisitive and accomplished, ready to do well in school when that time comes, and so forth.
But even these broad assumptions will not hold for all families. An example: We advise parents to talk so your baby can see you talking, and to teach turn-taking in communication even before baby can understand what you are saying. Researchers confirm that this predicts earlier language acquisition, which is associated with later ease of literacy learning. But here in our home state of Wisconsin live several bands of the Chippewa Indians who, like many other ethnic groups, place value on quiet children, not talkative children. So our advice is somewhat out of sync with their values. When we translated the newsletters into Spanish we faced this issue squarely, and had the content reviewed for cultural fit as well as for language translation. (We picked Mexico and Mexican-Americans as the target culture, while trying to use more generic Latin American Spanish in the writing).
INDIVIDUAL DIFFERENCES IN CHILDREN
If we do research on 1,000 families we can tell you what usually works in raising children well. But does that mean that it will work for you with your child?
No, it doesn’t. Any parent who has had more than one child knows that what worked with the first child often won’t work with the second. I am often astonished that we are able to derive predictive models at all, given the amazing differences between individual humans. Our research-based models tell us pretty well what will work on average, in the population of all children and families. But they cannot tell us what is best for any particular child and family.
So, the newsletters contain the best advice available if we don’t know which child we are talking about (i.e. the best advice for the average child and family). And most of the time, the advice will be best for you and your child. But you know your particular child best, and we encourage you to use your expertise and good judgment to reject our advice when it doesn’t seem to fit with your child.
In the end, experts may know the most about kids in general. But no expert knows as much about your baby as you do.
Evaluations of Parenting the First Year Newsletter
We evaluated the effectiveness of the Parenting the First Year newsletters to see if parents really use the newsletters and if they change their behaviors as a result of reading the newsletters.
Riley, D., et al. (1991). How effective are age-paced newsletters for new parents? A replication and extension of earlier studies. Family Relations, 40, 247-253.
The first study was published in the above article. For this study, we surveyed parents who had given birth in six maternity hospitals in four counties surrounding the Milwaukee metropolitan area. Each family had received the Parenting the First Year newsletter free in the mail, monthly for six months. Our sample of 297 families represented 41% of those contacted. The data were collected by self-report questionnaire.
Finding 1: High readership
Two-thirds of respondents reported reading “all articles in all issues.” Over two-thirds reported two or more readers for each issue, so that readership was doubled. The most common additional reader was the spouse.
“My husband also reads it cover-to-cover and we’ve had numerous discussions about information contained in the newsletters.” (First-time mother)
“I’m sending copies to an out-of-state sister-in-law who’s having her first child too.” (First-time mother)
Finding 2: People find it useful
We asked parents to rate how useful for parenting information they found several sources of information, including their own parents, books and magazines, other new parents, and relatives including their own parents. The Parenting the First Year newsletter was placed last on this list, so that respondents’ answers about how useful it was would be gauged against their answers for all other sources. To our surprise, respondents rated the newsletter series “very useful” more often than any other source (61% of respondents gave it this rating).
“I use the articles to confirm what my doctor said when relatives said they did it different, so it made me feel more confident about what I was doing and my doctor’s advice.” (First-time mother)
“I am an RN, work in perinatal areas, so I already know same info as provided by the newsletter, BUT I like the fact that the newsletters come to coincide with my baby’s age. I use much of the information to validate my parenting style since relatives often challenge my beliefs and practices…” (First-time mother)
Finding 3: Most respondents said that reading the newsletters made them change their parenting
But these are self-reports so we need to be cautious; we don’t know that actual behavior change really took place, and that it was due to the newsletters. But one way to feel a bit more confident in these conclusions would be to compare the responses of first-time parents to experienced parents. Since first-time parents need our advice more, they should have gained more from reading the newsletters, and so should have reported significantly more behavior change. This is, in fact, exactly what we found, and we found it for each of the five areas of behavior change we measured: talking more with baby, hugging baby more, being less angry when baby is difficult, responding more quickly when baby cries, and providing more stimulation to baby. We picked these areas of parenting to evaluate because prior research had shown them to each be predictive of better child development.
The findings of the first evaluation were very promising, but the study suffered from methodological weaknesses. Those weaknesses have been corrected in a second evaluation, for which we now have results.
This second study, with a new and larger sample, used a treatment and control group design (i.e. a field experiment), allowing stronger inferences about causality. It also used a self-report measure of parental beliefs, the AAPI, which has considerable validity (it has been able to differentiate abusing from non-abusing parents in validation studies). It also used a shortened form of the Home Screening Questionnaire (HSQ, based on the HOME scale), which is a measure of home environment that correlates with IQ at age 4. Thus, both measurement and research design have been strengthened.
All data collection took place during the second half of 1990 in six South East Wisconsin counties. Approximately 55% of 2,000 recruited subjects completed and returned the mailed questionnaire (n = 1104). Half had received the newsletter series for a year, and half had not; all had 14-month olds at the time of the study. Two of the findings are noteworthy.
Finding 1: The newsletter reduces the frequency of parents striking their babies.
First, parents who received the newsletter scored significantly lower than control group parents on the AAPI scale that measures strong belief in the use of corporal punishment (t = 2.37, p < .02). This result is consistent with a finding from the earlier evaluation, in which over half of new parents (and fully 70% of first-time parents) agreed with the statement, “Reading the newsletters caused me to be less angry when my baby is difficult.” The current investigation also included an item from the HSQ that was related to corporal punishment, and so provided another cross-check against the above finding. When asked “About how many times in the past week did you have to spank or slap your infant to get him/her to mind”, treatment group parents reported spanking or slapping their 14-month olds an average of 1/2 time less per week (t = 2.16, p = .03). This effect held for new parents in both risk group categories (e.g. single parents, low income parents, etc.) and non-risk parents.
Because this research employed an experimental design, which allows strong inferences about causality, we can estimate the effect (upon spanking and slapping babies) of the newsletter across the state. Since the newsletter now reaches about 40,000 Wisconsin parents each year, this means we prevented about 20,000 occurrences of parents slapping or spanking their babies “in the previous week.” If this effect held up for a year (which we do not yet know) it would amount to over one million prevented occurrences of babies being struck.
Finding 2: The newsletter causes parents to provide a more intellectually stimulating home environment for their babies. This effect is limited to parents who are socially isolated from other young parents.
The newsletter series can be thought of as a “channel of information” for new parents. We expected it would have an especially strong effect on parents who lack another, normally potent, source of parenting information: other parents of young children (i.e. their peer network of social support). We asked our respondents, “Do you have any friends with young children about the same age as your child?” Those who answered “no” we called isolated. Our results confirmed our hypothesis. If a parent had either or both sources of information (friends, and / or the newsletter), then they had similar, high scores on our index of how stimulating the home environment was. On the other hand, if they lacked both sources of information, then they scored significantly lower. We can conclude that the newsletter series fills the gap for parents who lack other young parents to learn from.
The newsletter series appears to have an impact upon both the spanking / slapping of babies and intellectual stimulation of the infants.
Although slapping or spanking a baby (which we measured) is not necessarily child abuse (which we did not directly measure), we want to make two further points. First, physical punishment of babies is highly ineffective discipline. It is never necessary, and is usually an indication of frustration and emotional acting-out on the part of the parent. Second, even when spanking is not dangerous, it can lead to trouble. Parents who physically abuse their children usually begin with small slaps and hits, but then begin to hit more often and harder when small slaps stop working. Our newsletter series, we hope, prevents eventual child abuse even before it begins, by preventing the small slaps of babies that are the precursor of a later style of parenting in which physically hurting a child becomes the unthinking, automatic response of a parent.
KEY FINDINGS FROM ADDITIONAL EVALUATIONS
The age-paced parenting newsletters have been evaluated in several other states besides Wisconsin, as well as in England where they have been adapted. Here is a summary of the key findings (with references).
- Parents rate the newsletters highly useful for childrearing advice more often than any other source of information, including physicians, nurses, relatives, and other printed materials. (1)
- The newsletters are shared and discussed within the parents’ social networks, averaging two readers per newsletter. Over two-thirds of fathers read them. (2)
- In studies in California, Delaware, and Wisconsin, those who reported changes in their behaviors and attitudes most, as a result of reading the newsletters, were the youngest, poorest and least educated. (1)
- The above findings on usefulness, sharing of the newsletter, and self-reported behavior change have been replicated in an interview study with Spanish-speaking mothers in Oregon, whose educational levels averaged 8th grade. (3)
- Parents receiving the newsletters for a year, compared to comparison group parents who did not, had beliefs about children significantly less like those of child abusing parents. They also reported spanking or slapping their babies significantly fewer times in the previous week. (4)
- Parents receiving the newsletters for a year, compared to control group parents who did not, provided a significantly more intellectually stimulating home environment for their infants and toddlers. (4)
- The newsletter has been successfully adapted for parents in England. Parents reported changing their behaviors in positive ways, especially with regard to providing more stimulating experiences for their baby. (5)
- In England a randomized clinical trial of the British version of Parenting the First Year showed that mothers receiving the newsletters for one year, compared to the control group, experienced fewer and less intense “daily hassels,” and had more appropriate expectations for their infant’s behavior. (6)
References to Evaluation Studies.
1. Cudaback, D., Darden, C., Nelson, P., O=Brien, S., Pinsky, D., & Wiggins, E. (1985). Becoming successful parents: Can age-paced newsletters help? Family Relations, 34, 271-275.
Dickinson, N. & Cudaback, D. (1992). Parent education for adolescent mothers. Journal of Primary Prevention, 13, 23-35.
Nelson, P. T. (1986). Newsletters: An effective delivery mode for providing educational information and emotional support to single parent families? Family Relations, 35, 183-188.
Riley, D., Meinhardt, G., Nelson, C., Salisbury, M., & Winnet, T. (1991). How effective are age-paced newsletters for new parents? A replication and extension of earlier studies. Family Relations, 40, 247-253.
Walker, S.K. 2005. Use of a parenting newsletter series and other child-rearing information sources by mothers of infants. Family & Consumer Sciences Journal, 34, 153-172
2. Riley, D., & Waterston, T. (2002). Helping teenage mothers with child rearing advice: Report on an intervention. Paper presented to Parent-Child 2002 International Conference, London, April 19, 2002.
Waterston, T. & Welsh, B. (2006). Helping fathers understand their new infant: A pilot study of a parenting newsletter. Community Practitioner, 79(9), 293-295.
Walker, S. W., & Riley, D. (2001). Involvement of the personal social network as a factor in parent education effectiveness. Family Relations, 50, 186-193.
3. Weatherspoon, M.S., Bowman, S., Hernandez, & Pratt (2006). Using age-paced parenting newsletters as teaching tools in home visitation programs with at-risk Mexican immigrant families. The Forum for Family & Consumer Issues, 11(1), 1-7. (www.ces.ncsu.edu.depts/fcs/pub/11_1/ar1.html)
4. Riley, D. (1997). Using local research to change 100 communities for children and families. American Psychologist, 52, 424-433.
5. King, A. (2006). Age-paced parenting newsletters: Delivering healthy messages. Community Practitioner, 79(3), 89-92.
6. Waterston, T., Welsch, B., Keane, B., Cook, M., Hammal, D., Parker, L., & McConachie, H. (2009). Improving early relationships: A randomized controlled trial of an age-paced parenting newsletter. Pediatrics, 123, 241-247.