Walking to work, I told my husband (also an economist) about the formula controversy. “Yeah,” he said. “Just another unfunded parenting mandate.”
“Unfunded mandate” refers to situations where the federal government requires states to do something, but doesn’t provide them with the money. Unfunded mandates create complications; money to pay for the mandated programs must come from somewhere, usually from other programs. This term from the world of governance is a good lens through which to understand modern parenting, which comes with a lot of rules (a lot of mandates) but not a lot of help (funding).
Read: Why American moms can’t get enough expert parenting advice
In pregnancy: Don’t eat this list of foods, drink this list of beverages. Sleep on your side. Don’t go skiing or engage in contact sports. Gain exactly 25 to 35 pounds. And then the baby arrives: Breastfeed exclusively until six months, continue to a year. Give them allergens as soon as you can. And, yes, if you have to use formula, mix it with boiling water.
But resources are finite. There are only 24 hours in a day. If you spend an extra hour boiling water to mix formula, that hour isn’t spent doing something else. It might be impossible to do everything that the medical and child-care establishments (Big Baby?) tell you to do as a new parent. And yet by framing each recommendation as an imperative, Big Baby provides little guidance for how to choose among them when you are constrained.
In the U.S., for example, official safe-sleep guidelines decree that parents not sleep in the same bed with their babies (commonly called co-sleeping), out of concern about higher rates of sudden infant death syndrome and suffocation. The policy message against co-sleeping is very clear, and very dire; when my daughter was born there was a brief controversy around a set of anti-co-sleeping advertisements, which equated bed sharing with allowing your infant to sleep next to a kitchen knife.
When I wrote my recent book, Cribsheet, I spent a lot of time with the data on co-sleeping. And I ultimately came to agree with the official guideline, in the sense that I believe the evidence shows a higher risk of infant mortality when parents share their bed with their infant. But the story’s not as simple as Big Baby would have you believe.
Co-sleeping is especially dangerous when accompanied by parental smoking, heavy drinking, or pillows and fluffy covers on the bed. In a safe sleep environment there is still a risk, but it is fairly small compared with other risks people take regularly (such as driving their children in a car). Seeing these risks for what they are, some parents might decide that co-sleeping (as safely as possible) is what works for their family.
Read: Parenting looks nothing like what the experts say
The typical argument against framing risk in this way goes like so: Assuming there is a risk, even a very small one, we should tell people to avoid it. By informing parents that the risk is small, we normalize this behavior, making it seem okay. The same argument applies to the formula-mixing example at the start of this piece: Sure, the risk of bacteria is small, but it’s not zero, so why not tell parents to just boil the water?