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What The Research Actually Says About Sex, Drinking, Sleeping, And Eating For New Parents

Crib Notes summarize all the parenting books you’d read if you weren’t too busy parenting. For great advice in chunks so small a toddler wouldn’t even choke on them, go here.

Letting Google do your parenting is appealing, but sometimes not particularly helpful. A month in and already you’ve discovered a blog devoted to “Atavistic Paleo-attachment Trans-holistic Yortling” (or A.P.A.T.H.Y.) methods. Suddenly, you realize: Maybe it wasn’t a good idea to suspend your baby from a moss cocoon above your bed to establish cosmically-aligned sleep patterns?

Advice From "The Informed Parent" By Tara Haelle and Emily Willingham

Luckily, Tara Haelle and Emily Worthington, authors of The Informed Parent: A Science-based Resource for Your Child’s First Four Years, have your back. Accomplished science-writer Haelle, and honest-to-goodness Ph.D, Willingham, bring their experience in research, debunkery, and general down-to-earthness, to sort through the bullshit of parenting research and bring you the glimmering nuggets of hard science. It’s all in the hopes of helping you become a more informed parent. (Better than a vaguely hopeful and desperate one.) Here’s some of the best and most actionable bits, along with some extra insight from Dr. Willingham herself.

On Getting Frisky Post Conception
Knowing you’re going to have a kid is exhilarating! And stressful AF. Although sex is traditionally a helpful way to ease stress, it can do the opposite when you’re knocked up: One study showed 40 percent of pregnant women, and a third of their partners, were worried pregnancy sex would be harmful.

But take heart (or crotch)! Worthington explains that sex during pregnancy presents little risk. “Researchers don’t find a lot there,” she says. “In a normally progressing pregnancy, it’s not a danger.”

More Research Of Interest:

  • According to a study of 130 married ladies in the first trimester, just knowing they were pregnant reduced their sex drive and enjoyment of sex. So, weirdly, having a good time a few months ago has made it harder to have a good time now. Your kid is already killing your vibe!
  • Research also shows things improve, satisfaction-wise, in the third trimester. It’s like a glorious sunset before the long, sleepless, poop-filled nights to come.
  • As far as sex-as-labor-inducing is concerned? The research isn’t there. But no one really needs to be that informed, right?

What It Means For You: Everyone is a bit freaked out right now. It’s not you, it’s natural, and it will get better. Just because sex-induced labor is scientifically murky, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t test that whole third-trimester satisfaction-level research.

Alyson Hurt

Alyson Hurt

On Having Just One Teensy Pregnant Drinky-Poo
Recent studies have suggested maybe a tiny glass of wine and a little “Leave me the hell alone because I’m gestating an alien in my body,” might not be so terrible. Haelle and Willingham dive deep into some strong, sometimes contradictory, research on what alcohol can do to a developing fetus. In one instance they found nearly a dozen large, well-conducted studies showed “no association between light drinking … and various negative outcomes.” But another study showed that some genetic variants, when combined with drinking, could drop a child’s IQ an average of 2 points if a mother had between 1 to 6 drinks a week. None of which is funny.

More Research Of Interest:

  • It appears there’s always some level of miscarriage risk with drinking. One study showed a 66 percent increase in miscarriage risk in the first trimester with only 2 to 3 drinks a week.
  • There’s no research to suggest that there is any “safe” threshold for alcohol consumption.

What it means for you: If your partner happened to have a few drinks before she found out she was pregnant, the stress of the guilt is probably more harmful than anything she drank. But, as far as drinking anything else during pregnancy? Consider the fact that a fetus doesn’t metabolize alcohol. “Alcohol is a neurotoxin,” says Willingham. “What’s your level of comfort that you’re handing over a martini to a fetus?”

Is that fetus actually an embryonic Dean Martin in a jaunty tux? Because that image IS funny.

On Getting ANY Post-Natal Sleep
Here’s something interesting: A study in 2013 that used wrist trackers to measure sleep in 21 mother-father pairs found that dads got less sleep and had more confirmed sleepiness than moms. The phrase you’re looking for is: “IN YOUR FACE, WOMAN!”


But more important than your sleep is your kid’s. Happily, Haelle and Willingham give you ample grounds to remove yourself from the sleep training debate. The upshot of the research? Sleep training (or lack thereof) has no long term effects on the health and well-being of your kid. Screaming all night — that just has an effect on your well-being.

More Research Of Interest:

  • Studies show a misunderstanding between moms and dads around infant sleep. Mothers discount how little sleep fathers get, while fathers overstate the “moodiness” of mothers. Except that word probably wasn’t moodiness.
  • Sleep disruption is a big reason some relationships get shaky following a new baby.
  • There is research to indicate that the ability of a mother to adapt to sleep patterns relates to how problematic infant sleep is perceived to be by the mother. The scientific word for it is worry.

What it means for you: “Have a family sleep schedule,” says Willingham. “Read and understand each other.” And also, “don’t argue about how much sleep you get.” Just kidding about that “In your face,” thing.

On Getting Your Kid to Just Eat Something Already
Neophobia isn’t, as you may expect, the fear of Keanu Reeves. It is the fear of new foods. This fear can be incredibly aggravating for new parents and potentially dangerous if it interferes with a kid’s nutritional needs. Studies show that the preferences adults develop as children follow them for their entire life, potentially affecting health long into the future.

Good news: Research also shows that children will grow out of neophobia, but perseverance is key. Offering small amounts of the same new food again, and again (times infinity) without fuss or comment. “The more drama you create around food, the more dramatic it’s going to be,” says Willingham.

More Research Of Interest:

  • There have been found to be genetic links to neophobia. Identical twins, for instance, will have the same aversions to food, while non-identical twins will not.
  • Neophobia may have an evolutionary role, which may have been used to protect humans from eating toxic foods — a trait seen in other animal species.

What It Means For You: The takeaway? If you’re living with a little neophobe you need to be as chillaxed as possible about their diet. The greater the pressure to eat at the earliest ages, the more likely you’ll see strong neophobic tendencies. If only there was some kind of red or blue pill they could take.

How To Look At Parenting Studies Like An Expert