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Beware the Know It Alls: How to Handle Unsolicited Baby Advice

Most new parents are hit with it: Unwanted baby advice from family, friends, even strangers. WebMD explores why so many people feel compelled to give it and offers tips for dealing with it gracefully.

The battlefield: Tamara Derosia's baby shower. The fighting words: Baby wipe warmer.

Oh sure, for those who worry about global warming, the recession, and house foreclosures, this might seem, um, silly. But certainly, it wasn't that way for the two women who were driven to debate the device -- baby's comfort versus frivolous financial waste.

"I was somewhat stunned," says Derosia, the creative director in the Atlanta office of the public relations firm Cohn & Wolfe. "Each side was defended with such passionate conviction you would have thought we were discussing something that could potentially affect the child's health, development, and future."

For those who are pregnant, you think you're a pro -- you've endured the patting of strangers, the prying questions about your "birth plan," your baby's name, and whether you're going to breastfeed. Eyebrows raise every time you go near alcohol, coffee, Diet Coke, soft cheese, shellfish. Suggestions have been made about what you should do with your cat -- once a furry little friend, now carrier of horrible pregnancy outcomes.

And yet, you are still a rank amateur. Once Bouncing Baby arrives, you will discover that everything -- how baby sleeps, what baby eats, why baby cries -- is up for open, public debate.

Right down to the humble baby wipe warmer.

"There are so many people who want to direct you on how to be a good mom," says Debbie Thompson. Thompson is a pediatric nurse practitioner and a neonatal specialist at Children's Medical Center, Dallas. "Much of the advice is helpful," she says. "But a parent must remember that each child is unique."

OK, that sounds good -- and most parents believe they can stay sane under stress. But take a couple of months of sleepless nights, a week without a shower, and an inconsolable baby in a Target aisle -- and a parent should be nominated for sainthood for not lunging at passers-by who feel the need to dole out helpful hints.

"With the first one, we got a ton of unsolicited advice about everything under the sun," says Daniel Hallac, a New York City dad of two. Hallac is also co-founder of kid mondo.com, a website that lets parents journal, store first photos, and keep growth charts. "It really freaked us out trying to deal with all of it."

Try dealing with twice the advice.

Shari Schmidt, of Palos Hills, Ill., has twins, now 4 years old. She's been "coached" on sleep schedules, matching outfits, baby food, and haircuts.

"My family was -- and still is -- horrified that the girls didn't like meat. My grandmother was worried their teeth wouldn't develop properly. My mother was worried it would stunt their growth," Schmidt, a marketing consultant, says. "Our pediatrician is OK with it, and so are we. Everyone else thinks it is a form of child abuse not to feed the girls Chicken McNuggets. I'm sure all parents receive lots of unwanted advice. But it seems to come at me like a tidal wave."

Why people offer unsolicited baby advice

So why do people feel so compelled to put their nose in your stroller?

"They are just trying to help because they love you," says Tracey Tarrant, a "work-at-home" mother who runs her own business, Your Virtual Round To-it, which provides administrative support for small businesses. Tarrant has four daughters -- aged 16, 12, 5 and 4 -- and has endured years of unsolicited baby advice.

But it's not all just love. Safety is another factor.

"As a pediatrician," says Jennifer Shu, MD, "I have to bite my tongue if I see something that may put a stranger's child at risk." Shu is an Atlanta pediatrician and mom. She is also co-author of Heading Home with Your Newborn and the newly released Food Fights. On the other hand, Shu does admit that, "I have been known to 'gently' advise people that their car seat straps really need to be a bit tighter."

And maybe all those people offering advice know something that could be helpful. Experts say, though, that many, many times the advisors simply have a need to have their own parenting style affirmed.

"I give advice on all aspects of infant feeding, including on how to react to unneeded advice," says Bridget Swinney, a registered dietician and author of Baby Bites, Eating Expectantly, and Health Food for Healthy Kids. "Some of the backhanded criticism I've noticed are comments like, 'You're not giving him cereal yet?' Or, 'Breastfeeding seems like so much trouble -- why don't you just give him a bottle instead?' Or 'I'm sure it won't hurt to give him just a little (fill in the blank).'"

Baby Advice Etiquette

So what's the most gracious, intelligent way to deal with the barrage of baby advice?

Many parents say they just smile and tell the adviser that they'll "think about it" or something similar to that.

"In the end," Hallac tells WebMD, "we figured out two responses that seemed to fit our every need. The first was, 'We will check with his doctor,' because no one questions the doctor; and the second was 'Great! Thanks!' and then we just went ahead and ignored it."

Here are four other options:

  • Thanks! We'll consider that. 
  • Thanks! We appreciate your care and concern about our baby.
  • Thanks! We know that advice was hard earned through the years.
  • Thanks! Um, that certainly is some advice! (This requires a bright smile so they don't catch your sarcasm.)

Doctors recommend that parents tempted to try out some advice make sure it makes sound medical sense -- especially since the advice from one, two, or three decades ago might have changed in light of new scientific data.

Examples of how things change, according to Thompson, include:

  • Back is best: In 1992, the American Academy of Pediatrics introduced the "back to sleep" campaign, which recommends putting babies on their backs to sleep. This practice has resulted in a decline in the incidence of sudden infant death syndrome [SIDS].
  • No juice in bottles: Drinking juice greatly increases the risk of dental decay and cavities; it's also a source of empty calories and could contribute to pediatric obesity.
  • No water needed in addition to breast milk or formula: Babies receive adequate amounts of water from the breast milk and formula -- and providing water in place of feedings could cause an imbalance of water and salts, resulting in illness.
  • Cereal When? The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends starting solid foods at four to six months.

Here are two more examples of how things change, whether the advice giver knows or not. Railings in those quaint cribs you were advised to buy used are often spaced incorrectly. Remember, if you can fit a can of soda between the rails, the space is too wide. And older children still need to be in car booster seats depending on their height and weight -- regardless of the cool or convenience factor.

And of course, you need to trust your own judgment and keep your composure.

Bob Lancer is author of Raising Our Children Raising Ourselves and a radio talk show host in Atlanta. He tells WebMD, "There is just so much advice available -- and much of it contradictory - that you can lose your mind trying to get it right. The first rule to always follow," he says, "is the rule of your own equanimity."

Tarrant agrees. "I've learned that as a mom, you will instinctively know what your baby needs," she says. "So don't fret."

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