Should you google a parenting question?

When asking questions online, things can quickly go sideways. |  Jon Tyson  on  Unsplash

When asking questions online, things can quickly go sideways. | Jon Tyson on Unsplash

A quick Google search can get you all sorts of helpful information. It can tell you what happened to tan M&Ms. It can tell you the movie with the longest run time is about 35 days longer than you would have thought. It can tell you that we have been googling to answer such questions for 19 years

But when we're at our most vulnerable, when we actually need the advice of trusted experts to guide us through our roughest moments, Google can let us down.

Imagine you are a new parent. You're finally getting into a fragile routine, and everyone is sleeping for six or more hours per night. Then, suddenly, around nine months or so, your baby starts waking on the hour. You're sure that something's wrong, so before you even find your glasses you blearily type "9mnth old wpn't slep." Google figures out that you're really asking for and corrects your query. Now you have dozens of articles describing the "9 month sleep regression" and offering advice about how to get through it.

There are three big problems with this strategy. First, searches like these pathologize things that aren't problems. All those helpful articles about the "9 month sleep regression" you just read probably won't solve your problem because there is no such thing as the 9 month sleep regression, at least not medically. There is certainly such a thing as a 9 month old who won't sleep, though, as well as 8 month olds, 10 month olds, and 36 year olds. 

Second, these searches will often lead to judgment. Instead of finding that magic trick that will get your baby back to sleep, you'll find judgment about monstrous parents damaging their children by letting them cry it out or overprotective parents making their children dependent for life by nursing them to sleep. Neither of these positions is helpful for a person in the midst of trench parenting.

Third, many of the big-name parenting sites that appear in your search results often cite each other, which leads to an echo chamber in which everyone is offering identical advice without strong evidence for their claims. 

There is a better place to search for answers to your parenting questions: Google Scholar. Maybe you've never heard of it. Maybe you used it once or twice for a college research paper. Maybe you use it all the time for your work, just never for your parenting. No matter what your experience level is, you can use this search tool to find more satisfying answers to your parenting questions. Here are four tips to help you get started. 

Begin with a real question

Google Scholar is simple to use, but it will require you to think differently about how you research. Search queries like "9 month old won't sleep," or "Toddler won't eat broccoli," or "Five year old won't stop climbing furniture" are poor searches because they presume that these issues are problems. Those searches will only result in articles designed at fixing the problems. The first step in doing solid parenting research, then, is to stop phrasing your research as a problem. The same rule applies for problems posing as questions. As soon as you type in a search like "How do I get my baby to sleep?" you're excluding the possibility that maybe your baby's doing just fine with the sleep that he or she is getting. 

Instead of focusing on your query on what you think is not working, broaden your question beyond your specific child and this specific day. Instead of focusing on the magic fix for your not-sleepy 9 month old, search for why sleep patterns vary throughout infancy and early childhood. Instead of focusing on one food your child won't eat, search for ways to introduce vegetables to kids. Instead of frightfully searching about the heights your kid is climbing, search for why kids climb in the first place. 

Follow a trail

If you are researching a big decision, like whether your child should have an elective surgical procedure or which private school's philosophy most aligns with your goals for your child, you need more than one source to help you make that decision. One good way to do this is to find an ongoing conversation. Google Scholar makes that really simple to do.

Let's say that you're still trying to get you and your baby to sleep at that 9 month mark. Instead of just Googling "why won't my 9 month old sleep," you head to Google Scholar and type "infant sleep." An article from the British Medical Journal catches your eye. You click it and learn that women who followed a particular sleep intervention with their babies reported more sleep and less depression than women who did not follow the intervention. How do you learn more? 

If you return to your Google Scholar results page, you'll see that each search result also includes "cited by" links, which can take you forward in time to see how other scholars have built on the work you just read. That initial BMJ article has been cited nearly 300 times, showing you that it has been influential in its field and that other researchers have continued to build from its conclusions.

You can also click on "related articles" for each search hit in Google Scholar. Doing this can take you in all sorts of directions, backwards, forwards, sideways, by showing you what other studies have been categorized using similar keywords as the piece that you just read. 

Use Wikipedia (Seriously!)

Let's say that this has all been very convincing, and that you're going to stop searching for infant sleep problems in a regular Google search. You head to Google Scholar and search for "infant sleep regression," only to find that there are no results. How can that be? The rest of the internet is full of articles about sleep regression and what to do about it. How can scholars not be studying this? 

Plenty of researchers are studying infant sleep, but they're not studying "infant sleep regression," because that term is not a medical term. 

Wikipedia can come in really handy here, because the hyperlinks in Wikipedia entries are often good search terms. If you search Wikipedia for "sleep regression," you'll be referred to an article for "infant sleep training," which, although relatively sparse by Wikipedia's standards, does include some useful possible search terms.

Don't assume you will find *the* answer

Once you've read your first few academic journal articles, you'll notice that they sound quite different than the articles you're used to reading on parenting websites. It's not even that they're long and technical. It's that they make much smaller conclusions than we're used to seeing when we read the news about the next big baby sleep finding. Scholarly research is often slow and incremental, and its conclusions are often modest and cautious. 

If you are researching a big, messy parenting question, that question deserves more than a 300 word article claiming to have the "right" answer. Your question deserves multiple answers, each with its own risks and rewards. That's perhaps the best reason to give Google Scholar a try. It will not yield "correct" answers, because when the questions are so big and so complicated, there's rarely a single correct answer. 

It's easy to let the last article you read stand as *the* answer on a topic. Google Scholar can help remind you that research is never entirely settled. If you're passionate about a particular topic, you can set Google Scholar alerts to e-mail you when new work is published. Those alerts will remind you that what we know is always shifting based on new evidence.

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