Week 10: Question stories that salve

Even if you're uncomfortable about attending your first OB appointment, you can be grateful for advances in pregnancy care. |  U.S. National Library of Medicine

Even if you're uncomfortable about attending your first OB appointment, you can be grateful for advances in pregnancy care. | U.S. National Library of Medicine

As a long-term internet user, you’ve probably learned to avoid articles that promise “1 simple trick” to losing weight, growing thicker hair, or launching successful tech companies. That’s because you know that there isn’t any simple trick to these things. If there was, all of us would be skinny long-tressed millionaires.

But our gullibility seems to take a hit with pregnancy and childbirth, perhaps making us more susceptible to outrageous product claims...

...which is why this week I’m going to have to destroy your dreams.

That stretch mark cream you or your partner bought to ensure a bikini-ready post-delivery body? It might smell amazing and make the user less itchy, but so will lotion at much lower price points. And neither of those lotions will prevent stretch marks.

Skin, it turns out, isn’t so different from the elastic waistband in your underwear. If you wear a pair throughout either your pregnancy or nine months of "sympathy eating" for your pregnant partner, that elastic will stretch to a point of no return. Dermatologists at the University of Michigan hypothesize a similar phenomenon is going on with your skin’s elasticity: during pregnancy, as with other periods of weight gain, the elastic fibers in your skin get stretched so far that they can’t “snap back.”

Women are understandably concerned about this change to their skin, and pregnancy calendars are there to assure them that the right product might help. In Week 17 of its pregnancy calendar, The Bump’s advice is to stay hydrated and slather on the lotion “to try to combat” stretch marks (a suggestion which ignores The Bump’s own article about why stretch mark creams don’t work.)

A pregnancy calendar’s approach to stretch marks might be a useful metric for whether or not to trust any of its advice. Kudos to FitPregnancy for simply asserting, in Week 27, that “stretch marks happen,” without any advice about prevention, and to Alpha Mom, for giving it straight in Week 20: “Don’t kid yourself. There’s nothing you can do to prevent stretch marks.”

Pregnant Chicken--which is one of my preferred pregnancy blogs--waits until Week 29 of its calendar to cover stretch marks...literally...with self-tanner, which seems as reasonable an approach as any but for the assertion that “Can you prevent them? Well, it can’t hurt to try.”

I would argue that it *CAN* hurt to try, because trying an approach proven false by scientific evidence sets the stage for endless parenting by placebo.

Even worse than the "it can't hurt" messages are testimonials from stretch-mark free moms: I used such-and-such lotion every morning and I don’t have a single stripe! or...I had horrible stretch marks during pregnancy, but after I used Cream X, they went away! 

Given that stretch marks are largely reliant on your genetics, your weight gain, and your baby’s weight gain, you could use lotion every day and get stretch marks or never use lotion and get stretch marks. There’s no proof that any testimonial mom would have gotten stretch marks in the first place, and stretch marks do fade in time regardless of product use.

So here’s one more anecdote: I’m stretch-mark free, and I didn’t use an ounce of belly butter. On my belly, that is--I did use an awesome-smelling belly butter gift on my arms and legs during a fierce post-pregnancy winter. So if you’re in the mood to use anecdotal evidence to make beauty decisions, consider my anecdote and skip the pricey lotion. I can also tell you from my experience that I’d rather have had a healthy birth and a tiger-striped belly than a tiny, nutritionally-deprived baby in the NICU.

One more reason to skip anecdotal evidence is that while individual parenting placebos are harmless, in aggregate, parenting placebos are dangerous. 

Retailers love expecting parents because they are vulnerable and therefore malleable shoppers. The habits we form during this stage--changing grocery store allegiances, for example--can last for decades. What if our research and analysis habits also cement during this time, with lasting effects on our critical thinking skills? That’s why it’s vital to ignore anecdotal wishful evidence about what stretch cream worked for one mom and acknowledge the scientific evidence that stretch creams don’t work.

Besides, skipping out on the fancy lotion will free up another $38 to the college fund. More on that in Week 24