Why I Pulled Back From Natural Parenting

Photographed by Kerstins Kopf.

There’s a baby shampoo ad circulating that, likely to the chagrin of essential oil distributors everywhere, implies that “safe” and “natural” aren’t synonymous. “Natural might be the trend,” the ad reads, “but safe will always be our bar.” Five years ago, this ad campaign would have rattled me as much as your friendly Facebook oil mom. I probably would have shared it on that very social network, with some choice words and an eye-roll emoji, not-so-subtly inviting you into a debate disguised as convivial conversation. Back then, I wasn’t just a proponent of natural parenting. I was a full-on troll; a ride-or-die granola-mom-to-be more dedicated to an arbitrary system of parenting than I was to the actual needs of any real-life child. (Also, I wasn't a mom yet.)

And then I had a baby, and soon enough the need for my family to simply survive overrode my obsession with being "right." But not right away.

When I first became pregnant, I continued my maniacal swing away from conventional medicine, refusing to listen to anyone with a differing opinion. Other moms and, worse, internet message boards that supported my natural approach became my primary source of health information. My definition of health was anti-hospital, but it was also anti-learning, anti-grace, and, in retrospect, anti-safety. I basically stopped thinking about what was best for me and my unborn baby and let my narrow perception of “The One True Health” dictate many of my decisions. This was, in large part, thanks to a somewhat alarmist Ricki Lake documentary.

But motherhood is one of nature’s best humbling mechanisms. I’m two kids deep now, and I like to think that, over time, I have evolved into a person of greater wisdom and empathy, in both how I approach health and how I treat moms whose views differ from mine. That we each want our kids to be safe and healthy is a given — but how we define those things can vary drastically.

Some of us feel more comfortable with a traditional, research-backed medical model, while others rely on natural solutions. Integrative medicine, a growing field, is essentially a combination of the two. But, is one way the right one?

Experts like Mary Anne Jackson, MD, director of infectious diseases at Children’s Mercy Kansas City, seem to agree that if safety is a priority, evidence-based and integrative medicine are the way to go. But in some scenarios, science and safety go hand in hand. “Parents have to go with their gut instinct for certain things. But there are certain caveats that have scientific proof behind them,” she says. “For example, babies should sleep on their backs and ride in approved car seats. These things are integral to health.”

Many doctors agree that beyond these non-negotiables, there’s some wiggle room. So how do we navigate it? For me, it requires getting cozy in gray areas — because when it comes to health, a black-and-white mindset hasn’t done me any favors. It's actually gotten me in trouble a few times: like when I told all my mom friends that epidurals were evil (before I even had kids). Or the time I tried to treat a yeast infection on my own (there was yogurt).

We’re told that good parents do things 'naturally,' whatever that means, and we try to parent accordingly.

I’m not the only one. In part thanks to this pop-culture moment — everything from the Moon Juice lady's incomprehensible diet to everyone-and-their-mother's essential-oil side hustles — there’s a stigma snaking its way through millennial moms. We’re told that good parents do things “naturally,” whatever that means, and we try to parent accordingly.

Taken to an extreme, this trend has led some to rebel against proven practices like vaccines (to grave results), pass up prescription or over-the-counter medication, or go for the wholesale avoidance of all "toxins," which is not possible (though not always the wrong move). For me, this fear-based mindset started in pregnancy and childbirth (with the idea that epidurals are "bad") and made its way to postpartum habits (pressuring myself to exclusively breastfeed, no matter what), and kept its hold on me through my children’s teething phases and beyond (in the form of a fearful fixation that one dose of Tylenol would cause liver damage).

This way of thinking left me feeling condemned and exhausted, and it set me up to fail. I got that epidural, because I needed it (and I don’t regret it now); I struggled to breastfeed (thank you, mastitis); and I (carefully) gave both my sons Tylenol when I felt they needed it. Brace yourselves: I vaccinated, too. I relied heavily on personal preference in theory, and before I had any kids of my own, but in the heat of the moment, when my children's health was in question, I found my proclivity for the natural wasn’t always easy or sustainable. And when I went the other way, I liked it. The pressure wasn’t on me anymore. It was on science.

Intuition is a major component of parenting, as Dr. Jackson says. But if we want to buffer our children from perceived risk, our gut instincts should be tempered by facts and research, the kind of stuff upon which Western medicine just happens to be built. “There’s a fine balance to everything,” says Adam Spanier, MD, MPH, PhD, FAAP, associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. “That means making sure your decisions aren’t emotional decisions. They need to be founded in fact and good science.”

So, what do facts and good science have to do with my Whole Foods haul of cheap avocados (thank you, Amazon) and organic teething tablets? Turns out, a lot. Pediatricians and research agree that just because remedies like essential oils, homeopathy, and vitamins are plant-based, doesn’t mean they’re safe. Supplements haven’t been clinically studied and are not regulated by the FDA. Much of the information we use to make decisions about them is anecdotal, which means it’s founded on hearsay, rather than research. This can be a dangerous framework for choosing what to put in our kids’ bodies.

I’m not anti-trying things. I’m pro-doing what’s safe for the child.
Dr. Adam Spanier, associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Maryland School of Medicine

In spite of the risks associated with some alternative products, plenty of doctors are not wholly against natural remedies. They just want to be involved in your choice to use them. “The reason a lot of these natural things aren’t encouraged regularly is they haven’t been tested,” Dr. Spanier says. “Most doctors are reasonable enough to say that, as long as it’s not something that will hurt you, there aren’t reasons not to try it. But you might not know there are dangers unless you talk to them first." He adds, "I’m not anti-trying things. I’m pro-doing what’s safe for the child.”

Believe me, I’ve tried things. I know my way around the wellness aisle, and I’ve been known to peddle essential oils for the occasional common ailment (I think peppermint is great for stomach upset, but I’d avoid it for kids). I’m all about the mind-body-spirit connection, and I believe in treating root causes instead of just symptoms (don’t @ me, gut biome people; I’m on that probiotics and kimchi grind already). But when it comes to my kids, I feel safest with a balanced, informed approach.

This means when my son has a 105 degree fever in the middle of the night, I take him to the ER. It means when he’s on his sixth ear infection in six months, I go for the ear tubes instead of cutting dairy from his diet. It means I vaccinate my children in accordance with the CDC’s immunization schedule. It means there’s a time for alternative remedies, but it also means I take my kids to the pediatrician on a schedule, which I’ve found to be one of the best preventative approaches out there.

“Well-child visits aren’t just for vaccines," Dr. Spanier says. "We use these appointments to follow a child’s growth and development, talk about safety issues, and do important screenings to assess risks for lead poisoning and other diseases. If a family is not seeing a doctor on a regular schedule, we could miss some of that."

Interestingly, prevention is a major component of the alt-health movement, and it’s why I took a DIY approach to parenting in the first place. But the more I got to know my son’s pediatrician, the more I realized we were on the same team. It’s her job to share risks and benefits, and it’s my job to weigh my options and make the right decision for my kids, without fear.

This may not be true for you, but when I fixate on the things that scare me, I miss opportunities to grow. And that’s what my kids need from me: willingness to be wrong, take risks, and have unpopular opinions — even if that means I have to get a little comfortable on the other side of where I started.

So, hi. I’m Ashley, mom of two, big fan of gray areas. I use natural remedies sometimes, but I also vaccinate. I had an epidural once, and then didn’t another time. I eat organic, but I also consume more Diet Coke than I probably should. And as long as I’m here, I've got one more piece of advice: If your baby has cradle cap, try Head and Shoulders, not coconut oil. But probably talk to a doctor first.

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