Misguided Baby Talk

THEORIES about child-rearing can be as faddish and changeable as fashion. One decade, experts insist on a strict-disciplinarian approach, rigidly regulating feeding, sleeping, and play. The next decade these voices of authority are replaced by professionals who encourage a more relaxed attitude - parenting by the heart instead of the clock.

But of all recent theories, one of the most persistent involves "bonding," the idea that mothers must quickly form a deep psychological attachment to their babies after birth. A failure to establish this crucial relationship right away, the theorists have warned, could have lifelong negative effects on the child's relationships and success.

Now new research refutes that anxiety-producing notion. In her book, "Mother-Infant Bonding: A Scientific Fiction," just published by Yale University Press, psychologist Diane Eyer explains that the original pronouncements on bonding were based on surprisingly slim evidence, including a study of just 28 mothers and analogies to mother-offspring behavior in the animal kingdom.

No one can deny the importance of establishing deep and loving parent-child relationships from the beginning. But creating fear and guilt by using incomplete or wrongly interpreted data, whatever the subject, is not only fraudulent but cruel.

Ms. Eyer's revisionism serves as a reminder that not all studies and statistics come wrapped in verifiable truth. Even well-intentioned researchers may be too eager to extrapolate results from very small samplings. And the public may be too willing to believe "experts" as they convert numbers into "facts." Perhaps the skeptic's questions for the '90s should be: "Who says?" and "On what basis?"

Parents - and everyone else - would do well to remember the reassuring statement that opens Dr. Spock's classic book: "You know more than you think you do." It is a dictum that applies to people in many situations, not just those raising the next generation.

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