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Jojanneke Bastiaansen Photo by Reyer Boxem

Baby bullshit demystified

Don’t eat that placenta

Jojanneke Bastiaansen Photo by Reyer Boxem
When you’re pregnant or just had a baby, people will inundate you with advice, Jojanneke Bastiaansen found out during her pregnancy. However, not only is some advice clearly nonsense, it can also be dangerous. In her new book, she combats what she calls ‘baby bullshit’.
24 January om 15:21 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 24 January 2023
om 15:21 uur.
January 24 at 15:21 PM.
Last modified on January 24, 2023
at 15:21 PM.
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Door Christien Boomsma

24 January om 15:21 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 24 January 2023
om 15:21 uur.
Avatar photo

By Christien Boomsma

January 24 at 15:21 PM.
Last modified on January 24, 2023
at 15:21 PM.
Avatar photo

Christien Boomsma

Achtergrondcoördinator en wetenschapsredacteur Volledig bio » Background coordinator and science editor Full bio »

It all started with a placenta.

Jojanneke Bastiaansen was about to go on maternity leave when a friend emailed her a news article. The article said that the placenta was full of hormones that could prevent postpartum depression. The friend suggested Bastiaansen take her placenta home with her after giving birth and eating it. 

As she tells it now, Bastiaansen felt ‘resistant’ to the idea. ‘I couldn’t see myself taking a Tupperware container to the hospital to take the thing home.’ 

But she wouldn’t be a critical neuroscientist if she let herself get away with something as simple as a ‘feeling’. ‘I said to myself: it’s okay to disagree with this, but you haven’t done any research.’

So when she started her sixteen-week long maternity leave – ‘I’d never had so many days off before’ – she decided to find out whether the claim was true. After all, it didn’t come out of nowhere. ‘There are animals that eat their own placenta, so it’s certainly a natural phenomenon.’

She does want to point out that the phrase ‘natural’ shouldn’t automatically be trusted. Many things these days bear the label ‘natural’ and people are all too eager to use them. ‘That’s not always a good thing.’

Placenta pills

She did what any good scientist would do and started by studying the literature. She found a small study from 2018 that looked at the effect of placenta pills: pills made from dried placenta, popular with people like Kim Kardashian. It turned out that not only do the pills not affect postpartum depression, fatigue, or the bond between mother and child, in some cases they even pose a risk. The American Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported on a case where a baby got blood poisoning because its mother had taken placenta pills that were infected with streptococcus bacteria.

Not the greatest idea. 

What angers me the most is advice that’s designed to make mothers feel guilty 

After Bastiaansen had given birth, she left her placenta in the hospital and turned what she’d learned into a column for popular parenting magazine Ouders van Nu. She’s still writing columns today. Now all her fact-checking has led to a book, called Babybullshit en hoe het echt zit, which will be published by De Boekerij this week.

Very few of the old wives’ tales and other statements new mothers are subjected to are without consequences, says Bastiaansen. ‘What angers me the most are the ones that are designed to make mothers feel guilty. Your baby is cramping? It’s probably something you ate. Is your child sick often? How dare you send your kid to daycare, you horrible mother.’

All babies get cramps, Bastiaansen now knows, after reading the relevant literature and critically studying the research. And while babies who go to daycare do tend to get sick a little more often than those who don’t – approximately one stomach flu in four years – but once a kid goes to elementary school, the roles are reversed.

Insecure

However, brand-new mothers can be vulnerable and insecure. After giving birth, Bastiaansen wasn’t immune to old wives’ tales either, in spite of her scientific training. ‘I tend to have a bit of a delayed reaction to things’, she says. ‘When someone says something, I usually just nod and go along with the conversation. But later, as I’m walking away, I’ll start thinking more about it. And then I go and research it.’

When the first few weeks after her son IJsbrand was born were difficult, she felt the insecurity creeping in. ‘I started questioning everything. When your kid is crying, or not feeling well, you want to solve that.’

How dare you send your kid to daycare, you horrible mother

She started Googling like a madwoman and ended up on various internet forums, which only added to her insecurity. ‘In the end, I decided to stop frequenting those forums. It didn’t lead to any useful information, and it only made me more insecure.’

Since then, it’s been her mission to help out new mothers by providing them with accessible, clear and properly sourced information. She also added a bullshit radar to her book: each chapter starts with a claim, allowing the reader to pick the correct answer. Bastiaansen then explains why something is bullshit, providing the answer to the question: you will not boil the foetus in your uterus if you go to the sauna. 

Allergies

However, not all claims and old wives’ tales she researched were bullshit, to her own amazement. When her mother-in-law suggested she should rub peanut butter on her nipples while breastfeeding because it would lower the chance of her child developing a peanut allergy, she didn’t believe a word of it. 

In fact, Bastiaansen believed you should avoid peanuts until children were two years old. ‘But then I made some calls and I ended up with a children’s allergist, who told me about a great trial from 2016, which actually showed that early exposure can prevent a lot of allergies. It was a good thing I found that out, because allergies and skin conditions abound in our family, so I was able to start exposing my child just in time’, she says.

How is the steam even supposed to reach the uterus?!

There was another claim that also had some kernel of truth. Bastiaansen’s mother had been told by her mother that you lose a tooth for each child that you have. ‘I was like: how?’ says Bastiaansen. ‘What is that even about?’ 

While it’s not like a tooth falls out of your mouth as soon as you’ve given birth, research does indicate that the more children you have, the fewer teeth you have. Women lose approximately half a tooth for each child.

Harmful

Her biggest mission is to rebut harmful assertions. There’s the idea that a vaginal steam helps your uterus recover after giving birth and improves fertility. 

Apart from the fact that it’s completely unclear how this would even work – ‘How is the steam even supposed to reach the uterus?!’ this treatment dries out the vagina, and some women have even suffered burns from it. ‘But these things capitalise on people’s insecurity about fertility, which I think is bad, because it gives women who haven’t been able to conceive hope and it costs money.’ 

Another claim she hates is that only children are to be ‘pitied’. That one hits close to home, she says, since her son is an only child and she has no plans for another one. ‘I know only children are just as happy and generous and creative as children with siblings. But there’s still this little niggle in the back of my head that says that I deprived him of something. But I know from both my research and my own experience that that’s bullshit. He’s a really great kid, and he’s developing wonderfully. He knows he’s loved.’ 

take the quiz

How accurate is your bullshit detector?

1) Does ginger help to combat morning sickness?

a) Gross, no, the taste alone is enough to make you barf.

b) Yep. Especially ginger tea contains a lot of gingerol, a substance that blocks the signal from the brain that tells you to throw up.

c) If you believe in answer b, it’ll probably help for real.

The correct answer is C. Research has shown that ginger can help with nausea, but that doesn’t mean that the ginger root itself has any medicinal qualities. Drinking or eating ginger might work as a placebo, so if pregnant women feel less nauseated because of it, that’s great.

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2) Should you avoid going to the sauna while pregnant?

a) Definitely, saunas are much too hot. The heat disrupts your blood flow and affects the supply of nutrients to the foetus.

b) Yes, it’s especially dangerous in the first trimester, since the heat can disrupt the growth of the foetus’ brains.

c) No, saunas don’t warm up your body that much and there’s no hard evidence that it impacts the foetus.

So far, it looks as though there’s no need to avoid going to the sauna when you’re pregnant (answer C). There’s no hard evidence that a pregnant person’s body temperature rises dangerously in the sauna or that going to the sauna increases the chance of birth defects. But it’s difficult to give proper advice, since there simply hasn’t been enough research. So you can either play it safe and not go to the sauna for a while, or, if you can take the heat, just go and take it easy. If it doesn’t feel right, you’ll probably be able to find a nice bed and cool drink, since you’re at a spa.

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3) Does stimulating the nipples tell your body to start the birthing process?

a) No, the idea that stimulating your breasts or nipples helps is a classic old wives’ tale.

b) Yes, in some cases it can start the delivery process, potentially because it releases oxytocin.

c) Yes, the nipples have a direct link to the uterus and stimulating them makes the uterus contract.

The correct answer is B: there is evidence that nipple stimulation can induce birth. This old custom isn’t necessarily an old wives’ tale. It’s not entirely clear how it works exactly, but it’s not like there’s a direct line between the nipples and the uterus.

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4)  Can a man be both an attractive partner and a good father to your children?

a) Yes, nature will automatically turn a man from a hunter into a caring father as soon as the baby is born.

b) No, if you want children, you’d be best off finding a quiet, boring man.

c) Definitely. In fact, a man with a lot of testosterone will make a better father to boys.

The world isn’t divided into womanisers and potential daddies: a nice man has everything he needs to become a good father. In fact, nature has a nice little trick for that, kind of like what happens in birds. As soon as men are expecting a baby with a nice woman, their testosterone levels decrease, which helps them adjust to their new role as father (answer A). So if you want children, you don’t have to settle for a man you may find boring.

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Giveaway

UKrant is giving away three copies of Babybullshit (in Dutch!) to people who can correctly answer the bonus question below. Send your correct answer together with your name and mailing address to redactie@ukrant.nl before February 1. We’ll send the winners their prize.

Are mothers better at recognising their baby by their cries than fathers?

a) No, fathers who spend just as much time with the baby as mothers recognise them just as well. It’s a matter of experience.

b) Yes, women have always had this instinct, to ensure that babies are fed on time.

c) No, neither fathers nor mothers know how to recognise the sound of their own crying baby. Fortunately, people respond to crying babies anyway, so most parents probably will, too.

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