28 July, 2010

In which I pretend to be a journalist

I'm currently spending a few weeks as a British Science Association Media Fellow (see here), one hopes reaping lots of rewards for my loyal reader in improving my skills at communicating science to the general public.

I started at the BBC Science Radio Unit about 2 weeks ago - mainly working on Material World, with side forays into Health Check and Science in Action. Material World is a live programme which is broadcast on Thursday afternoons, meaning Fridays are really quiet and the week ramps up from there. The first week here, the producers were treating me really gently but it still felt quite scary.

With a programme like this guests are interviewed first by us (that's the producers and random know-nothings like me and another work experience person), after we've written a list of relevant questions. We take notes on what the guest has to say, pass it on to the presenter, and a script for the programme is written - then you have to hope that what you've asked makes sense to the presenter, and that the interviewee gives roughly the same answers, and isn't too nervous!

The first interview I was involved with was with an MP, now, it will be pretty easy for you to find out who it was, but I won't mention her by name. In typical politician fashion, she didn't say very much to me (or on the programme) and was full of clich├ęs. Even the presenter, who prides himself on having a way with words, couldn't think of a synonym for "skilled up" once she'd said it to me three times and him twice. As I say, it felt quite scary to have that responsibility but it wasn't a huge job in reality.

Quite a lot of what I’ve been doing has been looking around to see what news is out there. I usually enjoy reading science blogs and feeds and it’s great to have this be temporarily part of my day job – hearing what’s new, getting press releases before things are out on the web, trawling feeds for something new and interesting. A lot of what is actually really new and interesting doesn’t make great radio, unfortunately. Did you know Alexander Fleming painted with bacteria, for example? But pictures aren't that great on radio.

Some of the stories end up being researched quite a while in advance. In my first week I started researching two more stories for Material World, one of which has gone out at the time of writing and one of which will be out in a couple of weeks’ time. The first one was my own “spot”, in fact of a colleague whose really interesting paper was about to come out – I raved about how cool the research was, the producers said “yeah, go for it”, and I talked to the main researcher, and after a bit of indecision also decided to ask another colleague on. The preliminary work on that was in my first week here but there’s more to this story so I’ll leave that for another entry.

After my first week I was due to go to a conference in Lusaka, Zambia – so I was given a digital recorder, tiny, and a microphone, huge, and some quick instructions on how to use it, and some tips for recording (make sure the background isn’t too noisy but isn’t too quiet, push the microphone right up people’s noses, check the volume level), and the email and phone no of the Africa Service’s employee there. I have been to Lusaka, but not for a really long time, so I was looking forward to having someone to show me round.

I'll try and write another entry on My Adventures in Lusaka shortly - it alternates between twiddling thumbs and manic here.

01 July, 2010

Will the baby cry less and sleep more if we have him in the bed with us?

What has been called "attachment parenting"* has become ever so trendy in recent years and for a lot of parents of very young infants there is a whole set of things that goes together under this heading. This tends to include breastfeeding on demand, sleeping in a family bed, carrying in a sling for a lot of the day, and responding very quickly when infants cry - never leaving them to cry when nothing obvious is wrong. Another group of parents - again hugely stereotyping here - go more for scheduled feeding, own bed, and putting in a baby seat or buggy rather than carrying the baby in a sling.

It's pretty hard to randomise parents to different groups and tell one "right, you lot sleep with baby in the bed but use a pushchair and feed on a schedule, and you lot over there, let's have feeding on demand but even if you think it's part of the package, don't have them in the bed with you or carry them in a sling".

However, infants in most cultures cry a lot and parents complain of them crying a lot, especially in the first three months. So it's probably safe to say that parents in two different European countries are both going to be complaining of infants crying and if they it might be helpful to compare how much the babies cry if infant care practices are different.

In fact, it turns out they are - the two stereotyped groups I've described above are both groups found commonly in the UK but in Denmark, practices are a little different - even parents who don't sleep in a family bed or feed on demand, tend to hold or carry the baby for longer each day. So it's possible to separate the effect of sleeping in a family bed and feeding on demand (the "attachment parenting" or "non-conformist", mainly UK group) from the effect of a high level of responsiveness and carrying (the Danish group).

What the study found was that it was the carrying and responsiveness - as practiced by "mainstream" Danish mothers - that led to less crying during the day and evening (and it's the evening crying that parents find so wearing). Sleeping together in one bed in particular didn't help crying or sleeping through the night. In fact, sleeping in one bed added on to carrying/holding made infants less likely to have a settled, all-night sleep with little crying by 3 months.

What was also interesting was that extreme crying - "colic", which really seems to have little to do with the digestive system - was no different between the groups. So "regular" cryers cry less in the daytime if they are held more, more at night if they are in a family bed, but "extreme" cryers are not a result of anything parents have or have not done. Frustrating if you have one of them, but a little bit reassuring if you are worried you are doing something wrong.

*It's a very distinct style of parenting which some parents prefer but there's no evidence it has much to do with attachment - I'm going to be writing on that shortly** so bear with me.

**i.e. some time this millennium

If you are interested:

Pediatrics. 2006 Jun;117(6):e1146-55. Infant crying and sleeping in London, Copenhagen and when parents adopt a "proximal" form of care. St James-Roberts I, Alvarez M, Csipke E, Abramsky T, Goodwin J, Sorgenfrei E.