Being a new parent is thrilling, but it can also be incredibly scary. Anyone who has brought a tiny, bundled baby home and thought to themselves, “now what?” knows the combination of joy and fear I’m talking about. It’s no surprise that new parents are eager and anxious for knowledge and advice about how to care for their newborns, including guidance on sleep and sleep safety. It’s also no surprise that in this digital information age many new parents would turn to a resource that’s right at our fingertips: the internet.
They’re not alone. Scouring the web for medical and health information has become common practice for many of us. Googling symptoms, looking up treatment options—using the internet as a health resource is something most of us have probably done at some point. In 2010, 80% of adults who use the internet searched the web for health information, according to this study by the Pew Research Center.
Of course, an internet search will inevitably turn up lots of information on almost any subject—but is this information reliable? All of us want accurate advice, perhaps especially new parents looking for guidance on infant care and safety. But how accurate are those Google searches? A recent study found that internet searches related to infant sleep safety often do not produce accurate and reliable information in line with American Academy of Pediatrics guidelines. Researchers examined information on 1,300 websites found through the search engine Google, and compared the information found on these sites to the recommendations for infant sleep safety that are issued by the American Academy of Pediatrics. This is the first study to assess the accuracy of internet-based information about infant sleep safety.
The American Academy of Pediatrics in 2011 updated and broadened their recommendations for infant sleep safety. (I wrote about these updates at the time of their release, and talked about the important changes the AAP made.) These guidelines provide instruction for parents, caregivers and health professionals on how to create a safe sleep environment for infants. Following these guidelines is important in reducing the risk of SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome) and other infant-sleep related dangers including suffocation, asphyxia and entrapment.
Researchers in the current study created 13 phrases related to infant sleep safety, and ran these phrases using the search engine Google. They then analyzed the first 100 web sites that Google returned for each search. They classified web sites according to type, and measured the accuracy of the information provided. The American Academy of Pediatric guidelines provided the benchmark by which the researchers assessed the accuracy of the infant sleep information.
So, how did the internet stand up as a resource for reliable information on infant sleep safety? Of the 1,300 web sites analyzed:
- 43.5% provided accurate information about infant sleep safety
- 28.1% provided inaccurate information
- 28.4% returned information that was not relevant to the intended search
Some searches delivered more accurate information than others. Of the 13 search phrases used, these three returned the most accurate information:
- “infant cigarette smoking”
- “infant sleep position”
- “infant sleep surface”
These three searches ranked at the bottom of the list for accuracy:
- “pacifier infant”
- “infant home monitors”
- “infant co-sleeping”
Different types of web sites also demonstrated different levels of accuracy. Classifying web sites by type, researchers found that the most common type of site in searches were those belonging to companies and interest groups, followed by retail/product review sites, and educational sites. These types of web sites were the most common, but they were not the most accurate. Researchers found that government web sites demonstrated the highest degree of accuracy among all of the search results. Here’s how the most common types of sites ranked in terms of accurate information on infant sleep safety:
- Government web sites: 80.9% accuracy
- Organization web sites: 72.6% accuracy
- Company/interest groups: 52.4% accuracy
- News sites: 50.9% accuracy
- Educational web sites: 50.2% accuracy
These numbers don’t inspire a tremendous amount of confidence, do they? The internet can be a real resource for information on infant sleep safety and other sleep health topics. But you have to be smart—and cautious—about how you use the web.
Choose your sources carefully. Studies indicate that Americans don’t pay a lot of attention to the sources of information online, and may be too trusting of the validity of the information they collect on the web. When you’re considering a sleep-health related search, make sure you’re visiting sites run by experts and professionals. Do your homework—read up on the professional background and accreditation of your internet sources before you start taking advice from them.
Be aware of controversial topics. This current study found that some of the more controversial topics related to infant sleep safety—including co-sleeping and breast feeding—were also topics that were most likely to display inaccurate information on the web. This is not surprising, since opinions vary widely on these topics, even among health professionals. When you’re turning to the internet to gather information on controversial and contested topics related to sleep health, it’s important to use extra caution about where you’re taking your information.
The web is not a doctor. The internet can deliver information with amazing speed and volume, but it can’t listen to your child’s heartbeat, or look into your baby’s eyes while engaging in a conversation about your newborn’s sleep habits. There is no substitute for the expert, in-person advice of your family health-care provider. Part of being smart about using the internet for health and sleep information is knowing its limitations. First, last, and always: when you have a question about the sleep, safety, and health of your child—or yourself—talk to your doctor.