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Parenting from the left side of the brain

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Physicist Dan Sisan, pictured with daughter Hannah Quinn Sisan in January 2008, could not get his daughter to stop crying so he turned to academic journals for answers. (Courtesy of Dan Sisan)

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Hannah Quinn Sisan, pictured in January 2008 at her home in Washington, D.C., inspired her father, physicist Dan Sisan, to do academic research on infant crying. (Courtesy of Dan Sisan)

Physicist Dan Sisan tried everything to get his newborn daughter to stop crying--feeding her, rocking, hugging, singing, giving her a swing. Nothing worked. He consulted baby books and Web sites, but they did not tell him what he really wanted to know.

“I’m kind of an annoyingly curious person,” he said. “What I was most interested in was not just the practical stuff, but the ‘why.’”

Child-rearing is an educational experience for all parents, but for those who are also scientists, it can be an even greater opportunity to use higher-order thinking skills. This left-brained approach has advantages and drawbacks, parents say, because knowing more can be both calming--and terrifying.

It surprised Sisan, who earned his physics Ph.D. studying the earth’s magnetic field and is now a post-doctoral fellow at Georgetown University, to find that very little scientific research has been devoted to infant crying, even though it “directly affects a lot of people’s lives.” In a Web search for “colic and crying,” he found only around 100 papers. A search for “black holes,” meanwhile, turned up some 12,000.

So Sisan wrote his own treatise and published it on his blog, dansisan.blogspot.com, footnotes and all. “Since both black holes and crying babies are singularities that suck in all nearby resources,” he wrote, “you would think scientists would focus on the ones in people's living rooms before looking 1,600 light years away--wouldn't you?”

Sisan concluded that most popular folk explanations for infant crying are not supported by science. In fact science offered few concrete answers

“It turns out babies seem to cry for no reason at all,” he said. Still, the research eased Sisan's fear that his daughter was crying because of something he’d done wrong or because she was suffering from from an undiscovered ailment.

“If you understand something--and it’s not a problem--it can make it easier,” Sisan said.

Sisan’s research also earned him a degree of notoriety. His blog is the 15th link in a Google search for “inconsolable crying.”

His wife Heather Sisan, who holds a master’s degree in conservation science, said she was impressed by his efforts, though they did not necessarily make her life as the mother of a newborn any easier.

“It’s nice that one of us is taking a scientific approach to this parenting business,” she said. “My approach is clearly anecdotal. I’m constantly asking people ‘so what did you do when…’ ”

For some scientist parents, the curiosity begins even before a child’s birth. When Lise Eliot became pregnant with her daughter, now 13, she decided to investigate early child development. The research turned into her first book, “What’s Going on in There? How the Brain and Mind Develop in the First Five Years of Life.”

Eliot, an associate professor in the Department of Neuroscience at the Chicago Medical School, began her academic career studying how marine mollusks learn. She later did research on the function of human brains at the molecular level.

Her book details the changes taking place in a child’s brain at each phase of growth during the first years of life.

Some of the knowledge she gained terrified her, she said. “It’s hard when you know how critical some periods are to child development,” she said. “The brain’s wiring is forming, and any damage you do could be irreversible.”

On the other hand, she said, her training in statistics and probability has provided comfort to her and other scientist parents she knows.

“You have a better sense of the range of what is normal in human development,” she said. “You don’t get too worried if your child deviates from the precise norm. Children manage to grow up healthy around the world in a huge variety of environments.”

Eliot, who now has three children, has encouraged them to think critically and question things around them, but that does not always go over well at school.

“It’s a good and a bad thing,” she said.

Having two daughters sparked an interest in the science of gender roles for Patricia Monahan, who has a master’s degree in energy analysis and policy and has been the deputy director for clean vehicles at the Union of Concerned Scientists for eight years.

“Before I had two girls, I presumed it was mostly societal pressure that made girls more interested in English and boys more interested in math and science,” she said.

But then Monahan, who says she was a tomboy growing up, began noticing some innate girliness in her daughters and began reading books by doctors and scientists about the differences between boys and girls.

What she found, she said, confirmed suspicions already raised by her experiences as a parent. For example, her daughters were not always very interested in taking things apart to find out how they worked.

My daughters were “born with innate characteristics,” she said. “They are very feminine in some ways.”

But her interest in learning about parenting and her children is not necessarily scientific, Monahan said.

“I’m not sure if that’s the inclination of all parents or just scientist parents.”

E-mail: omp2111@columbia.edu