When first-time mom Sarah Dorman has a parenting question, she often turns to a Facebook group of Baltimore women before her own mother.
Her mother's probably not available at 3 a.m., and not familiar with the latest rules regarding infants and organic fruit or fretting over the contradictions in all those advice books — unlike some of Dorman's online peers.
"It all goes through fads of what's the popular thing. What was really popular when our parents were doing it might now sound psychotic," said Dorman, 31. Three decades ago, for example, parents were told to place babies face-down to sleep, a distinct no-no today after doctors realized it increases the risk of sudden infant death syndrome.
The Internet has been a source of child-rearing information for years, but moms seeking advice are increasingly turning to localized groups — like a Baltimore-based Facebook group Dorman and several others founded.
Those forums fill a gap between hyper-local neighborhood listservs and big, nationwide groups. In response, some of the major groups have joined the trend by launching their own regional subgroups. For example, Baltimore now has a local version of the national "Mommies Network" chat forum and a mothers group started by the author of the popular "What to Expect" series on pregnancy and parenting.
Localized online groups such as Midtown Baltimore Families also allow moms to quickly arrange outings such as walks and play dates at local parks.
The online emphasis is due in large part to the soaring popularity of smartphones, which moms can manipulate with one hand in the middle of the night while nursing a newborn. There is also a higher level of comfort with Internet interactions in general and a demand for immediate information fostered by the digital age.
"People are so busy, they're sort of turning to this 24/7 online space rather than waiting for that one mommy meeting a month or week to ask their questions," said Christine Greenhow, a former assistant professor of education and information studies at the University of Maryland.
Mothers today, like those of yesterday, also want to commiserate with someone who knows what they're going through and won't judge them when they admit that they let their infant nap in a swing.
Going online for that camaraderie is "sort of a generational thing," said Megan Pena-Ariet, a 29-year-old Baltimore teacher.
"A lot of times, I don't like asking my friends, my close friends. I don't want there to be any competition or judgment passed," she said of her parenting questions. "This is almost like an anonymous way to get information from a supportive group of people."
Pena-Ariet belongs to the Facebook group founded last summer by Dorman and a small group of women, including Lara Snyder, who met at a weekly meeting for new moms held at Mercy Medical Center.
The new friends wanted a way to organize regular walks, so they started an email list to connect everyone. But it quickly grew unwieldy as participants turned it into a clearinghouse for advice.
That's when they turned to Facebook. The site had introduced a groups feature in late 2010, allowing users to separate relationships by topic and host forums for everything from book clubs to parenting.
"What I like about this group, it kind of grew organically," said Snyder, whose daughter Jane will turn 1 next month. "It's friends adding friends."
And while its membership is diverse, she said, "a lot of the women come from a mutual place of respect and education."
Dorman, who has a 14-month-old named James, asked that the name of the group be withheld, because she wants it to grow through individual word-of-mouth connections. It's up to roughly 300 members today, many of whom personally know at least one other member.
That still leaves room for arms-length interactions that make it easier to ask embarrassing questions about your child's pooping habits or your postpartum body, members said. But it also personalizes the process in a way that the national groups typically don't.
"People are more responsible for what they post. … They're just nicer to one another," said Dorman, who was the first in her circle of friends to have a child.
Parenting "was very lonely in the beginning," Dorman said. "Now I feel like I have some friends" with the same issues through the online group.