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.
Moms are 20 percent more likely than the rest of the population to use social media, according to a report released last month by BabyCenter, a parenting and pregnancy website. In just the last year, memberships in BabyCenter's online "birth club" forums, which group women based on their children's birth dates, have doubled to more than 20,000 members who trade 2 million comments.
Heidi Murkoff, author of the "What to Expect" series, expanded her brand in 2005 with the launch of WhatToExpect.com, which began with discussion groups at the national level, but recently added local groups.
"We noticed the importance of local groups as a trend," Murkoff said in an email interview.
"Our Baltimore moms support each other on everything from choosing a hospital to setting up a mommy and me yoga class," she said. "Best of all, they can get together for play dates and field trips, something that's a bit more challenging for groups that span the globe."
Other locally grown Facebook groups have been started for city parents, including Midtown Baltimore Families, launched a year ago by Dinah Winnick, a communications manager for the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
Winnick was on maternity leave at the time with her second child — who was born on Mother's Day, 2012 — and looking for a more efficient way to connect with area parents. The Facebook group's nearly 100 members use it to share how they're "picking a school, to events that are happening or even just to organize play dates at a neighborhood playground," said Winnick, 29.
And now, she's even recognized occasionally as "Dinah from Facebook."
UMBC's Women's Center maintains a mothers' listserv, an electronic mailing list for subscribers, that brings people together, according to director Jess Myers.
"As work demands have increased, moms feel unable to get away from work (or feel guilty) to meet face-to-face with each other," Myers said in an email. "Our listserv (in addition to the others I know some of our moms are on such as the Fed Hill, Canton and Towson listservs) sometimes may be the only connection they have to each other for support and resources. Our listserv has been used to help moms locate pediatricians, dentists and child care … in addition to simply being a community of support."
Support is a key draw for many women in Dorman's group.
"The moms are dealing with the same challenges as me at exactly the same time," Ann Brickley, mother to 11-month-old Maeve, said in an email. "I have family and friends who are wonderful mothers, but they lived through the diaper rash/sleep training/teething challenges years ago, and only have vague memories of what they did and what worked. So having a group of compatriots in the trenches with me is irreplaceable. Also, we cheer one another on, and commiserate when appropriate."
Maeve's naps never conformed to the routines outlined in some of the most popular advice books, which troubled Brickley until the Facebook group showed she wasn't alone.
"It reassured me that just because my baby wasn't sleeping the way the books said they should didn't mean she wasn't sleeping" just fine, Brickley said in an interview.
Now that her daughter's nearly a year old and Brickley has grown more comfortable with her parenting instincts, she posts fewer questions and more answers, she said.
Dorman said that evolution has been rewarding to watch. And she acknowledged that there is still a place for advice from family. Her grandmother is among her favorite advisers.
Said Dorman: "In general, she's just like, 'Relax, they'll survive. Put him in the playpen.'"
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