Parenting books not a quick fix
Are advice manuals friend or foe for worn-out carers?
Becoming a new parent certainly ranks up there in the exhaustion and anxiety stakes. Countless parents find themselves questioning at 3am whether their baby is feeding too much, if they should be sleeping through the night by now, and wondering if there is anything else they should be doing differently.
Social media posts often boast of sleeping, contented babies while in reality many parents feel unable to put their baby down. Some want a miracle solution — and quickly.
Ever since the publication of Dr Benjamin Spock’s multimillion-selling Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care, countless self-proclaimed experts have proffered incredible solutions for infant sleep, feeding and care. Generations of parents have turned to books such as Dr Spock’s for advice over the years, but beyond anecdotal evidence we don’t know whether these books work.
Some actually go against what we know about promoting positive, healthy infant attachment, well-being and health. In fact our recent research has suggested some books’ impact on maternal well-being is not good, and that there is a link between their use and an increased likelihood of symptoms of depression and anxiety.
Our research found that mothers’ experience of following books’ advice played an important part in their wellbeing. If they found the books useful, the mothers’ well-being was not affected, but if they didn’t find them useful, they were at a higher risk of depression and anxiety. Unfortunately only about a fifth of mothers in the study found them useful — 22 per cent reported feeling more in control. Over 50 per cent found them harmful in some way and 53 per cent felt more anxious.
Only one in 10 felt the advice made them less tired, while one in six felt like a failure because of them.
So why don’t these books seem to work for most parents? Probably because the suggestion that you can encourage a baby into a parent-led routine goes against a lot of what we know about young babies’ needs. Babies need to feed often because their tummy is small. Breast milk in particular is really easily digested so they need to feed lots — which also helps build a good milk supply.
Waking at night is normal, too. After all, lots of adults wake up at night but can attend to their own needs such as getting a drink. Babies need help doing this. Finally, human infants are really quite vulnerable compared with many other mammals. This means they are programmed to keep their caregiver close.
Trying to persuade babies that they want to feed less often, sleep through the night and lie contentedly on their own flies in the face of normal developmental infant needs. Many parents will find it creates other issues. For example, trying to limit how much a baby feeds can reduce milk supply, making them distressed, and increasing the likelihood of breastfeeding difficulties. Not responding to an infant’s cries at night is stressful for their developing brains, too. And sleeping close to their mother at night promotes a steadier temperature, heart rate and
You can understand why parents are drawn to books that promise that routines will work. Motherhood is exhausting and many new mothers are now isolated from family, which can increase the risk of depression. Many may need to return to work while dealing with sleepless nights.
It’s normal for parents to worry about whether they are doing it “right”. But they should remember that a baby having frequent needs and wanting to be kept close is normal. In fact, responding to babies’ needs helps the newborn to learn that the world is a good place.