Par­ent­ing books not a quick fix

Are ad­vice man­u­als friend or foe for worn-out car­ers?

The New Zealand Herald - - NEWS - Amy Brown Amy Brown is As­so­ci­ate Pro­fes­sor of Child Pub­lic Health, Swansea Univer­sity.

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.

Un­help­ful ad­vice

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

breath­ing.

Mir­a­cle cure

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.

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