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Baby Books Won't Make You A Better Mother

There is no promotion as swift and terrifying as new parenthood. In a fog of exhaustion and confusion, you turn to the 'experts' for help. No, I'm not referring to your mother, your maternal health nurse or your midwife. I'm talking about baby books and websites.
Mother reading a book while baby's sleeping
KatarzynaBialasiewicz via Getty Images
Mother reading a book while baby's sleeping

There is no promotion as swift and terrifying as new parenthood. You leave the house as an amateur and return from hospital with all the responsibilities of a CEO. Despite having no formal training or real experience, you suddenly have a tiny, fragile, demanding human being to care for, full-time and with rare tea breaks.

In addition, you are recovering from the physical trauma of birth and trying to function on very little sleep.

In a fog of exhaustion and confusion, you turn to the 'experts' for help. No, I'm not referring to your mother, your maternal health nurse or your midwife. I'm referring to baby books and websites.

It was sleep -- or lack thereof -- that first led me to seek out advice in baby sleep books. And judging by the abundance to choose from -- a Google search will bring up more than 7 million results -- I'm not the only one.

My first baby was very alert, day and night. He loudly and determinedly protested against the idea of settling to sleep, self or otherwise. I devoured every sleep book I could get my hands on in the hope they would make my baby snooze. Yet his routines could not have been more different to the 'sample' routines of Tizzy Hall in Save Our Sleep, and he couldn't have looked at me with more bemusement than when I tried to pat him to sleep, à la Baby Bliss. We both knew this was never going to work. He just wasn't much of a sleeper.

My next baby couldn't have been more different. Almost as soon as we left hospital, she woke just once a night. Soon, without any intervention -- no crying, patting or shushing -- she slept through the night. She did everything by the book, as if she had read as many of them as I had.

My third was in between -- not a great sleeper, but not terrible.

My technique had not improved from the first child to the third. And so I look back at my experience with baby sleep books and realise that they helped me very little, and instead fed my doubts, making me feel anxious and question my parenting abilities. They distracted me from what I should have been paying attention to: my baby.

For one of my friends, baby sleep books were initially more successful. She followed one writer's advice religiously, which meant that I never saw her socially for her child's first year, before the method backfired spectacularly when her child turned one and would not go to sleep for any longer than an hour at a time. As a result, she had isolated herself at a terribly difficult and lonely time, which to me seems far worse than broken sleep.

Baby books can also encourage new mothers to put pressure on themselves to live up to ideals that are almost impossible to meet in the real world -- from making organic, biodynamic purees to taming 'terrible two' temper tantrums with calm words and meditation.

Another friend read Steve Biddulph's Raising Boys and refused to let anyone apart from immediate family babysit until her kids had turned two. As she became more and more exhausted and disillusioned, I'm not sure that she or her three boys benefited.

A former midwife said even she was not immune to the pressures to be a 'perfect mother', and that baby books didn't always help.

"Being a midwife, people expect that you just know what to do with the whole motherhood thing. Truth be known, after discharge on day three, we are first time mums, fumbling our way like the rest of them, but with the added burden of expectation."

In order to meet her ideals of perfect parenthood, she read books on feeding, educating, settling and disciplining babies. She found nuggets of information valuable, among a lot that was less helpful. After her second baby, she felt confident enough to go with her instincts, and was happy not do things by the book this time.

She advised new parents to choose carefully which advice they followed.

"Choose what strategies work for you. Read what you like, and take from the literature what fits in with your beliefs and your family," she said.

Unfortunately, selecting the right book can be a laborious and sometimes futile process. The advice in each book varies so much that it is extremely difficult for parents to decide which one is best, so they try a variety, wasting time, effort and emotional energy during a stage of life when each is in short supply.

The problem is that the audience for baby books is so varied -- just like any humans, a baby's needs, personality, behavior and preferences are so diverse.

I asked my maternal and child health nurse what she thought.

"I believe these books certainly can make life much more stressful for parents, most definitely. It's the general consensus here. When you're dealing with your individual child, with certain needs and personalities, simply reading anything prescriptive can be harmful."

She said it was crucial to address the needs of the whole family in learning to live with a new baby.

This is not to say baby books are entirely unhelpful and I'm sure many new mothers have found them to be invaluable. However, they shouldn't be the first or last word.

Ideally, new mothers would not go into motherhood unequipped and alone, seeking support and advice between the covers of a book; they would have relatives, friends and health professionals to support them. However, of course, not everyone has this luxury, and this is why baby books are so often used to fill the gap. But they are not always the substitute a new parent hopes for and needs.

Perhaps, as we navigate new parenthood, we should try to trust our instincts and pay more attention to the lessons our babies can teach us. That will truly make us better mothers.

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