Experts can damage your health
With so much contradictory advice on babycare flying around, says Virginia Hume, it's no wonder parents are getting more paranoid
There is now an entire industry of experts producing books that offer us paranoid parents advice on how best to bring up baby. The trouble is that, on many everyday issues, these experts seem unable to agree which end of a baby is up.
Take the fundamental problem of getting babies to sleep. In his classic Baby and Child Care (updated with Dr Michael B Rothenberg), the late Dr Spock says that if you are having trouble getting your baby to sleep, 'The cure is simple: put the baby to bed at a reasonable hour, say goodnight affectionately but firmly, walk out of the room, and don't go back'. What could be clearer than that?
Unfortunately, in her book Baby and Child, Penelope Leach is equally clear that 'tearing yourself away, leaving him to howl, cannot be the right answer. If...your baby cries when you leave, go back'. But as you start to creep back to baby's bedroom, Spock's warning rings in your ears: 'It's important not to tiptoe in to be sure the baby is safe or to reassure her that you are nearby. This only enrages her and keeps her crying much longer.'
So you turn away again, only to be confronted by Dr Miriam Stoppard's startling claim that leaving your baby to cry will not only spoil her night's sleep, but could ruin her entire life: 'If you do she will very soon stop asking for attention...[and] she may grow up introverted, withdrawn, shy of displays of affection, and repulsed by physical contact.' What kind of irresponsible parent would ignore advice like that?
So should you take baby into your bed? 'I have never believed', declares Dr Miriam Stoppard, 'that taking the baby into our bed could do him or us any harm'. On the other hand, What to Expect the First Year, a successful manual written by three American mothers backed by an army of doctors and caring professionals, says that those who 'opt for the "family bed"' need to be made 'aware of the possible risks' of letting their child sleep with them. Such as? Sleep problems, developmental problems, peer problems, marital problems, safety problems, 'drawing the line' problems - even dental problems.
In The Year after Childbirth, however, Sheila Kitzinger assures us that leaving a child to sleep alone 'may not be the safest arrangement...There is some evidence that a mother's movements during sleep, and the noises that she makes, stimulate a baby's breathing'. But just as mother rushes to bring baby into her bed, the Which? Guide to Children's Health (edited by Dr Harry Brown) raises the stakes still higher in the risk game, announcing that research shows 'bed-sharing with a parent or parents' to be one of the factors 'associated with a higher incidence of cot death'. So we are damned if we do and damned if we don't. The people who definitely will not get any sleep after reading all this are petrified parents.
On the question of giving babies sweets, What to Expect the First Year takes the fashionable approach: 'Keep sugar...out of your kitchen and offer sugar-sweetened foods as treats only rarely.' In his latest book, The Secret of Happy Children, the new Australian parenting guru Steve Biddulph wants such goodies banned completely: 'Sugar and refined sugary foods have a markedly unpleasant effect on kids' behaviour. They become edgy, hyperactive, and just plain naughty.'
But Dr Miriam Stoppard believes that 'it is wrong to deprive children of sweets. Deprivation often leads to furtiveness and dishonesty'. Penelope Leach goes further: 'Instead of waiting for him to nag you for chocolate while you are out shopping, serve him a couple of squares, with an apple, as a sweet course at lunch. Instead of taking a moralistic attitude to pleas for potato crisps, serve them occasionally in place of that boring mashed potato.'
Meanwhile, the Which? Guide to Children's Health takes a rather bizarre consumerist approach: 'Watch how much of the family budget is spent on confectionery; if it is more than £1-£2 per week the child is probably eating too many sweets.' Alternatively, of course, the mother could be bingeing on chocolate to help her cope with the anxiety brought on by reading too many childcare books. The thought of babies eating sweets and chocolate tends to bring on bouts of hyperactivity among edgy parents far more quickly than actually eating the stuff does among children.
Penelope Leach tells us that 'if nappy rash does develop...clean her with oil or Vaseline'. Don't you dare, counters What to Expect the First Year: 'Petroleum jelly, such as Vaseline (is) for lubricating rectal thermometers. Do not use to self-treat nappy rash.' It is enough to make the most patient parent feel like telling them where to stick their advice.
The Great Ormond Street Book of Baby and Child Care says that babies often settle better by sucking 'either at a thumb, a dummy or parent's finger' and concludes that 'thumb sucking...is the best of the three'. What to Expect the First Year agrees that 'it's probably best for babies to learn...to comfort themselves rather than to rely on artificial aids such as a dummy...and it won't cause nipple confusion as a dummy can'.
As usual, however, the baby is not the only one at risk of confusion. Dr Spock insists that the dummy is best: 'The pacifier, if used right, is an efficient way to prevent thumb-sucking...pacifier-sucking is less likely to push the teeth out of position than thumb-sucking'. The Which? Guide to Children's Health simply ducks the dummy v thumb challenge: 'There are various schools of thought on which is the better but the decision may ultimately be the baby's.' But if baby knows best, what are all these experts for?
Not only do the experts contradict each other on these and many other issues, but each one tends to present their parenting method as the only proper way to bring up your baby. Despite the experts' reassurances that they merely want to 'facilitate parental choice', there always seems to be a dark implication in there somewhere that, if we do not follow their particular instructions to the letter, some terrible fate is likely to befall our family.
Steve Biddulph is something of a hot number among childcare experts just now. In the introduction to his book, The Secret of Happy Children, Biddulph generously suggests that we should take his advice with a pinch of salt, because 'experts are a hazard to your health! Your own heart will always tell you, if you listen to it, what is the best way to raise your children'. Yet he forgets his own advice and begins to turn the screw on parents on the very next page. 'When reading this book you may realise that, by accident, you are hypnotising your children into disliking themselves, and causing them to have problems which may last a lifetime.' But, hey, says Steve, don't let a little thing like that make you feel that you have to obey a hazardous expert like me.
In an insecure world where all of the old certainties are being called into question, it seems that even something as basic as babycare (which, after all, our parents and their parents managed perfectly well without all the books and counsellors) can now cause unprecedented levels of angst and anxiety. The experts industry has arisen in response to this epidemic of parental paranoia.
What I really object to is not so much the experts' well-intentioned advice, but the assumption on which too much of this contradictory advice seems to rest: the notion that parents today really cannot be trusted to decide what is best for their own children without the help of strict guidelines and codes of conduct. At worst the experts act like a substitute parent for parents, telling us how we should and should not behave, as if we were incompetent children ourselves. But if something does go wrong, who do you think gets the blame?
Sheila Kitzinger, The Year after Childbirth, Oxford University Press
Penelope Leach, Baby and Child, Penguin
Dr Miriam Stoppard, Baby Care Book, Dorling Kindersley
Tessa Hilton with Maire Messenger, The Great Ormond Street Book of Baby and Child Care, Bodley Head
Arlene Eisenberg, Heidi E Murkoff and Sandee E Hathaway, What to Expect the First Year, Simon and Schuster
Dr Harry Brown (ed), Which? Guide to Children's Health, Which? Books
Steve Biddulph, The Secret of Happy Children, Thorsons
Dr Benjamin Spock and Dr Michael B Rothenberg, Baby and Child Care, Simon and Schuster
Reproduced from LM issue 118, March 1999