baby reading to sleeping woman
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Parenting books might be worse than useless. They could be harmful

Guides that suggest all babies can be trained are affecting the self-esteem of mothers, according to a new report. Robyn Wilder shares her experience

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By Robyn Wilder on

I am a mum. That means I own, conservatively, at least 12 parenting books, all with titles like Gentle Ways to Help Your Baby Sleep Through the Night; all bought online at 3am, while I was on the parenting straits with my first baby; all an attempt to solve a problem I was rapidly losing my sanity to – lack of sleep.

I’ve only read about two of them.

Firstly, these books are massive. And the typeface is tiny. It doesn’t matter how “gentle” a baby manual is or how highly recommended it comes on a parenting forum; when you have a new baby you get roughly 20 seconds’ reprieve a day – generally on the toilet – and that’s not enough time to skim a hardback the size and heft of The Bible.

Secondly, my first son never reacted well to swaddling, or being cuddled and then put down, or laying a hand on his belly until he went to sleep. He stubbornly continued to only sleep in my arms, and would turn purple and vomit at the first hint of “routines”. So I’d give up on the books, much to the chagrin of my friend, who credits Gina Ford with her success at getting her baby to sleep through the night. Meanwhile, I couldn’t shake the feeling that, if I was indeed following guaranteed, common-sense, gentle and fool-proof advice – as the books promised – then both my son and I must be wrong ’uns.

Fifty-three per cent of the 354 new mothers who took part in the survey said that the more they read books about baby sleep schedules, the worse they felt

This week, I learned that I’m not at all alone in feeling this way. Scientists from the University of Swansea have found a link between parenting books and postnatal depression. Fifty-three per cent of the 354 new mothers who took part in the survey said that the more they read books about baby sleep schedules, the worse they felt. Self-esteem and confidence in their parenting abilities suffered, and they were more prone to postnatal depression.

“Mothers’ experiences of using the books really seemed to matter,” said Victoria Harries, the MSc Child Public Health student who carried out the research. “If mothers found the books useful, they were not at increased risk of depression or low confidence. However, if mothers felt worse after reading the books, they were at greater risk. Twenty-two per cent reported that they felt calmer after reading the books, 53 per cent felt more anxious.

“It is easy to understand the appeal of these books if you are exhausted and worried about how often your baby is waking up but almost half of mothers in the study ended up feeling frustrated and misled because they were unable to make the advice work. Unfortunately a fifth reported that they felt like a failure because of this.”

Dr Amy Brown – the maternal and infant health researcher from the university who supervised the study – told The Times: “We just kept coming across all these mothers who would say, ‘These books are telling me I have to get my baby into a routine, I’m not a good mother unless I get into a routine’.

“It flies in the face of all we know about infant behaviour. It’s suggesting you can easily get babies into these routines. There’s this whole market out there selling books to mums, millions of copies, and there is no evidence base to say they work.”

According to Dr Brown, mothers who find these books helpful may just have babies who are suited to routine – and this is far from the norm: “Normal babies wake up and feed. It’s normal, it’s exhausting, but don’t worry that something is wrong. You can’t programme a baby to not need care; it’s just hard. We should be thinking about how we can invest better in supporting mothers to have longer, better-paid maternity leave and more widely thinking about how we care for them.”

And my son? Well, at two years old he still doesn’t sleep through the night. But I’m never buying another parenting book, because I don’t need to feel worse than I already do – unless they come out with one about how to thrive on lack of sleep. That one I’d read.


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