Parenthood and its discontents

Posted on 08/12/08 | in society

As if having a baby wasn’t exhausting enough, the received wisdom on looking after the little blighter is a nightmarish minefield of theory and counter-theory. The chief debates are these:

  1. ‘On demand’ vs ‘routine’. Theorists abound and create whole industries around their bestselling books. On the left, I give you attachment parenting: William Sears, Margot Sutherland et al. They say a baby should be given everything it needs when it wants it, and favour things such as co-sleeping (see below) and carrying them around everywhere in a sling. The debit side is that it can be very punishing on parents, and leaves their needs forgotten. On the right, the ‘controlled crying’ etc brigade, led by the dreaded Gina Ford, who advocates dividing your day into 10-minute chunks and forcing the baby to fit in with it, heedless of neurologists’ observations that night waking/feeding helps babies’ brain development.It’s notable that Sears has 8 children, and apparently Ford has… none. Tracy Hogg (‘the baby whisperer’) claims to tread a middle path, but is really a Fordite as far as I can discern.
  2. Breast vs bottle. Paediatricians don’t seem to give a toss for the breast, and in hospital happily try to foist formula on anyone who isn’t producing milk, or whose baby is ill and needs extra feeding (we were lucky as Oxford has a ‘milk bank’ and a stern ward sister arranged for donated milk). Meanwhile midwives are ardent breastfeeding campaigners and it’s hard to get them to admit how miserable and gruelling it can be, or help you consider alternatives.
  3. Dummy or no-dummy. Dummy use has been shown to be a preventative factor against cot death, but then again it can also lead to more ear infections, and in some babies seems to cause ‘nipple confusion’ making breastfeeding even more complicated than it already is.
  4. Co-sleeping or separate room. Western cultures don’t like the former as it disrupts the mother-father relationship in bed, and there’s the fear of squashing the mite (though this is extremely rare unless alcohol or drugs are involved). There are potential cot death risks for either argument, and in practice most people have a cot next to their bed.

Oh, and a special note for Dunstan Baby Language, whose nice-little-earner-DVD identifies 5 different cries baby makes and claims that all their needs can be met by spotting them and responding appropriately. Yeah, right. (There does seem to be something in it – but babies need more than five things.)

There’s probably more I’ve temporarily forgotten, addled with sleeplessness as I am. Anyway: it’s all bloody depressing, and I suppose going with one’s intuition is as good as anything. Of all the books I’ve looked at so far, one called Fatherhood… The Truth, although somewhat melancholy, is by far the sanest I’ve read. It’s by Marcus Berkmann – yup, the one who used to write for Your Sinclair. Surely, surely, if you can program a Spectrum, you can raise a child.

15 Comments on “Parenthood and its discontents”

  1. the_sybil Says:

    I don’t believe there’s any such thing as a piece of advice that works for all babies. Because… dum dum DAH! they’re all different.

  2. hatmandu Says:

    Well, quite – the better books seem (drum roll) to actually realise that 🙂

  3. undyingking Says:

    if you can program a Spectrum, you can raise a child

    Child peeks, you poke. Or possibly vice versa.

  4. jvvw Says:

    I managed to get everything I needed for a couple of years of my life with a vocabulary of ‘no’, ‘up’ and ‘Juliette’ (well nearly, I could pronounce my name properly) 🙂

  5. bluedevi Says:

    And from what I’ve seen of it, it seems that no one who weighs into the debate can resist throwing in bucketfuls of guilt-trip along with their opinion, to the effect that you are a Bad Parent and a Terrible Person if you consider doing the opposite. No wonder it’s depressing.

    Just out of interest, and if it’s not too personal, where do you stand on the ‘child must be with mother constantly’ vs ‘day care is OK’ argument?

  6. drcosmos Says:

    Cosimo currently relies on ‘hi’, ‘bye’ and ‘tickle’ with extensive non-verbal communication for everything else.

  7. drcosmos Says:

    So, um, when is your book on fatherhood/parenting coming out?

  8. hatmandu Says:

    Guilt-trip: yep, you’re absolutely right.

    As for the other issue, it’s kinda too soon for us to know: at this very early stage, and given breastfeeding, ‘day care’ isn’t really an option. It’s really down to how H feels in a few months’ time, but the expectation is that she’ll be returning to work next summer in some form.

  9. hatmandu Says:

    Exactly when I feel we’ve got the hang of things. So: never!

  10. scat0324 Says:

    The stuff in The Baby Whisperer worked well for us, but I think the book most people like is the one which reinforces what they were going to do anyway – we certainly wouldn’t have gone with the Gina Ford stuff, having read one of her books. It’s also not been as good for #2, but when I went onto the website to seek clarification of something (I don’t remember what now) I discovered Tracy Hogg has died, and so there are any number of interpretations of her techniques being spouted by punters on the forum.

    I don’t supposed you saw a letter scribbled on the top of the bottle of milk from the bank? Probably TMI even if you did, but it can be good to know the hassle Mrs S goes through is worth it.

  11. hatmandu Says:

    letter scribbled on the top of the bottle

    Fraid not! But I’m not sure it arrived at the bedside in its original packaging anyway. Is it a code which reveals the secrets of baby care?!

  12. two_headed_lady Says:

    As someone with no children of my own and experience of a solitary nephew who is being raised 200 miles north of me, here’s what I’ve worked out so far:

    – All babies are different

    – Routine is wonderful for toddlers and older children, so the earlier you can get some vague parameters in shape the better, but by that I think things like “don’t let them get used to sleeping in your arms or they won’t sleep properly apart from you” and “try and encourage them to eat before bed etc so that feeding times are spaced out as conveniently as possible” are as far as you need to go with tiny ones. I just can’t see how you can persuade a six month old – let alone a month-old – sprog that its stomach can respond to set meal times and I think you’d have a hard time trying.

    – You’re lovely and Helen’s lovely, so your child will very likely grow up similarly lovely as he has been exposed to pre-and-post natal loveliness all along. If you believe Oliver James, this counts for a great deal. I believe him.

    – Somewhere in the middle sounds like it makes sense to me. When it comes to basic needs, you HAVE to respond now as there’s no other choice. But constant contact sounds like it would be quite a strain on the parent and that can’t help. Stress levels during pregnancy and breastfeeding do have some serotonin-level impact on children (apparently), so ignoring all the advice and doing what works for you is not only healthy for you, it’s healthy for the baby, too.

    Also, my sister was booted off Gina Ford’s forum for daring to question her methods. I don’t accept advice from anyone who refuses to continually question and analyse their own methods to ensure they are fresh and relevant. Except my mum.

  13. hatmandu Says:

    Well, there’s more sense on your comments than many books, that’s for sure! I like Oliver James too. Though I’m not sure I’ve always shown post-natal loveliness in the face of constant screaming! (I should add that much of the time he’s gorgeous and very cute, of course.)

  14. hatmandu Says:

    I’m talking about Louis rather than Oliver James, natch!

  15. monkeyhands Says:

    The debit side is that it can be very punishing on parents, and leaves their needs forgotten.

    Exactly – and the baby needs parents who aren’t completely exhausted. I see it as a bit like the instructions you get on an aeroplane, where you absolutely have to put your own oxygen mask on before you help anybody else with theirs. You need to deal with your own basic needs or you’ll be no good at all. What I’m trying to say is, don’t feel guilty for needing to rest.

    It’s notable that Sears has 8 children, and apparently Ford has… none.

    So Ford has never given birth or breastfed… and nor has Sears. I take your point that Ford is more full of unworkable crap than Sears is, but that’s not because she has no children of her own; it’s because she has no qualifications whatsoever.