Most parents have at least one dog-eared parenting book gathering dust on the family bookshelf.  From What To Expect When You’re Expecting to The Baby Whisperer, there is a bestseller for every stage of your child’s life, many of which spawn movies and create tribes of followers dedicated to their unique parenting philosophy.  But is there such a thing as too much parenting advice? New research certainly suggests so; particularly when it comes to the ‘you’re-doing-it-all-wrong’ brand of parenting manual.

Researchers at Swansea University in the UK have found a link between parenting books that encourage parents to try and put their babies into strict sleeping and feeding routines and maternal wellbeing. 

The study found that the more mothers read these types of books, the more likely they were to have symptoms of depression and not feel confident as a parent. In fact, as many as 53% of mothers reported feeling more anxious after reading the books, while 50% felt they were harmful in some way.

While we all know somebody who swears by the Gina Ford Contented Little Baby-style routines, this research suggests that their success may have more to do with the nature of their baby than with the quality of the book’s advice, says Dr Amy Brown, who led the Swansea University study: “Although some parents might be lucky and have a very easy-going baby, it is completely normal for most babies to want lots of interaction and they will communicate their annoyance very loudly if they do not get it. Trying to go against these needs doesn’t work, not least because babies haven’t read the books!” 

Almost half of the 352 mothers who took part in the study said they ended up feeling frustrated and misled because they were unable to make the books’ advice work, and a fifth reported that they felt like a failure because of this. “Many of these books suggest goals that go against the normal developmental needs of babies,” explains Dr Brown.

Books Vs reality

While Dr Brown believes that many parenting books may do more harm than good, she understands the appeal of them for exhausted, anxious parents. “We were not designed to look after babies alone, but many mothers are now isolated and lonely in caring for their babies as they live so far away from family, and we do not have the same community networks as we used to,” she says. “Others have had to return to work, whilst still having sleepless nights, leaving them exhausted.”

Expat parents in the UAE are particularly vulnerable to this, since they often lack the support of an extended family network nearby. Plus, the UAE’s short maternity leave of just 45 days for the private sector puts even more stress on families to get their baby into a routine much earlier, says Lily Kandalaft, founder of Malaak Mama & Baby Care: “There is a pressure to have your child ‘ready’ i.e. sleeping through the night, so that mums are able to return well-rested and ready to focus on their career, which may not be the same as your child’s plan.”

Lily adds, “The challenge with some of the parenting books out there is that there is a mismatch between what the books offer as solutions and the reality of being a parent. Every family is different, every child is different and parenting really works best when you stop trying so hard and follow your instincts. So, if you are already exhausted and you are looking for a quick fix, sometimes these parenting books can really give parents a false sense of hope on how quickly these solutions can be implemented, so parents end up feeling depressed when it doesn’t work immediately.”

Joanne Jewell, founder of Mindful Parenting UAE, agrees: “Exhausted new parents are often desperate and their ability to think logically is compromised so they have unrealistic expectations of how quickly any change can occur.  There are no quick fixes and often we just have to wait for our children to be ready. Many parenting books don’t make this clear, and they give the impression that change happens quickly and that all children develop at the same time in the same way and they don’t.”

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The right way to use books

However, Joanne believes there is still a place for parenting books, when used in a constructive way. “Books can help provide reassurance that what a parent is experiencing is ‘normal’ or appropriate for the age of their child and managing expectations is helpful in reducing stress and anxiety.  They can also help provide options or alternatives for parents who are looking for suggestions of how to manage situations that they may never have experienced before.”

She argues that it is not the books themselves making parents feel bad, but the judgement of others and ourselves. “Many parents worry about what people think and feel judged in their parenting - whether this is from parents, friends or society and they are looking for acceptance, reassurance and a non-judgemental approach.  Some parenting manuals provide this support and others are more rigid tin their approach.”

She adds, “I think many parents feel that they have failed in one way or another - it isn’t the book that creates this feeling, though it’s our judgement of ourselves, unrealistic expectations and the belief that everyone else is doing okay and everyone else’s babies are eating and sleeping perfectly, when of course they aren’t!  The important thing when reading any parenting book is to remind ourselves that we are all doing the best job we can, our babies and children are unique individuals and to focus on meeting their needs in the way that is right for them and ourselves.”

Instead of pinning our hopes on parenting books, 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, says supervisor of the Swansea research, Dr Brown. “Mothering the mother is vital to her being able to care for her baby without being at increased risk of depression and anxiety.”

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