The diabolical genius of the baby advice industry

Every baffled new parent goes searching for answers in baby manuals. But what they really offer is the reassuring fantasy that life’s most difficult questions have one right answer.

According to koodakpress، Human beings are born too soon. Within hours of arriving in the world, a baby antelope can clamber up to a wobbly standing position; a day-old zebra foal can run from hyenas; a sea-turtle, newly hatched in the sand, knows how to find its way to the ocean. Newborn humans, on the other hand, can’t hold up their own heads without someone to help them. They can’t even burp without assistance. Place a baby human on its stomach at one day old – or even three months old, the age at which lion cubs may be starting to learn to hunt – and it’s stranded in position until you decide to turn it over, or a sabre-toothed tiger strolls into the cave to claim it. The reason for this ineptitude is well-known: our huge brains, which make us the cleverest mammals on the planet, wouldn’t fit through the birth canal if they developed more fully in the womb. (Recently, cognitive scientists have speculated that babies may actually be getting more useless as evolution proceeds; if natural selection favours ever bigger brains, you’d expect humans to be born with more and more developing left to do.)

This is why humans have “parenting”: there is a uniquely enormous gap between the human infant and the mature animal. That gap must be bridged, and it’s difficult to resist the conclusion that there must be many specific things adults need to get right in order to bridge it. This, in turn, is why there are parenting advice manuals – hundreds and hundreds of them, serving as an index of the changing ways we have worried about how we might mess up our children.

When my son was born, 15 months ago, I was under no illusion that I had any idea what I was doing. But I did think I understood self-help books. For longer than I’d like to admit, I’ve written a weekly column about psychology and the happiness industry, in the course of which I have read stacks and stacks of books on popular psychology. I even wrote one myself, specifically aimed at readers who – like me – distrusted the hyperbolic promises of mainstream self-help. Midway through my partner’s pregnancy, when I first clicked “Bestsellers in Parenting: Early Childhood” on Amazon, I naively assumed it would be easy enough to pick up two or three titles, sift the science-backed wheat from the chaff, apply it where useful, and avoid getting too invested in any one book or parenting guru.

After all, I knew that advice books in other fields often contradicted each other, and indeed themselves, and so should never be taken too seriously. I understood that the search for One Right Answer to life’s biggest questions was futile, even self-exacerbating, leading only to a downward spiral in which attempting the perfect implementation of any one book’s recipe for happiness only generated further anxiety, necessitating the purchase of another book in an effort to allay it. (My own book, The Antidote, argues that trying to think positively reliably leads to more stress and misery.)

I knew all these things – but what I didn’t yet understand was the diabolical genius of the baby-advice industry, which targets people at their most sleep-deprived, at the beginning of what will surely be the weightiest responsibility of their lives, and suggests that maybe, just maybe, between the covers of this book, lies the morsel of information that will make the difference between their baby’s flourishing or floundering. The brilliance of this system is that it works on the most sceptical readers, too, because you don’t need to believe it’s likely such a morsel actually exists. You need only think it likely enough to justify spending another £10.99 on, oh, you know, the entire future happiness of your child, just in case. Assuming you’ve got £10.99 to spare, what kind of monster would refuse?

And so “two or three” books became six, and 10, and eventually 23, all with titles that, even before the sleep deprivation set in, had begun to blur into one other: The Baby Book and Secrets of the Baby Whisperer and The Happiest Baby on the Block and Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child and The Contented Little Baby Book. (Their cover designs blurred even more. It’s hard to imagine the jacket art meeting for most baby books lasting more than a few seconds: “How about … a photo of a baby?”) If there is a single secret of good parenting, it is surely to be found on the rickety, self-assembly bookcase in the little back bedroom of our flat.

A tone of overbearingly cheery confidence characterises almost all such books, which makes sense; half the hope in purchasing any one of them is that you might absorb some of the author’s breezy self-assurance. Yet for all this certitude, it rapidly became clear that the modern terrain of infant advice was starkly divided into two opposed camps, each in a permanent state of indignation at the very existence of the other. On one side were the gurus I came to think of as the Baby Trainers, who urged us to get our newborn on to a strict schedule as soon as possible, both because the absence of such structure would leave him existentially insecure, but also so he could be seamlessly integrated into the rhythms of the household, allowing everyone to get some sleep and enabling both parents swiftly to return to work. This is the busy, timetabled world in which we live, the Baby Trainers seemed to be saying; the challenge was to make life with an infant workable within it.

On the other side were the Natural Parents, for whom all schedules – and, often enough, the very notion of mothers having jobs to return to – were further proof that modernity had corrupted the purity of parenthood, which could be recovered only by emulating the earthy practices of indigenous tribes in the developing world and/or prehistoric humans, these two groups being, according to this camp, for all practical purposes the same.

A handful of the books I bought resisted classification, but only by maddeningly insisting on the importance of both approaches at once: by the time he was 10 months old, I learned from What to Expect: The First Year, we’d need to be giving our son “¼ to ½ cup of dairy foods per day” and “¼ to ½ cup of protein foods per day”, while also not getting “caught up in measurements”. (There is also a subgenre of books aimed specifically at new fathers, but since they are an almost uninterrupted wasteland of jokes about breasts and beer, this article will give them the attention they deserve, which is none.)

It may be no coincidence that hostilities between camps seem to rage most furiously in those areas where there is the least scientific evidence to favour one or another technique. In online discussion forums, the battles reach their most frenzied over the question of whether letting your baby cry itself to sleep is sensible or tantamount to child abuse. At first glance, the sheer level of emotional investment confused me: why were all these people, presumably very busy looking after their own babies, so obsessed with how other people were caring for other babies they’d never meet?

But such mysteries begin to disperse when you realise that baby advice isn’t only, or perhaps even mainly, about raising children. Rather, it is a vehicle for the yearning – surely not unique to parents – that if we could only track down the correct information and apply the best techniques, it might be possible to bring the terrifying unpredictability of the world under control, and make life go right. It’s too late for us adults, of course. But a brand-new baby makes it possible to believe in the fantasy once more. Baby manuals seem to offer all the promise of self-help books, minus the challenges posed by the frustratingly intransigent obstacle of your existing self.

The essential challenge confronting any would-be parenting guru is this: nobody really knows what a baby is. This is obviously true of the panicked new parents, suddenly ejected from hospital to home, and faced with the responsibility of keeping the thing alive. But it is barely less true of the experts.

To begin with, thanks to the still mysterious phenomenon that Sigmund Freud labelled “infantile amnesia”, nobody can remember what it was like to be a baby. Furthermore, the experiments that could decisively distinguish the best from the worst ways to treat an infant, in terms of future flourishing, would be blatantly unethical; and in the real world, it’s virtually impossible to disentangle the innumerable variables acting upon any individual baby. Does being breastfed really confer lifelong benefits, or do those benefits come from being raised by the kind of mother – older, better educated, better-off – who’s far more likely to breastfeed? (Parenting experts who are childless, such as the “queen of routine” Gina Ford, author of the unavoidable Contented Little Baby series, attract a lot of sharp words for it, but this seems unfair. Where Ford has direct experience of parenting none of the 130 million babies born on Earth each year, most gurus only have direct experience of parenting two or three babies, which isn’t much better as a sample size. The assumption that whatever worked for you will probably work for everyone, which is endemic in the self-help world, reaches an extreme in the pages of baby books.)

“Children are, at once, deeply familiar and profoundly alien,” writes the philosopher and developmental psychologist Alison Gopnik – and babies are most alien of all. For example: are they clever or stupid? Clearly, they’re inept at pretty much everything; yet “science, and indeed common sense, tells us that in those early years they are learning more than they ever will again,” as Gopnik notes, which hardly sounds like ineptitude.

Nothing struck me more forcefully, in my early months as a parent, as the sheer strangeness of the new houseguest. Where had he come from? What was his business here? Sitting in our glider chair, rocking my son back to sleep at 3.30am, I’d often wonder what might be going on in there, but the question led straight to dumbfoundedness. It wasn’t just that I didn’t know what it was like to be him, but that I couldn’t imagine what it could be like, in his pre-linguistic world where every hour brought experiences of utter novelty. Perhaps it’s no wonder that philosophers have tended to deal with the puzzle of babies by ignoring them entirely: one mid-1960s edition of the Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Gopnik points out, contained zero index references to babies, infants, mothers, fathers, parents or families, and only four to children. (There were many more references to angels.)

This explains the unspoken promise detectable between the lines of almost every baby manual: that this book, this guru, might be able to turn the alien in the bassinet into something altogether less daunting and more manageable, reminiscent of all those complicated-but-doable projects you’ve handled at home or the office in the past. Sometimes this is little more than a matter of tone, as in the case of the bestselling parenting advice book in history, What to Expect When You’re Expecting – which has 18.5m copies in print, and has spawned more than 10 spin-off books and a mediocre 2012 romantic comedy starring Cameron Diaz. What to Expect tries to distract from the outlandishness of what’s approaching by means of a relentlessly upbeat tone, characterised by compulsive wordplay that makes you worry for the authors’ mental health: “With just weeks to go before D-Day, have you come to terms with your baby coming to term? Will you be ready when that big moment – and that little bundle – arrives?” It rarely failed to make me – or even my partner, far less perturbable despite being the one who was actually pregnant – more stressed.

Other authors promise to eliminate the uncertainty inherent in the situation by making inexcusably specific claims about how things will unfold. The Wonder Weeks, a popular book by the Dutch husband-and-wife child development experts Frans Plooij and Hetty van de Rijt, insists upon the existence of 10 predictable “magic leaps forward” in your baby’s neurological development, heralded in each case by bouts of fussiness, raising the prospect that you might be able to tick them off like milestones in a home-renovation project. For example: at 46 weeks old, the authors declare, you can expect your baby to start to understand sequences, such as the steps involved in fitting one object into another. (Typically for the genre, The Wonder Weeks tries to reassure readers these stages will unfold naturally, while strongly hinting there are specific things parents must do to make them go well.) But it’s not wholly astonishing to learn, from Dutch press reports, that when one of Plooij’s PhD students sought experimental evidence for these leaps, she found none, and Plooij tried to block the publication of her results, triggering a controversy that saw him dismissed from his university post.

Of course all babies don’t follow an extremely precise 10-stage schedule: the very idea, to anyone who is well-slept and thinking straight, is preposterous. But it is difficult to imagine anything more profoundly reassuring to the first-time parent of a one-week-old than the possibility that they might.

End Item/