Parenting books can be your mental health’s worst enemy

Parenting books

New research reveals a link between ‘how to’ parenting books and postnatal depression. When mothers are encouraged to instil a strict routine but the baby does not comply, it can cause huge anxiety. This was Jacki Badger’s experience…

Back in the newborn haze after the birth of my son, I found myself spending a surprising amount of time thinking about High Fidelity. And all because of one seemingly innocuous question that I was asked almost every day – “is he in a routine yet?”

It was the word “yet” that got me. Just like Nick Hornby’s Rob, all I could think about was the inevitability it implied. He was going to get into a routine eventually, right? It was how some structure would return to my days, and he’d know what to expect, and my sanity was going to be saved. Yes?

But a new study from Swansea University has found a link between postnatal depression and reading books that advocate strict feeding and sleeping routines for young babies. In fact, 53% of women who read these books reported feeling more anxious afterwards. So, it seems, that perhaps strict routines aren’t the answer for everyone after all.

My son and I could’ve told you that.

Back when my son was about eight weeks old, I got the idea into my head that the “yet” of the routine question should be “now”. Our life together had been fairly chaotic; both of us were up at all hours, eating more than I thought could ever be possible, and frequently bursting into tears of exhaustion. Had it not been for the rising and setting of the sun making a very obvious point of it, I would’ve had no idea whether it was night or day. It all seemed the same.

And so a routine seemed like a really good plan. Except I had no idea how to go about getting him into one. Thankfully – so I thought – there are many, many books out there all designed to tell you just what you need to do to get that magic, calm, sleeping, not cluster feeding baby. I’m a woman with an English degree and a history of anxiety and depression. Books and routines are my thing. One of them was bound to have the answer.

At nearly nine months old, my son’s managed to find his own rhythm

But, just like in the study, it turned out that those parenting books weren’t the answer after all. In fact, they made everything seem far worse – and me doubt my skills as a mother.

Because, of course, my son had no idea what I was trying to do. All he knew was that I was trying to make him sleep when he had no interest in it, or to not feed him when he was hungry. He was furious about it, and he let me know. Loudly.

And I felt like a spectacular failure. The old self-doubt that had hung around in my head – and which had been popping up more and more since the failed induction and emergency c-section that brought my son into the world – suddenly leapt right into life.

My son wasn’t acting like the baby in the book did, and it must be because I was doing it all wrong. I was failing him as a mother if I couldn’t get him to do what this book told me I needed to do. He’d never sleep, and he’d always be dependent on breastfeeding – probably until he went to university. I found myself crying over his crib and apologising for not being able to get him to nap at 9.30am like the book said I should.

I went to a new parenting group where a kindly woman told me that my son was far too young to learn a routine

According to the researchers at Swansea, I’m not alone. And there’s an obvious reason why. “Many of these books suggest goals that go against the normal developmental needs of babies,” explains Dr Amy Brown, who supervised the study. “They suggest stretched out feeding routines, not picking up your baby as soon as they cry and that babies can sleep extended periods at night. But babies need to feed lots because their tummy is tiny and they want to be held close as human babies are vulnerable.”

Unaware of these facts, and in an absolute tailspin, I went to a new parenting group where a kindly woman told me that my son was far too young to learn a routine and I should just do whatever the hell worked for us. I cried on her shoulder, and then went straight home and bought a t-shirt emblazoned with the slogan “Winging It”. It’s been my mantra ever since.

Sure, books and routines work for some mums and some babies. I know mothers who swear by particular set-ups – and 22% of mothers in the study said they felt calmer after reading the books. But for me, and the majority of mothers in the study, the books just didn’t work. After all, babies are tiny individuals with their own personalities and needs – and no one routine will work for them all.

Thankfully, winging it is what seems to work for us. Now, at nearly nine months old, my son’s managed to find his own rhythm. Sure, he sometimes skips a beat just to keep me on my toes, but given my total commitment to making it up as I go along, we’ve managed to adjust so far.

He may not have read the parenting books, but it’s almost like he’s read my t-shirt.

How do you feel about parenting books – do they help or hinder new parents?