Why I don’t read ‘how to’ parenting books

During pregnancy I relished the weekly emails I received from the NHS about the development of my baby. They were always spot-on; offering perfectly-timed information about both the baby and me. I also dipped into online forums for quick answers to any questions I had. But I avoided ‘how to’ books on pregnancy and parenting because I wanted to work it out for myself, at my own pace. 

Whenever i’ve had a practical question and haven’t wanted to go to the doctor or health visitor (which is always because I never want to go to either) i’ve gone to my mum. That’s probably why we started off feeding Joni puréed food rather than opting for the popular baby-led weaning. Basically, all the things I think my mum did really well for me when I was growing up, I want to repeat.

For people who don’t have a network of mothers around them to answer their questions, ‘how to’ books (ie. how to breastfeed, sleep train – or not – co-sleep, feed your baby etc) may offer some reassurance. But I can’t help but wonder if – on the whole – they actually confuse, rather than help, new parents.

When using forums, mum-friends, our own mothers/ aunts/ sisters for advice, there will be a variety of ideas about everything but then you can pick and choose. In contrast, a ‘how to’ book suggests that there is only one way. It acts as a bible and the fact that it has been scribed by a ‘professional’ makes it seem more legitimate, so people are being led to believe that these pages can actually transform them from a tired, emotional, confused, scared parent into a sleeping, head-strong, fearless parent with a clear vision.

I may only be nine months into this parenting game but one thing I know for sure is that no parent feels that way all the time. What’s more, how can the author of a book offer you sage advice for rearing a baby s/he has likely never met? Your mum’s met your baby. And your friends have too. So when Joni, aged five and a half months, was up feeding for two hours during the night and my parents wondered if she was hungry for something more filling than breastmilk, they were looking at me and Joni and making a sensible suggestion. They waited for me to ask, which is important – ‘cos I don’t know any new mum who wants unsolicited advice – and then jumped at the chance to tell me that she was probably ready for proppa grub.

We mashed up some veg, gave it to her, she spat it out, we tried again the next day and eventually she started gobbling it down. She also stopped waking for those epic night feeds. Then we started to introduce lumps and to give her pieces of banana to feed herself. She loves it. So feeding = tick. With no book consulted.

Next came sleeping. We wanted to be able to get Joni off without me nursing her to sleep (ie. feeding her from my breast until she dropped off into a milk-induced-coma) and to sleep through. This is where the books really fuck with your head. I know this because at 4am one morning, I ordered one from Amazon. I was desperate for sleep. Sleep book sales must peak at ungodly hours as blurry-eyed, sleep-deprived parents decide they can no longer cope and will pay for any help they can get. Only, it’s not help. Because it’s talking about a baby that doesn’t exist, or belongs to the author, or a sleep clinic trial – and how that baby learned to sleep.

So I read a few pages of this book, freaked out that Joni’s naps were all at the wrong time, decided that I was terribly disorganised and failing at motherhood and stopped reading. Then I realised that the book was the failure, not me. I talked to Rich and we decided to try our own techniques – after all, we know Joni better than anyone else. We soon found our own solution. She now gets herself to sleep and stays in her cot from 7pm until 7am. This might change, but we’ve had about four delightful months of it and can now cope with unsettled periods, as and when they arise, with the knowledge that all babies eventually get themselves to sleep and sleep through. Joni has done it before, she can do it again. You don’t need a book to tell you that.

The ‘how to’ books instil fear and then offer solace. So the author might (as was the case with the one I read) say that your baby will never sleep through the night if they aren’t napping properly. That means three naps, at the same time each day, in the cot. Not in the buggy, or your arms, or the car. So if you stay in all day, everyday – and DO NOT nurse your baby to sleep, or leave them to cry – they’ll nap perfectly and then sleep through the night. Except that’s not telling me how to get my baby to sleep. The author can’t tell me that because there’s no one secret solution. It’s all trial and error. I walked for miles to get Joni off in the buggy, delighted when she snoozed in the car and used my breast to send her off every night. Until one night when I put her down awake and she went off in her own so I knew she could do it. Since then, she’s had her boob/ bath/ book routine and gone to bed awake, had a moan then dropped off. It comes with age (of baby), patience and not listening to the ‘experts’. But mostly, it comes from using your intuition and instinct – those invaluable things all parents have but that we’re taught, by the ‘gurus’, to ignore. 

I recently had a weaning conundrum. I have no idea how much milk Joni drinks each day so couldn’t work out how much formula she’ll need when I ease off breastfeeding. Google couldn’t give me a satisfactory answer to my simple – but important – question so I emailed a wise mother of two little ones whose advice I know I can trust. She instantly replied with the exact info I was after: follow-on milk, three small bottles a day – and with no ambiguity or judgement. Other mothers are a most valuable resource.

And lastly, my latest problem: Joni biting me when she breastfeeds. I read that your baby might bite you once but your reaction will be so strong that they’ll never do it again. Only, that’s not true. Joni bites me all the time when she’s teething. It isn’t excruciating but i’d prefer if it wasn’t happening. As this dilemma is relatively new, i’m yet to find a solution so answers on a postcard, please. But just don’t point me toward a bloody book.

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