The Only Downside to Lower Infant-Mortality Rates? All Those Baby Books

We typically think of narcissists as people with an inflated sense of their own uniqueness. If you’ve been around a parent in the past, say, century, you will have been subjected to a more peculiar type of narcissism: the one that assumes the universality of their highly anecdotal experience. (As a parent myself, I’m certainly part of the problem.) In the Guardian, Oliver Burkeman shows how the baby-advice literary-consumerist complex has capitalized on this tendency, producing book after book filled with often-useless, self-contradictory insights.

It’s no surprise, argues Burkeman, that this publishing explosion came about just as newborns’ chances of survival increased dramatically. The removal of most life-threatening circumstances from the experience of giving birth and raising an infant opened up the space for anxiety around the more trivial aspects of parenting.

Child mortality began to decline precipitously from the turn of the century, and with it, the life-or-death justification for this kind of advice. But the result was not a new generation of experts urging parents to relax, on the grounds that everything would probably be fine. (Books informed by 20th-century psychoanalysis, such as those by Benjamin Spock and Donald Winnicott, would later advise a far less rigid approach, arguing that a “good enough mother”, who didn’t always follow the rules perfectly, was perhaps even better than one who did, since that helped babies gradually to learn to tolerate frustration. But they were still half a century away.)

Instead, the anxiety that had formerly attached itself to the risk of a child dying took a more modern form: the fear that a baby reared with too much indulgence might grow up “coddled”, unfit for the new era of high technology and increasing economic competition; or even, as at least one American paediatrician warned, ripe for conversion to socialism. “When you are tempted to pet your child,” wrote the psychologist John Watson in 1928, in his book Psychological Care of Infant and Child, which was hardly idiosyncratic for its time, “remember that mother love is a dangerous instrument. An instrument which may inflict a never-healing wound, a wound which may make infancy unhappy, adolescence a nightmare, an instrument which may wreck your adult son or daughter’s vocational future and their chances for marital happiness.”

Thus began the transformation that would culminate in the contemporary baby-advice industry. With every passing year, there was less and less to worry about: in the developed world today, by any meaningful historical yardstick, your baby will almost certainly be fine, and if it isn’t, that will almost certainly be due to factors entirely beyond your control. Yet the anxiety remains – perhaps for no other reason than that becoming a parent is an inherently anxiety-inducing experience; or perhaps because modern life induces so much anxiety for other reasons, which we then project upon our babies. And so baby manuals became more and more fixated on questions that would have struck any 19th-century parent as trivial, such as for precisely how many minutes it’s acceptable to let babies cry; or how the shape of a pacifier might affect the alignment of their teeth; or whether their lifelong health might be damaged by traces of chemicals in the plastics used to make their bowls and spoons.

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