The long read: Every baffled new parent goes searching for answers in baby manuals. But what they really offer is the reassuring fantasy that lifes most difficult questions have one right answer
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, cant hold up their own heads without someone to help them. They cant 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 its 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, wouldnt 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, youd 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 its 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 Id like to admit, Ive 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 partners 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 lifes biggest questions was futile, even self-exacerbating, leading only to a downward spiral in which attempting the perfect implementation of any one books 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 didnt 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 babys flourishing or floundering. The brilliance of this system is that it works on the most sceptical readers, too, because you dont need to believe its 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 youve 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. Its 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 authors 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.