“…the baby who is fed every time he cries will find it difficult or even impossible to accept the idea that rewards belong to those who work for them. If we teach our offspring to expect everything to be provided upon demand, we must admit the possibility of sowing the seeds of socialism…” Walter W. Sackett, Bringing Up Babies (1962)

Maybe it’s just me but I can’t seem to turn my head nowadays without coming across a new baby expert, a new parenting book, a new piece of parenting advice or a new TV show fixing the nation’s parenting problems. And I don’t think it is just me, judging from these blogs by the BabyCalm founderand the Analytical Armadillo, a lactation consultant, responding to the surge in ‘Baby trainers’.

But what is a baby expert? Why do we turn to them so readily? And why do they cause such enormous amounts of controversy?

At best, expressing an allegiance to a particular ‘school’ of parenting can lead to an implied criticism of other parenting choices (‘You don’t do Gina? Why don’t you do Gina? Do you think there’s something wrong with Gina?’) At worst, both ends of the parenting spectrum, from parent-led to child-led, have been accused of causing lasting emotional harm. In short, if you leave your child to cry themselves to sleep, that’s child abuse.  If you breastfeed your child past 6 months, that’s child abuse too.

So what do they tell us, these baby experts? Well a quick scan through advice from some of the ‘top’ experts around at the moment is enough to send you running under the covers of the nearest swaddle blanket. While Gina warns against too many cuddles, urging you to question whether it is you or your baby who wants to be held – Dr Sears (the ‘father’ of attachment parenting) advocates basically cuddling your baby all the time, by carrying them in a sling. And while the Baby Whisperer, Tracy Hogg, would call getting your baby to sleep by cuddling, rocking or feeding them ‘accidental parenting’, the Baby ‘Calmer’, Sarah Ockwell-Smith would see these as natural, essential soothing behaviours.

No wonder then that Angela Davis of Warwick University, in analysing parenting manuals of the last 50 years, found that ‘experts still cannot agree on the best way to approach motherhood, and all this conflicting advice just leaves women feeling confused and disillusioned’.

So why do we turn to them when they just leave us confused?

Because it’s bloody hard being a parent. All of a sudden you’re faced with a little package of flesh and bone which seems to contain only unbridled emotion. Those newborn mewls sound like blaring foghorns, getting through to your very core and leaving you adrenaline-pumped and helpless. There is no middle ground with a baby, who can go from content and sleepy to shaking with rage in a nano-second. Yet motherhood is supposed to be natural, so when things don’t come easily of course we look around for advice. And with shelves full of parenting manuals all promising quick fix solutions…. why wouldn’t you give them a shot? All of a sudden here’s a promise of having a bit of control over all the chaos. Those pockets of time that run from nappy change to feed to nap to nappy change in a seemingly endless loop become E.A.S.Y. – and with a bit of time to yourself thrown in there too. But what if actually there is no solution, because there isn’t really a problem?  What if the problem is actually the two of you needing to get to know each other, you having to learn an entirely new role, new timetable, new state of mind? With a new job, you’d have an induction period – what if you’re still in your induction into parenthood? What if actually the solution is you can’t control this little creature, and instead you need to learn about negotiating each other’s needs? Well, they wouldn’t sell many books if that was the solution, would they?

Because often we’re entering into parenthood straight from the workplace, and in our achievement-focused, success-driven age, we are focused on getting it right. Following a programme, whether that’s one of scheduled naps and timetabled activities, or one of baby-wearing and co-sleeping, gives us a neat little ‘to do’ list we can tick off. As long as we’re doing x, y and z, we’re doing a good job. But sometimes we can be so focused on ‘getting it right’ that we end up feeling like total, abject failures when the plan just doesn’t work. When the baby doesn’t sleep through after three nights, despite the two of you being in tears for hours. When, on putting them down in their crib at the perfect point of deep relaxation, they don’t roll over and go to sleep, they ping awake and start laughing at you. Or when, despite carrying your baby 24 hours a day, they actually still cry. And going back to the book, what are we told? That your baby’s sleep problems, crying, eating habits are your fault for creating bad habits. So instead of feeling we’re getting it right, we end up feeling we’re getting it wrong. All. The. Time.

Because maybe we’re not meant to parent alone, maybe we’re meant to parent as part of a community of grannies, aunties and kindly neighbours. So we look around for a different kind of community, and find ourselves drawn to labels – so we’re not just a parent, we’re an ‘attachment parent’, and we don’t just have a baby, we have a ‘Gina baby’.

And because maybe, at a time when ‘just’ being a Mum isn’t enough, following a parenting manual gives us something else to focus on, a marker of success. And, dare I say it, a way to justify our choices because, in our unbaby-friendly world, it can feel too difficult to own what we’re doing. So, instead of just being the Mum we want to be, we back up our choices with the words of others who have a bit of research to back them up.

But do they actually have research to back them up? When you look at their credentials, often you find advice that is based on a lot of anecdotal evidence – the babies they’ve worked with over the years. Thankfully there is a newer breed who actually backs up their advice with scientific fact. Of course science isn’t everything, and generalised advice cannot suit every baby (and of course, your baby will always, always be the exception to the rule). But some of these experts deem it appropriate to actually contradict scientific evidence, pooh-poohing such silly things as SIDS guidelines, the NHS advice on starting solids and the WHO breastfeeding guidelines. And some of the advice is downright dangerous and openly abusive (including using a rod to discipline – and that’s from a book that’s sold more than 670,000 copies).

So why don’t we turn to those who have devoted their careers to studying infant development, parenting outcomes and perinatal mental health? Well, probably because they’re not found at the front of the book shop, they’re found in the basement. Their books aren’t marketed, they don’t appear on breakfast TV and they haven’t got a spin-off show on solving sleep problems. And, I’ll admit it, in a sleep-addled state with reading time reduced to ten minute bursts, I know I’d rather look at this than this. But these are the books which don’t talk about changing the baby, they talk about such outlandish solutions as increased parental support, evidence-based interventions, and the influence of cultural, social and relationship factors on families. Madness.

It’s probably worth an aside here just to mention where most baby training advice comes from. The roots of much of the advice around at the moment is in behaviourism – which was first brought to the world in 1913 by J.B. Watson, and was the ruling paradigm in psychology research until the 1970s. To massively oversimplify a century of research, the central tenet of behaviourism is that internal processes (thoughts, feelings, and suchlike) are not important in understanding and changing human behaviour. Instead, our behaviour is reduced to a response to an environmental stimulus.

The clearest example is conditioning. In classical conditioning, two stimuli are paired together to create a response. The best known example (alongside Pavlov’s dogs), was the Little Albert experiment conducted by Watson in 1920. By creating a loud, frightening noise whenever Albert (a 9 month old boy – yep, 9 months old) was presented with objects such as a white rat and a rabbit, Watson was able to condition him to fear the objects even when the noise was not made. He used this experiment to show that emotional responses could be conditioned in humans, as well as animals.  

In operant conditioning (Skinner, 1948 – who conducted most of his experiments on rats), suggests that behaviour is modified by the consequences of that behaviour – whether it is positively or negatively reinforced. Simply put, we will increase behaviour that gives us rewards, and decrease behaviour that gives us no reward, or leads to punishment.

Now, it’s easy to see how readily this applies to babies (and people in general). When a baby coos at us and we smile back, there’s positive reinforcement right there, leaving that baby much more likely to coo again. And there’s no denying that behaviourism is an incredibly useful concept, bringing scientific rigour to psychology, and showing us one root of social behaviour. And, like I said before, it gives quick results. So, by all means, use behavioural techniques. Use a lullaby to make a sleep association. Put a star on a chart when those teeth get brushed. Ignore that nose picking.

But the trouble with behaviourism when applied to babies (and people in general) is that I’d like to think we’re not just defined by our behaviour. You can just look at a newborn to see how much of his or her behaviour is instinctive, not environmental, such as the rather amazing way a newborn can find its way to the breast if left to its own devices. And what behaviourism leaves out is pretty important – the impact of conditioned responses on those pesky thoughts and feelings. Because we’re not a black box, in fact as neuroscience is proving, these things have a feedback loop. It’s not just that response affects behaviour, but that response affects brain affects behaviour affects response….

So we have to ask what is the consequence of extinguishing unwanted behaviour, when that behaviour might actually be pretty necessary later in life? What happens to a baby that cries at 2am, and isn’t responded to because it’s the wrong time? Well, no reward, so the behaviour will be extinguished. Well done Skinner, but learning not to ask for help isn’t so helpful when you’re 17 (hereare a few other consequences if you’re interested).

I stress again that behaviourism has its place, but it has been used in a number of ways we would now see as highly unethical, such as behaviour therapy to ‘cure’ homosexuality. Are we using it now to ‘cure’ what is essentially just being a baby?

On the other side of the spectrum to behaviourist methods, is the growth in ‘natural’ parenting – attachment parenting, gentle parenting, peaceful parenting etc etc. I’ve talked before about attachment theory, on which attachment parenting is (very loosely) based. William Sears and his wife Martha have written extensively on parenting to foster a secure attachment. They propose eight ‘principles’ for parenting, including using nurturing touch (largely interpreted as babywearing and frequent contact) and ensuring safe sleep (responding to babies’ cues throughout the night, and often promoting co-sleeping). Natural parenting methods often hark back to more instinctive parenting – and this is exactly where they meet the most criticism (and there is a lot of it! Here’s some right here, which I chose for the beautiful title ‘Babies are Assholes’). It’s pretty hard to relate to the ways of the Yequana tribe when you’re late for a meeting, your baby is screaming in the carseat, your car won’t start and you’ve just noticed you’ve got yoghurt on your tights. Attachment parenting has also been criticised for being overly demanding on parents, contributing to a “culture of total motherhood” (Judith Warner, Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety), unfeminist and to blame for creating needy little tyrants. Like the baby training methods, it too is largely unresearched (at the moment) and, while based on attachment theory, its principles do not actually correspond to attachment research.

But of course, looking at both ends of the spectrum, it’s inevitable that trouble will brew when any advice is followed to the letter. Of course it’s harmful to a baby to be left to alone to cry until they make themselves vomit because they’re supposed to be sleeping. Of course it’s exhausting for mothers to attend to their child’s every single need, carry them constantly and never take them off the breast. But when we look at what the baby experts are actually suggesting, often it’s a bit less black and white than that. All Gina is really doing is encouraging routine. All Dr Sears is really doing is encouraging responsiveness. So why follow them to the letter?

We’re back to instincts again – and I’m not talking about the instincts of a South American tribe, I’m talking about your instincts. In a way, it’s your instincts which might lead you to choose between a Gina and a Dr Sears. Aaaaaages ago, I talked about Joan Raphael Leff’s model of facilitator mums (who adapt to their baby) and regulator mums (who adapt the baby to them) (we could talk about this in attachment terms too…but I’ll save that for another time). You can see why a regulator mum might be attracted to Gina, and a facilitator mum might be attracted to Dr Sears. And you can also see why this might lead to those mummy wars we’re always reading about – because regulator mums think facilitator mums are barmy for responding to their baby’s every sniffle, while facilitator mums can’t understand why regulators aren’t picking up their crying baby. And you can also see why the middle ground of reciprocator mums (who negotiate her own needs and the baby’s) is perhaps the least stressful for all concerned.

Too often we push down our instincts, and instead ask ‘what does the book say?’ (or at least Nick Cleggdoes). But your gut will tell you more about your baby than any book. At this point I should say something about how you’re the expert in your baby. But actually, while they may need a bit of guidance now and again, your baby is the expert. We are only the students – and we are always, always learning.