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Baby ‘bibles’ set new moms up to fail

U. WARWICK (UK) — For 50 years, motherhood manuals have given advice as orders and set unattainably high standards for new mothers and their babies, according to a new book.

Angela Davis, from the University of Warwick’s department of history, conducted 160 interviews with women of all ages and from all backgrounds to explore their experiences of motherhood for Modern Motherhood: Women and Family in England, 1945-2000.

She spoke to women about the advice given by six childcare “experts” who had all published popular books on the best way to raise a baby. Ranging from the 1940s to 2000, the authors were Frederick Truby King, John Bowlby, Donald Winnicott, Benjamin Spock, Penelope Leach, and Gina Ford.

Although the advice from these experts changed over the decades, the one thing that didn’t change was the way it was delivered. Whatever the message for mothers, it was given as an order with a threat of dire consequences if mother or child failed to behave as expected.

“Despite all the differences in advice advocated by these childcare bibles over the years, it is interesting that they all have striking similarities in terms of how the experts presented their advice,” Davis says. “Whatever the message, the advice was given in the form of an order and the authors highlighted extreme consequences if mothers did not follow the methods of childrearing that they advocated.

“Levels of behavior these childcare manuals set for mothers and babies are often unattainably high, meaning women could be left feeling like failures when these targets were not achieved. Therefore while women could find supportive messages within childcare literature, some also found the advice more troubling.”

Davis spoke to women who were from different generations of the same family and found when reflecting back upon the changes that they had seen from when they were babies, to when they had their own children, and then watching their children raise their own families, they were still unsure of what had really been the best approach.

“I was struck by the cyclical nature of these childcare bibles, we start out with quite strict rules laid down by Frederick Truby King, whose influence is very much evident in the 1940s and following decades. The principal thread running through his books are that babies need strict routines. We then find the advice becomes less authoritarian and regimented as we go through the decades and the influences of Bowlby, Winnicott, Spock, and Leach.

“However, when we reach the 1990s when Gina Ford came to prominence, we come back to the strict regimented approach of Frederick Truby King several decades earlier. More than 50 years on and experts still cannot agree on the best way to approach motherhood, and all this conflicting advice just leaves women feeling confused and disillusioned.”

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