The real parent trap

27th April 2007 at 01:00
The advice you take on bringing up your baby can affect how they behave in school, says Oliver James.

Does it matter which baby manual you read? Have the ones used by your pupils' parents affected how they behave in the classroom? At long last, some British and Danish psychologists have tried to test which method is best. They identified a sample of pregnant London mothers intending to follow a parent-led, scheduled routine (henceforth called "Routinies").

For example, many hoped to get the baby into a cot as soon as possible, feeding and sleeping according to a timetable, and planning to delay responses to crying, to teach self-soothing. These are advocated by Gina Ford in The Contented Little Baby Book.

By contrast, a sample was also studied who adopted what I will call the "Huggies" approach, such as keeping the baby in the bed rather than a cot and feeding them on demand. Finally, there was a sample of Copenhagen mothers who fell between these two nurturing plans. The samples were followed up to three months of age.

Compared with Huggies, the Routinies spent half as much time physically holding their babies and were four times less likely to make physical contact with them when fussing or crying.

Nearly twice as many Routinies had given up breastfeeding when the baby had reached three months of age (85 per cent vs 37 per cent). The results for the Copenhagen mothers generally fell between the two, although veering towards the Huggies.

The consequences of this differing care were considerable. At all three measured ages (10 days, five weeks and three months), the babies with Routine mothers spent 50 per cent more time fussing or crying. For example, at five weeks old, the Routine babies fussedcried for 121 minutes of the 24 hours, compared with 82 minutes by the Huggy babies. If, like most parents, you take the view that persistent fussing and crying are undesirable for a baby - because they are signs of distress - then this is hard evidence that the Routine regime is actually bad for a baby's wellbeing.

However, if Routine was bad news for the babies, there was some good news for their mothers in the study. At three months (although not before that age), Routine babies were more likely to sleep for five or more hours a night without waking or crying, significantly longer than the Huggies.

Alas, even this apparent Routine benefit was uncertain. If the Routine babies were sleeping in cots in another room, how confident could their mothers be that their baby had not woken up? Nearly all the Huggy babies (84 per cent) were in bed with their mum and waking or crying would rarely be missed. Researchers concluded the Routine babies were probably doing more than their mums realised, casting doubt on the finding.

If the Routine method does prolong sleep, that is the main case for it, especially for the 15 per cent of British mothers of under-threes who work full-time. They particularly need to get their sleep to protect against depression, which would make them less responsive and their infants more liable to be distressed - so good news for baby if mum gets her kip.

But on a wider scale, the recent substantial increase in readership of Routine manuals is worrying. If the method really does cause a 50 per cent greater prevalence of fussing and crying in early infancy, innumerable studies suggest that such distress becomes emotional insecurity, hyperactivity and conduct disorders in later childhood (see Sue Gerhardt's Why Love Matters). If so, it would have been much better for the nation's mental health if parents had been buying Huggy advice books, such as Jean Liedloff's The Continuum Concept. It would be of more than academic interest to consider how many extra disturbed children have resulted from widespread use of Routine methods, increasingly popular in recent years. In particular, have you ever wondered how many of the children in your primary class are less able to concentrate or relax because of how they were cared for in the first few months?

Oliver James is the author of Affluenza: How to be successful and stay sane. The second edition of his They F*** You Up: How to survive family life is out now.

Reference: Huggy vs Routine study, St James-Roberts, I. et al, 2006, Pediatrics, 117(6), pp e1146-55.

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