Rule 6: There is no right way to ‘Bring Up Baby’

The tantrums generated by the Channel 4 series Bringing Up Baby exposes our screamingly unhealthy obsession with parenting methods.

Jennie Bristow

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Can you remember being a newborn baby? Can you recall the experience of being placed in your cot at night, cuddled in your mother’s arms, fed from a breast or bottle, sung to, shouted at, left in the garden to cry?

Unless you’re a fully paid-up member of the Recovered Memory Movement, the chances are you can’t remember a thing. Memory, as I understand it, is a tricksome, unreliable thing, which doesn’t really kick in until a child gets beyond toddlerhood and even then needs verifying by somebody with a rather more rational grasp on life than the average pre-schooler. Which is just as well, really, as surely nobody would want to remember the frankly terrifying experience of being born, or the myriad miseries and indignities of early babyhood. Much better to congratulate yourself and your parents on the fact that you all got through it somehow, and concentrate on the childhood reminiscences that did have a major impact on your life. (For the American travel writer Bill Bryson, it was being sent to school one day wearing his sister’s green Capri pants – I can see how that really would scar a kid for life. (1))

But if people can’t remember their early infancy without a great deal of suggestive mischief-making from dubious psychotherapists, why has the question of exactly what ‘method’ you use to bring up your baby in the first three months assumed such tremendous importance? Do people really think that minor details such as whether you carry your baby around in a sling or a buggy, and whether you leave your baby to cry in its cot or joggle it endlessly (and still crying) around the house, determine the outcome of that child’s life? Sadly, it seems that they do; and the tantrums generated by Channel 4’s recent series Bringing Up Baby show just how strong this prejudice is.

Bringing Up Baby, for those who missed it, was a kind of thinking parents’ reality TV series, which combined the vogue for ever-more intrusive coverage of people’s real-life experiences (in this case, life with a newborn baby) with a bit of history and analysis, all wrapped up with some cunning PR. The programme took six families with new babies, and assigned each one a ‘mentor’ who would guide them through the first three months according to a particular parenting style. So two families had Claire Verity, a maternity nurse who represented the strict routine-based ‘Truby King’ method popular during the 1950s; two had Dreena Hamilton, representative of the indulgent 1960s ‘trust yourself’ method popularised by Dr Spock; and two had Claire Scott, who makes and sells baby slings and is a big fan of the 1970s ‘Continuum Concept’, whereby babies are always breastfed, always sleep in their parents’ bed, and are carried about everywhere with them.

The mentors guided their hapless charges through issues such as feeding, sleeping and generally living with their new babies, and had arguments with each other about breastfeeding in public and other baby-care methods of principle, while the occasional talking head popped up through the programme to add a bit of historical explanation.

This was all quite fascinating stuff. Leaving aside any debate about the merits of reality TV as a format (there are none), and quibbles with the programme’s potted history of baby-care advice (it wasn’t entirely accurate), Bringing Up Baby did at least present the issue of baby-care advice as a debate, as opposed to a prescription. In an era of Supernanny on the telly and government ‘Sure Start’ initiatives in the local community, all of which propose to teach parents the right way to do things, this TV series exposed childcare advice as something that ‘changes as often as high street fashions’, and noted: ‘For the past hundred years, parents have been increasingly bombarded with books and manuals giving them the definitive answer on how to bring up a baby.’ (2)

In setting out to test these changing fashions with real-life parents and babies, Bringing Up Baby implicitly promoted the idea that it doesn’t actually matter how you do it. And boy, did that prove unpopular.

The media discussion that has raged since Bringing Up Baby first went on air has focused on Claire Verity, the programme’s pantomime villain who believes in leaving babies to cry and feeding them on a strict four-hour routine. Verity has reportedly been spat at, issued with death threats, and told to stay away from the major London exhibition The Baby Show because the organisers feared getting a riot on their hands (3). The modern-day childcare guru Gina Ford, who is both loved and loathed among mothers for her advocacy of strict routines, wrote to the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC), to complain about the ‘suffering of a tiny baby [being] used to sensationalise child-rearing methods in a television programme’, and demanding that the NSPCC step in to stop ‘production companies [continuing] this form of child abuse’ (4). Lately, some doubt has emerged over the veracity of Verity’s formal childcare qualifications (5) – a finding that has been leapt upon by her critics as proof that today’s society would never condone, let alone accredit, the kind of ‘abuse’ that involves leaving a baby to cry.

Wherever you stand on the question of strict routines and newborn babies (and I confess to being a bit of a Spockian, which means that I get lots of cuddles and not much sleep), there is something seriously troubling about the passionate hatred aroused by Claire Verity. You might find her methods and manner rather off-putting, but how does that translate to a full-fronted media attack?

Partly, the reaction against Verity is based on the idea that her methods really do amount to child abuse; that the baby will suffer forever from the three hours in the garden it experienced as a newborn. On one level, this seems patently ridiculous – at no point in Bringing Up Baby did the viewer imagine that the babies in Verity’s care would be physically harmed; and if everybody who had themselves been raised with a strict feeding and sleeping routine were to be psychologically damaged as a result, there would be no sane members of the British population left.

On another level, though, the paramount question that determines a parent’s every action today is: ‘What is best for your baby?’ This gives an over-inflated sense of importance to following the correct method of parenting, from breastfeeding to cuddling on demand. The flipside is that if you don’t engage in such approved practices, this will have real consequences. This might be nonsense, but it is extraordinarily powerful nonsense.

The US academic Rebecca Kukla, author of the excellent Mass Hysteria: Medicine, Culture and Mothers’ Bodies, has discussed the modern cult of intensive mothering in terms of an obsession with ‘signal moments’ in child-rearing – moments that stand as a series of tests about how good and devoted a mother is. ‘”Good” mothers are those who pass a series of tests – they avoid a caesarean during labour, they do not offer their child an artificial nipple during the first six months, they get their child into a proper preschool, and so on’, she has argued. Furthermore, ‘Mothers often internalise these measures and evaluate their own mothering in terms of them.’ (6)

This will be a familiar story to anybody who has been through New Baby Hell and tried desperately to do the ‘right thing’, as opposed to just the thing that might work. If you really believe, say, that having a natural childbirth will be very important for your baby, the sense of failure – and worry for your child’s future – when you fail the test of this signal moment and demand an epidural is terrible. Or you might try really hard to feed your baby organic casseroles that you have made yourself, because you believe this will have a significant impact on their future health and abilities; and the child decides that it will only eat processed food out of jars. Having emotionally invested in doing the ‘right thing’ on the grounds that this will improve your child’s chances, it becomes very difficult to think, when the right thing doesn’t work out, that it doesn’t really matter and the child will be fine.

In short, an over-preoccupation with doing ‘best for baby’ has translated itself into a whole lot of guilt and fear about what happens if we deviate from the script. This represents a thoroughly unhelpful myth that has been termed ‘parental determinism’, ‘the notion that parental intervention determines the fate of a youngster’ (7). On one hand, parental determinism portrays parents as gods, whose every action (cuddling, shouting, co-sleeping) will have a major impact upon their child; and on the other as incompetents, who are incapable of making the smallest decision without guidance from self-appointed experts, because all of these small decisions are seen as crucial signal moments. In this context, no wonder people get upset when Claire Verity comes along with her practical solutions to what she seems to see as the problem of babies crying and needing to be fed.

The other side of the reaction against Verity, however, has nothing to do with babies at all. Rather, it is about the fragile question of parental identity. While ‘bringing up baby’ was once seen as a matter of promoting methods of feeding, sleep-training and so on that worked, today the methods you use are seen as a direct expression of the kind of parent you are. Responding to the Bringing Up Baby hoo-ha, the journalist Dani Garavelli writes:

‘With child-rearing edging up the political agenda, and confidence-sapped mothers turning to books for guidance, spats over parenting styles are becoming increasingly heated. The internet has spawned a legion of sites where women “chat” about their experiences as parents. But where once the very act of giving birth gave mothers an unspoken sense of sisterhood, the atmosphere these days is far from the supportive chumminess of a traditional mums’n’toddlers coffee morning. Instead mothers square up to each other with the ferocity of pit bull terriers: alpha mummies versus beta mummies; yummy mummies versus slummy mummies; breast-is-best-ers versus bottle feeders; Penelope Leach-ists versus Gina Ford-ists.’ (8)

As I have argued before, in our febrile climate of competitive parenting, your ‘parenting style’ becomes a marker of your broader personality: your beliefs, your ambitions, your love for your child (see Rule 2: It’s not All About You). This has proved extremely divisive among mothers, as Garavelli notes. It also introduces an unnerving dynamic into the relationship between parents and children, where people do their ‘parenting’ for the sake of their reputation in the public eye. In that sense, the strange willingness of six families with new babies to invite TV cameras into their homes was simply an extreme expression of the way in which people are expected to conduct their child-rearing today: not as a private exercise in muddling through, but as a performance of good, well-mentored parenting for an audience of officials and other mummies.

Bringing Up Baby set out to find out ‘which era had it right’ on baby-care. I don’t think there is even an answer to that question. But we can at least be reminded that there is no one right way to raise one’s child, and that an over-zealous concern with ‘doing the right thing’ is likely to end in tears. As the Oxford historian Christina Hardyment concludes in Perfect Parents, her excellent study of baby-care advice over the past 200 years (now updated and reissued as Dream Babies: Childcare Advice from John Locke to Gina Ford):

‘No one has yet produced a convincing blueprint for perfect parenthood. Confident at least of that, perhaps we can bring up our children in a way that feels right to us, that fits in with our own imperfect fate-battered lifestyles and our private values rather than with the prescriptions and proscriptions of a book.’

Jennie Bristow is former commissioning editor of spiked, and has two young daughters. She is a freelance writer and researcher, and editor of the bpas journal Abortion Review. Email her at {encode=”jennie@bristow.com” title=”jennie@bristow.com”}.

Read on:

A Guide to Subversive Parenting

(1) The Life and Times of The Thunderbolt Kid, by Bill Bryson. London: Black Swan 2007.

(2) Bringing Up Baby website

(3) Maternity expert Claire Verity is asked to stay away from Baby Show as mothers threaten protest, The Times (London), 4 October 2007

(4) Baby guru steps up pressure on TV rival, Observer, 7 October 2007

(5) TV’s toughest nanny and the string of qualifications that do not exist, The Times (London), 27 October 2007

(6) ‘Measuring Mothering: philosophical and sociological perspectives on intensive mothering.’ Paper given at the conference Monitoring Parents: childrearing in an age of ‘intensive parenting’, University of Kent, May 2007

(7) Paranoid Parenting, by Frank Furedi. London: Allen Lane, 2001

(8) What side are you on in the baby wars?, Scotland on Sunday, 7 October 2007

(9) Perfect Parents, by Christina Hardyment, Oxford: Oxford University Press 1995

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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