Baby books promoting strict routines linked to PND in mums

Are some baby books causing more harm than good?
Are some baby books causing more harm than good? Photo: Shutterstock

They say babies don't come with a manual, but these days that's not entirely true. While modern mums may have a plethora of books to choose from - everything from the classic What to Expect When You're Expecting to the more light-hearted Up The Duff - new research suggests that for some mothers, certain baby books could do more harm than good.

According to a study published in the journal Early Child Development and Caremums who used baby books promoting strict routines had more depressive symptoms and stress, as well as lower self-efficacy, or confidence in their parenting ability.

"The transition to motherhood can be challenging," the study authors write, noting that "the baby book market has taken advantage of this, publishing a range of books that suggest adopting strict routines for infant sleep, feeding, and general care."

But what impact are these books having on the mums who read them?

To explore this question, researchers from Swansea University surveyed a group of 354 mothers, all of whom had a baby aged 0 -12 months. Mums reported whether they had read books promoting strict routines for their bubs and how the books made them feel. They were told not to consider books around practical baby care or those focused on breastfeeding or introducing solids. The women also completed questionnaires assessing aspects of their mental health and general wellbeing. 

"What was interesting about our research was that mothers' experiences of using the books really seemed to matter," said lead researcher Victoria Harries in statement. Specifically, women who reported feeling worse after reading a baby book were at greater risk of depressive symptoms or feeling less confidence, while those who found the books useful were not adversely affected.

Although the books were a positive resource for some new mothers, more women reported the books as having had a negative impact. For 22 per cent of women, consulting a baby manual left them feeling "calmer",  much lower than the 53 per cent who admitting "feeling more anxious".

The authors noted that around two-thirds of mothers had read a book promoting strict routines - and many had read more than one.

Researcher Dr Amy Brown, explained that while baby books may help some new mothers, they might be more useful for babies who are "suited towards a routine". "Although some parents might be lucky and have a very easy-going baby, it is completely normal for most babies to want lots of interaction and will communicate their annoyance very loudly if they do not get it," she said. "Trying to go against these needs doesn't work, not least because babies haven't read the books!."

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According to Dr Brown, many of the books on the market actually promote goals that go against the normal developmental needs of babies. "They suggest stretched out feeding routines, not picking up your baby as soon as they cry and that babies can sleep extended periods at night," she said. "But babies need to feed lots because their tummy is tiny and they want to be held close as human babies are vulnerable ... Waking up at night is normal too – after all, many adults wake up at night but babies need a bit more help getting back to sleep."

The researchers also acknowledge that women experiencing symptoms of anxiety and depression may be more likely to consult a baby book, something that could make them feel even more unsure of themselves. "It is easy to understand the appeal of these books if you are exhausted and worried about how often your baby is waking up," Ms Harries said, "but almost half of mothers in the study ended up feeling frustrated and misled because they were unable to make the advice work." And one-fifth reported feeling like a failure.

Dr Brown believes we need better ways to support new mums and dads in their transition to parenthood - particularly given many of us simply don't have a village to rally around us in those early months with a newborn. "We were not designed to look after babies alone but many mothers are now isolated and lonely in caring for their babies as they live so far away from family and we do not have the same community networks as we used to," she said. And with a large number of mothers having to return to work while still navigating sleepless nights, Dr Brown says it's no wonder so many of us turn to baby books in search of a few more precious hours of sleep.

While the authors reiterate that some women may have positive experiences with baby books, they caution: "many do not and this may increase the risk of maternal depressive symptoms, stress, and low self-efficacy".

"Instead," they argue, "we should be thinking about how we can invest better in supporting mothers to have longer, better-paid maternity leave and more widely thinking about how we care for them.

"Mothering the mother is vital to her being able to care for her baby without being at increased risk of depression and anxiety."

For more information on the signs and symptoms of PND, as well as the available treatments, visit Perinatal Depression and Anxiety Australia (PANDA)  http://www.panda.org.au

If you are suffering from anxiety or depression, or know someone who might be, contact BeyondBlue.org.au (call 1300 224 636), LifeLine (call 13 11 14 or chat online after hours), or PANDA National Helpline (1300 726 306).