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Potential link between parenting books and postnatal depression

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Parenting books that promote a strict sleeping and feeding routine could be making mothers more likely to experience postnatal depression, according to a new study.

The Swansea University research found that the more mothers read these books, the more likely they were to have symptoms of depression, low self-efficacy and to not feel confident as a parent.

“Almost half of mothers in the study ended up feeling frustrated and misled”

Victoria Harries

In the study, 354 mothers with a baby aged 0-12 months reported whether they read these types of parenting books, how the books made them feel and then completed measures of their mental health and wellbeing.

Whilst 22% reported that they felt calmer after reading the books, 53% felt more anxious. “Use of the books was associated with increased depressive symptoms and stress, alongside lower self-efficacy, although experience of using the books predicted this,” said the study authors.

“Although those who found the books useful had greater well-being, the majority did not find them useful, which was associated with lower well-being,” they stated in the journal Early Child Development and Care.

“Unfortunately, far more mothers found the books had a negative impact than a positive one,” said lead study author Victoria Harries, a child public health student at Swansea.

“Of course, it could be that mothers who already have symptoms of anxiety and depression are more drawn to the book,” Ms Harries said. “However, the fact that lots of mothers did not find them useful suggests that they may end up feeling 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,” she said. “But almost half of mothers in the study ended up feeling frustrated and misled because they were unable to make the advice work.”

She added: “Unfortunately, a fifth reported that they felt like a failure because of this.”

Dr Amy Brown, associate professor and maternal and infant health researcher, who supervised the study, said most babies were not suited to strict routines.

“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.”

“Mothering the mother is vital to her being able to care for her baby”

Amy Brown

Dr Brown said such books often ignored the 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 – far more so compared to lots of mammals that can walk and feed themselves shortly after birth,” she noted.

“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,” she highlighted.

Dr Brown said that a better alternative to the books would be to find out “how we can invest better in supporting mothers to have longer, better-paid maternity leave” and to think in broader terms about how we support parents.

“Mothering the mother is vital to her being able to care for her baby without being at increased risk of depression and anxiety,” she added.

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Readers' comments (1)

  • Lack of a supportive peer group or mother figure must surely factor. My parents were a doctor and a nurse and they kept me grounded! My daughter rings me for a long chat whenever one of these online forums get her down. Thankfully she is also a nurse and regained her sense of perspective quite soon after having her children.
    Many of her friends (non-nurses) have put themselves through torture trying to follow advice from a child rearing book.

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