Thursday, July 21, 2011

Review of "The Baby Book" by Dr. William Sears and Martha Sears

Disclaimer: Apologies to my friends who are attachment parents. Please do not misconstrue this article as a reproach of how you raise your children. Continue to raise them in the best way you see fit. If your feelings are hurt, I apologize. Thank you.

So me and my wife, Suzi, were minding our business raising a talented, clever and happy baby, Kara. Then a well-meaning relative gave me a Father's Day present. Browsing at the bookstore, she had seen a very large book which gave helpful advice about feeding our baby, who was just turning six months old. The book presented reasonable information about how tall and heavy a baby ought to be at a certain age as well as expected developmental milestones.

That poor relative! She had no idea the effect that this book would have on my family. For she did not know the name Dr. Sears, nor his reputation as the man who coined the term "attachment parenting". She could not have known the amount of upheaval and sleepless nights it would cause us. The moment we opened this book, we began to feel horrible about ourselves.

I'm fairly certain that this was not the intention of the Dr. Sears and his wife when they wrote The Baby Book, either. I will grudgingly admit that our own insecurity as parents is our unresolved issue, not theirs. But, for vast sections, the tone and style of The Baby Book is written from an emotional and intuitive standpoint, and the language stirs powerful emotions in the reader.

Attachment parenting is a style of raising children that emphasizes intense emotional nurturing. It stands in stark contrast to many of the commandments fostered by physicians of the 19th and 20th Centuries. Attachment parenting features closeness to your baby at all times: co-sleeping, sling transport and skin-to-skin time. It recommends quick responses to crying and obeying intuitive parenting instincts. The first chapter of The Baby Book is about attachment parenting and the rest of the book is infused with it.

I like the idea of attachment parenting. So does the wife. So does the Royal University Hospital maternity department where we had our baby, which recently abolished its nursery so that parents could spend the first days of their child's life in close contact. While we had never previously read anything by Dr. William Sears, attachment parenting has inflitrated the institutions surrounding birth.

We really wanted to be attachment parents. We succeeded at first. Then, two and a half months after our baby was born, the wife had to get a job. The details of this decision I chronicled in this post. Basically, we decided that she could support us monetarily while I couldn't. With that, she spent less time with our baby. Her body couldn't keep up with baby's increasing breastmilk demands, so formula began to creep into Kara's diet. Then, a little past the four-month mark, Kara began to squirm, kick and scratch us in her sleep. We woke each other constantly. I was tired, Kara was cranky and Suzi was hopelessly exhausted with night waking, nursing and working.

Something had to change. Then one day when I was at the end of my rope and Kara was crying for seemingly no reason, I obeyed an intuitive parenting instinct and put her alone in her crib in a dark room. Five minutes of fussing later, she was asleep. I was shocked. Then I tried it again in the afternoon and hallelujiah, she slept again! I researched. I was ashamed because I knew that "cry-it-out" was not "in" and I was certain Suzi would disapprove. I secretly continued to practice Dr. Ferber's method for a week before I broke down and told her. After many apologies, we both decided Dr. Ferber knew his shit. Kara slept, I slept, Suzi slept, we were all sleeping, we were all happy for a month.

As it stood, we tried contemporary parenting and it simply clashed with modern life. We couldn't sustain it and keep ourselves fed and rested at the same time. So food and sleep won and Kara actually seemed more-rested for it.

Then this damn book appeared. Apparently, we were causing permanent damage to our little girl. Suzi should have obeyed those instincts and come running with her boob outstretched. The worst part was that we had already done the damage: Kara was Ferberized and broken forever.

What followed was several weeks of guilty vigilance on Suzi's part. She would wake with every tiny night-cry and I started having midnight arguments with her about running to the baby's rescue. Exhaustion slipped back into our lives. We both knew what the book had done, knew that we were good parents and had a wonderful and unbroken baby, and yet the book continued to haunt us silently from its place at my bedside table.

This is what The Baby Book did for us and Eris-help-me, we're still recovering. For this disservice alone, I am inclined to follow my emotional and intuitive instinct to tell the Dr. Sears that he can shove copies of his book up the arses of his huge and supposedly-perfect family. But that's not exactly fair. This reaction is based on my own subjective experience and surely it won't be the same for every parent. So for their benefit, I'll try to actually REVIEW this book and be as impartial as possible.

As I mentioned before, the tone of the book is from an intuitive standpoint. It is unsourced. It is scientific only in that a respected pediatrician and his registered-nurse wife authored it. I can't begrudge that, however: it's a parenting book and no parent needs to read a scientific article to learn how to take care of their baby. Scientific writing is boring writing, so not sourcing their claims is just fine. What maybe isn't fine is this: in the opening chapter the authors actually admit that their advice on parenting is not scientific. They say that their parenting style is based only on their subjective experience of dealing with parents of children whom they considered to be "good". Shabby.

Incidentally, William Sears has indeed published articles with actual sources independent of The Baby Book. I haven't read them, nor do I really want to after my experiences with his other writing, but I did find this article slamming his views on cry-it-out to be very interesting.

The subjective tone of the authors prevails everywhere in the book. Allow me to paraphrase a sidebar which appears in their section on baby's sleep habits:

There once were two parents who were offered a cry-it-out book to help their baby sleep. They tried it and their baby screamed all night. They were heartbroken and sad and as a result of this method they lost their sympathetic connection to their baby's cries. His crying didn't affect them anymore and they stopped caring for him and took increasingly long vacations away from him. The End.

Please allow me this uncharacteristic slip into leet: lolololololololstfu!!!!1!!11!

That's a very accurate paraphrase of their story and I challenge anybody to find it in The Baby Book and tell me I haven't captured the spirit of it. It's absolutely ridiculous. If these parents, who I doubt actually exist, stopped caring about their baby because of cry-it-out, what the fuck kind of parents were they in the first place? The world is filled with parents, such as myself, who continue to love their children and yet have let them cry-it-out. This bullshit story about two sociopaths who abandon their baby insults my intelligence.

The tone of the book continues to drag it down. The average section begins with inflammitory language wherein the Sears' state their opinion, then they repeat themselves over and over again. Then they say, "but if you can't manage to do this, that's okay too!" Then follows a section whereby they answer the critics of attachment parenting by stating the concerns and then unscientifically stating, "No, actually they're wrong and the opposite thing happens." Here's a parody:

Playpens: The Black Den of Evil

Often we find parents asking us about playpens. Are they good? In our experience, no. To a child, a playpen is a prison and you are an abusive guard. She wails and cries and the parent doesn't respond and she learns that nobody loves her. She needs to crawl everywhere and if you don't let her, her muscles will atrophy and she'll get ADD. You shouldn't own one or think about owning one and you should avert your eyes if you see one.

But it's okay to put her in the playpen if you need to answer the phone. Also, if you can't not put her in a playpen, feel free to do so! You need to feel your own way through parenting, so even if you have to keep her in a cardboard box for six hours, that's fine! We're not judgmental!

Some of you are dumb and won't take us at our word, so here are some of your concerns:

I can't watch my child all the time and playpens keep my baby from falling down the stairs or eating electrical cords. Should I use one?
Absolutely not! If you're watching your baby all the time like you should be, then you can keep her out of electronics. And because we don't believe in using harsh language or physical punishment, your baby will learn "no" but not care about it until she's six, she won't learn anything and you'll get to spend even more time watching her!

My baby always has fun in her playpen and seems to enjoy being in there because it's safe. Is that possible?
In our experience, babies only pretend like they're having fun in their playpen. Inside they are screaming for emotional attachment to their parents, but are too frightened to express themselves because they are afraid that if they cry they will have to spend more time in the playpen as punishment. Babies who find themselves in this predicament grow up to be like Hitler.

I heard a baby was put in a playpen and he died. Is that true?

Joking aside, The Baby Book would actually be very helpful if its tone didn't make it unreadable. As that relative observed when she bought it, it is full of great information. I opened it many times for the charts. Personally, I think it could be rewritten. Half could be chopped, namely the paragraphs where they write the same thing over and over again, then some judgmental bullshit and of course one or two stories that probably didn't happen.

As it stands, this book is a giant mess of repeated unobservable and unscientific commandments with some useful charts hidden within it. I'm sure your money could be spent better elsewhere. As for my copy, it eventually left my bedside table and, for a week, it received its greatest use as a block to prop up Kara's carseat so it was level. Then it got returned.
1/2 a value judgment out of 5

And finally, I have some more personal comments to share. I've already railed against the tone of The Baby Book. However, the book does contain a passage that I'll take with me. The Sears ask us to simply not rely heavily on any baby book to raise our children. They say that no book has all the answers and as your child's parent, you know better than anybody else. It's commendable advice and after all the crap I read in this book, I was not expecting to read this passage.

Whenever discussing parenting, parents get uppity. When parenting emotions are stirred, they get judgmental. It's this attitude I object to. Despite the effort the Sears put into making their tone neutral, attachment parenting now has fanatic acolytes who believe that all of society's problems and their own personal disfunctions are Dr. Ferber's fault. Many attachment parents look down on parents who think differently than them. Like the Victorian chowderheads who invented the dispassionate and clinical approach to parenting of yore, they are being bitchy and judgmental and making other people feel bad about themselves.

In the end, the Sears are right about intuitive parenting. The truth of how to raise each kid lies somewhere between attachment parenting and Prussian child-rearing. Different kids will respond better to different things. Furthermore, no scientist on earth can accurately tell you how much nurture effects children versus nature. Some kids are born caring and some dispassionate, some artsy and some mechanical, some gregarious and some asocial and nobody knows how or why. Parenting just isn't a science. Those who pretend that parenting is a science are trying to make money.

So take a page out of the book of the man who coined "attachment parenting" and don't take his book that seriously.


  1. Marvellous! I'm not a parent (yet), but have been forced by circumstances to read a few parenting manuals. The work of Margot Sunderland struck me in much the same way. Everything you do is wrong, and your child will be brain-damaged as a result.

  2. It's good that you've been exposed to parenting books before having a child, though. It seems to have innoculated you. Keep your mind open and thanks for reading!

  3. There actually was a time when univeristies and governments funded research into early childhood development. A pioneering child psychiatrist, Stanley Greenspan, M.D., developed a typology for evaluating childhood "temperament" and its interaction with maternal behaviors. Children could be observed on a variety of dimensions such as activity level, reactivity, consolability, etc. Mothers could be observed responding to their children on a variety of dimensions as well. Methods were developed for measuring the "security" of the attachment. There was real science going on.

    Some of this research has informed the U.S. national Birth-To-Three initiative as well as individual states' child protection services.

    A British psychoanalyst, Donald Winnicott, M.D., coined the term "good-enough" parenting to describe the parent-child relationship that includes both enough nurturance and enough frustration--nurturance for a sense of security and frustration to aid individuation. Winnicott and other psychoanalysts of the emerging object-relations and self-psychology schools studied psychopathology in people who were not nurtured enough or, conversely, were over indulged. Interesting stuff.

    I agree with your premise that "The Baby Book" just doesn't have enough science behind it. I have seen this approach lead to increased marital distress, spoiled children, and maternal psychopathology (an OCD-like preoccupation with never letting the baby cry). Thank you for your critique!

  4. Thanks for reading, Doc.

    I always find it difficult to classify social sciences as science. With chemistry and stuff like that, it's easy to observe dimensions because we have devices to aid our observation: a thermometer tells us reliably when the temperature reaches 100 degrees, for instance. People are way more complicated and unreliable. Not only that, but so many social sciences depend on subjective observation. There's no meter to measure somebody's anger and whether that anger measures as a "7" or an "8" is entirely up to the impressions of observers.

    So yeah, it seems like until mobile brain-scans become a reality and human brain-waves can be examined outside a lab doing day-to-day activities, I will always view social sciences with a touch of skepticism. Without reliable methods of measurement, it is inevitable that scientists' biases will affect the results.

  5. I loved your review! One thought I had about " The moment we opened this book, we began to feel horrible about ourselves.

    I'm fairly certain that this was not the intention of the Dr. Sears and his wife when they wrote The Baby Book, either."

    In my opinion, this indeed was their intention - that is how psychological manipulation works, and I think that if you could be a bug on the wall of the Sears family and ask this question, were you hoping to GUILT people into using this style, that both Dr. and Mrs. Sears would say "well, whatever it takes." It is never a coincidence when thousands of people feel guilty after reading a book. Psychologically, that was the intention. The final intention was for that guilt to drive you to adopt attachment parenting. The Sears don't feel bad about making you feel guilt because they feel that attachment parenting is the only right way to parent. They are wrong on both accounts.

  6. That's an interesting take on it. I had never considered it. Even if the Sears wouldn't acknowledge the intention to guilt trip openly, it's possible it's working on a subconscious level.

    Without ever having met them, it's hard to tell, though. It would be nice to have that bug on the wall and find out for sure.

    Thank you for reading!

  7. I enjoyed your review. I had seen other people criticize the tone and talk about feelings of guilt in relation to this parenting book too. I was considering buying it, and your review convinced me that I shouldn't waste my money, and that if I want to continue reading about Attachment Parenting I can peruse the extensive Dr. Sears website.
    However, I have a very different story than yours that I would like to share in defense of Sear's philosophy and impact.

    I am a first-time mother with a "high-needs" baby. I really struggled the first weeks at home, until I had a break-through. I was nursing my son in bed and he was stirring and fussing quietly. I got frustrated--Why won't you sleep?!? I looked at the clock and realized 3 hours had gone by. I must have fallen asleep the last time I was nursing him, and this was the longest stretch of sleep either one of us had gotten in weeks! I was relieved. I tried it again right there. What do you know, we got another three hours. I felt amazing the next day! I kept doing it! I went from getting 5 hours of broken sleep a night to 8 on average. Before long I was practicing attachment parenting before I even knew the term existed.

    I shared my strategies with friends and family, only to find that I would be thoroughly censured. I heard warnings like: "Letting him sleep in your bed is a HUGE no-no. You are putting him at risk for suffocation and SIDS. You're spoiling him! He won't be out of your bed until he's four! You need to get YOU'RE sleep too. You may roll on top of him and hurt him or even kill him!" Similarly, my son nurses frequently and I've heard: "That kid is eating AGAIN! Don't let him use you as a human pacifier. Comfort nursing--that's no good because you need a break too. He isn't getting enough to eat. You're not producing enough milk. Supplement with formula!"

    It wouldn't sound it from this list, but I really do have loving friends and family whose advice was well-meaning; they just couldn't respect my parenting choices. I started to second guess my instincts. I started to feel like shit about myself. I worried that I was going to create a monster or somehow hurt my child. I was also confused! I tried following other methods and other advice, but none of it worked for my son!

    Then I found Dr. Sears online. I read his articles and it changed my attitude! I no longer thought I was a total screw up as a parent, or that something was WRONG with my baby. It was a relief to get some reassurance that what I was doing was natural, good, and even popular! I appreciated Dr. Sears' encouragement to forgo typical American society and just do what feels right to me. Ironically, this book did for me the very opposite of what it did for you!

    Nonetheless, I appreciated your honest and open-minded review. I really enjoyed your concluding paragraph and it is a shame that Sears' book doesn't capture the same magnanimous tone.

    1. Great comment. I am n a similar bote. Never subscribed to one or another form.of parenting. But getting little sleep, I also practiced cio and it didn't work for my son who is very determined and will cry for hours if you let him and that way NO ONE sleeps. He sleeps with us and we all get more sleep. Not one method works for everyone.

    2. Great comment. I am n a similar bote. Never subscribed to one or another form.of parenting. But getting little sleep, I also practiced cio and it didn't work for my son who is very determined and will cry for hours if you let him and that way NO ONE sleeps. He sleeps with us and we all get more sleep. Not one method works for everyone.

  8. Thanks for Your review :) It was very helpfull, because I considered buying this book (it is not sold in our EU country (Lithuania), but I wanted to ask a friend from USA to bring me one). I am not going to buy it now.