New research finds link between some baby books and postnatal depression

A new Swansea University study has highlighted the link between parenting books that promote strict routine for babies and postnatal depression.

Newborn baby New research from academics in the Department of Public Health, Policy and Social Sciences has explored the link between parenting books that encourage parents to try and put their babies into strict sleeping and feeding routines and maternal wellbeing.  The study found that the more mothers read these books, the more likely they were to have symptoms of depression, low self-efficacy and not feel confident as a parent.

The research was carried out by MSc Child Public Health student Victoria Harries and supervised by Dr Amy Brown, Associate Professor and maternal and infant health researcher.  Three hundred and fifty four mothers with a baby aged 0 – 12 months reported whether they had read these types of parenting books, how the books made them feel and then completed measures of their mental health and wellbeing.

Ms Harries said: ‘What was interesting about our research was that mothers’ experiences of using the books really seemed to matter’. ‘If mothers found the books useful, they were not at increased risk of depression or low confidence. However, if mothers felt worse after reading the books, they were at greater risk. Unfortunately, far more mothers found the books had a negative impact than a positive one. Whilst 22% reported that they felt calmer after reading the books, 53% felt more anxious’.

Dr Brown said: ‘In some cases these books might help new mothers but I think they may be working 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. Trying to go against these needs doesn’t work, not least because babies haven’t read the books! 

“Many of these books suggest 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. 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. 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.

Sleeping baby

Ms Harries said: ‘Of course it could be that mothers who already have symptoms of anxiety and depression are more drawn to the book. However the fact that lots of mothers did not find them useful suggests that they may end up feeling 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 but almost half of mothers in the study ended up feeling frustrated and misled because they were unable to make the advice work. Unfortunately a fifth reported that they felt like a failure because of this. ‘

Dr Brown added ‘We must look at better ways to support new parents. 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. Others have had to return to work, whilst still having sleepless nights, leaving them exhausted. You can see why these books become a solution but instead 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.”

The research entitled ‘The association between use of infant parenting books that promote strict routines, and maternal depression, self-efficacy, and parenting confidence’ is out now, published by Early Child Development and Care.