The Essential First Year

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essentialby Penelope Leach

Dorling Kindersley £13.99

Research, fashions and different experts have, each in their time, transformed the way in which successive generations have raised their children. In this respect, the above expert and the above book are no different.

Would I buy this book as a present for a mother who is expecting her first baby?  Yes.  I would.  Moreover, I would recommend it to Dad and the grandparents too and would hope that all would read the book well before the baby is due to be born.   What struck me immediately was the number of beautiful photographs.  There are so many and they take up about the third of the space.  Dumbing down? No, let’s call it mood music.  Who could possibly worry about the unknown at the sight of such endearing scenes?

What is also worth noting is that, first of all, we go through the first three months and the familiar themes of feeding, sleeping, crying.  These themes are then taken up again from the age of three months +.  What’s unusual is that throughout the book there are little boxes highlighted in lilac in which special mention is made of twins where practical matters are concerned.  Boxes in green deal with research and there are occasional yellow lined boxes which contain personal anecdotes.

The book takes us through the baby’s sensations in the womb, especially her awareness of exterior sounds and, most importantly, her mother’s voice. Mention is also made of stress and negative emotions and their potential long term effects. The author also points out foods to avoid. But above all, parents are encouraged to think beyond the birth.  Not too much is made of the birth itself (don’t feel a failure if the best laid plans go awry), but a lot is written about mothers’ attitude to their new status. They are encouraged to acknowledge the change in their lives and advised to not try and pretend that nothing has happened and opt for an early dash back to the workplace.  All of this is against the background of a thorough explanation of a newborn’s unpredictability and the tremendous change from life in the womb to the outside world.  Mothers should be prepared for physical exhaustion and baby blues. It’s best to go with the flow in these early weeks and to handle the baby with calm.

Penelope Leach also counsels parents as far as choices are concerned.  She clearly has her own preferences, but nevertheless goes thoroughly into the use of dummies and bottles v. breastfeeding. Much is made of the latter. Again, she advises to go with the flow and to watch the baby and not the clock. The price of the latter may be too high for the baby.

As any experienced mother knows, it is possible for a workable routine to evolve over time and of settling in together. Her message is to not try and minimise a baby’s effects on life and she guides us to see for ourselves that family life with three is richer.  She also reiterates that secure attachment is crucial and that the lack of it is likely to damage learning capacity.

Sight is never lost of practical matters either. There are growth charts, spots and blotches lists, where the baby should sleep, legal requirements when transporting a baby in a car, advice on bed extensions for co-sleeping, the introduction of mixed feeding, suitable first toys, safety, comfort habits and so on.  There are so many options and the pros and cons of each one is examined  The reason why I recommend that grandparents too should read the book is because, in the light of new research, guidelines have changed.  Today’s grandmother was advised, in her time, that mixed feeding should start at  4 months (and this practice persists) and that it was great for babies to sleep on their stomachs. Far less was made of attachment theory in those days

And thus we reach the end of the first year. It’s been a true love affair and it’s far from over yet. Like any besotted lover, baby is sensitive to separation and this is likely to continue into the second year.  And it is at this point that Penelope Leach disappoints me.

For all her even-handedness in her advice on so many issues, halfway into the book she starts to mention the mother’s eventual return to work and the virtues that her replacement will need to possess.  She dismisses full-time motherhood as “extreme” and points out that through the centuries mothers have always been helped by others.  That may be true, but it’s hard to know where these paragons may be found these days. And she herself admits that this was familial help and that widespread paid help is a recent phenomenon. On the one hand she writes early in the book that there is no way that a baby can be made to sleep longer by trying to feed him more or that solid food should be introduced to a baby who shows no interest in it. And yet she seems to believe that by showering a baby with love and sensitive care in this “essential first year” this strong attachment somehow allows for third party care before baby shows obvious signs of readiness for a separation.  At the end of the book all the various options and their pros and cons are listed, but the option of a mother remaining the prime carer is conspicuous by its absence.  Perhaps that chapter should have been omitted.  So many helpful explanations about the baby’s developmental stages and needs have been given and there have been such exhortations to take the baby’s cue that parents will work out for themselves what is the best thing to do.

Anna Lines

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