Are parenting books making new mums depressed?

Could parenting books be causing depression in new mums? [Photo: Leah Kelley via Pexels]
Could parenting books be causing depression in new mums? [Photo: Leah Kelley via Pexels]

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

Looking after a baby is tough, particularly when you’ve no actual experience of looking after said baby. Step forward the baby bibles which are there to help guide you through the parenting minefield.

But while it might seem a brilliant idea to turn to the experts to get your baby sleeping and feeding when they ought to be, the study has uncovered a link between parenting books and postnatal depression.

New research from academics in the Department of Public Health, Policy and Social Sciences at Swansea University 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 research team quizzed 354 new mothers about whether they read these types of parenting books, how the books made them feel and then completed measures of their mental health and wellbeing.

The results indicated that while 22% reported that they felt more calm after reading the books, fifty-three per cent of those surveyed claimed that the more they read books about baby sleep schedules, the worse they felt. Self-esteem and confidence in their parenting abilities suffered, and they were more prone to postnatal depression.

“What was interesting about our research was that mothers’ experiences of using the books really seemed to matter,” said Victoria Harries, the MSc Child Public Health student who carried out the research.

“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. Twenty-two per cent reported that they felt calmer after reading the books, 53 per cent felt more anxious.”

The study, published in Early Child Development and Care could not establish whether the books made mums feel worse or whether more desperate and sleep-deprived mothers bought more books.

However, one indicator that the books could be playing a role is that those mothers who said they found them useful did indeed feel better, but it only applied to a fifth of them. More than half said that the books made them more anxious.

New research has found a link between certain parenting books and postnatal depression [Photo: NIKOLAY OSMACHKO via Pexels]
New research has found a link between certain parenting books and postnatal depression [Photo: NIKOLAY OSMACHKO via Pexels]

Harries went on to say that though it’s easy to understand why mums turn to the books if they’re exhausted and worried about how often their baby is waking, almost half of mothers in the study ended up feeling frustrated and misled because they were unable to make the advice work. And a fifth were left feeling like a failure because of it.

Commenting on the findings Dr Amy Brown, Associate Professor and maternal and infant health researcher at the university, who supervised the study 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.”

According to Dr Brown, mums who find these books helpful may just have babies who are suited to routine, but this isn’t always the norm.

“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 continues. “Trying to go against these needs doesn’t work, not least because babies haven’t read the books!”

Dr Brown also revealed that some of the books suggest advice that goes against the normal developmental needs of babies such as stretched out feeding routines, not picking up your baby as soon as they cry and the fact 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.”

The research team hope the results might help encourage better support for new mums, particularly if they are isolated from friends and family.

“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,” she says.

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

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