Friday, May 11, 2012

Review: Bringing up Bebe

I had very low expectations for Bringing up Bebe. The author's a journalist, and I didn't expect a densely packed tome of information like Brain Rules for Baby or even The Happiest Baby on the Block, which while not being rife with research, at least has a ton of practical tips on how to go about dealing with the first few months.

Druckerman's book is not dense. However, it contains a few very good tips for parents that it really should be required reading as well as the other two books. The first one is that according to Druckerman, there's a window between 2 and 4 months where sleep training can happen fairly easily. As long as the parents don't make a habit out of immediately picking up the baby for every noise he makes, the baby can learn to connect his sleep and sleep through the night without Ferberization or crying it out. This is such an important result that I'm surprised that it's the first time I ran across this study in a book. I'm going to have to track down the paper (it's a 1991 paper so it's fairly old) and see what it really says. According to Druckerman, all French parents manage to hit that window which is why all French children sleep through the night by the time they're 6 months old. If true, this is huge and worth the price of the book alone.

The overall thesis of the book is that French parents, unlike American parents, do not re-orient their lives completely around their children. The expectation is balance: moms should have their own lives, not just orient them around their children. Children should be taught to behave and wait (including fairly rigorous schedules for eating and bed time), so that adults can actually have a life. That the French have a monolithic parenting culture helps here: there's no confusion among the French as to what to do and how to bring up babies.

This includes pre-natal care. Doctors are more than happy to let pregnant patients eat seafood, including raw Oysters, under the assumption that the patients will be careful and vet the seafood properly.

The book is not very rigorous, though it does a good job of pointing out that for instance, despite the French almost universal adoption of formula feeding as opposed to breast feeding, all their birth and infant mortality statistics are better than America's by very large margins. There's no exploration of any rebellion against the status quo by French parents, and there's universally accessible day care (in the form of government run creches and kindergartens).

What I find interesting about the book is that it doesn't contradict Brain Rules for Baby, for instance. In fact, you could almost read it as a practical how-to-guide for applying the research results reported in Brain Rules, applied earlier than you would consider it possible. For instance, there's a section in Brain Rules about how setting firm boundaries and rules is important. Well, the French apply it almost as soon as their children can talk, by teaching them to see Bonjour and Au Revoir, in addition to please and thank you. There are lots of little sections that are good case studies on how to do this. Druckerman also sprinkles liberally throughout the book incident descriptions on how Americans bringing up their babies have much harder times with their children but with no better result (or rather, no better short term results --- nobody knows whether the American lead in Nobel prizes has anything to do with upbringing). There's a section on how French parents get their children to actually sit down and eat at meal time, and not make a fuss, including how by denying children snacks until actual meal times, they end up with children who are actually hungry and will eat their food rather than throwing it around.

In any case, I think this book's definitely worth reading, with lots of little pieces in it about children that are not very well organized, but nevertheless add up to good stuff. It's a pity that Druckerman's a journalist, so she feels obliged to add in lots of irrelevant personal interest material in there, but I understand that many people like that stuff, and in any case, she's no worse and usually much better than the usual parenting book. Given the competitive climate around child-rearing in America, I don't expect Bringing up Bebe to sell better than Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, but in terms of useful tips and tricks it's actually a much better book, so I hope it does well. We could do with less baby-induced neurosis and better parenting.

Highly recommended.
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