Oliver Burkeman notes that newborn humans are the most immature of any mammal, which is why they need so much looking after (Long read: The parenting delusion, 16 January). For parents of new babies he says “while there might indeed be one right way to do things, you will never get to find out what it is”. This is the frustrating conclusion he draws from reviewing scores of baby books, mostly written on the premise that there are simple techniques for managing such a totally dependent creature. He is looking in the wrong place.
The fact, as Burkeman says, that “our huge brains, which make us the cleverest mammals on the planet, wouldn’t fit through the birth canal if they developed more fully in the womb” is the clue. What everyone – not only parents – needs to know is that, unlike other higher primates such as orangutan, it is not possible for a human to safely give birth or rear a tiny child without the help of others. Anthropologists such as Sarah Blaffer Hrdy record the urgency with which new mothers living in nomadic hunter gatherer groups – as we all did until 10,000 years ago – seek out reliable helpers in their task. Without this the infant would be unlikely to survive.
The evolutionary imperative of collaborative caregiving should inform advice to parents and early years policy. Childrearing is not simply a private matter to be managed with self-help books. As they get to know the baby, partnerships between parents and others are essential in the early years. By providing health visitors and well-staffed children’s centres for all, a modern government would promote better citizens of the future. As Blaffer Hrdy wrote: “Infants with several attachment figures grow up better able to integrate multiple mental perspectives”.
Dr Sebastian Kraemer
• Cheer up, Oliver Burkeman. You think you have problems with your baby crying at night? The worst is yet to come: adolescence is the time when you’ll be crying too. In the meantime, stop reading commercial self-help books and find some practical advice. You may think Donald Winnicott old fashioned but, when your first born turns 12, Winnicott is still the one to trust. In Playing and Reality he shows there is a cure for this and other troublesome stages of child development: time. And love, but you know about that.
• May I help Oliver Burkeman in his search for advice that doesn’t fit into the baby trainers v natural parents confrontation? The advice – there is no one right way – appears in Finding Your Way With Your Baby, by Dilys Daws and Alexandra de Rementeria. It explores the emotional experience of the baby in the first year, and that of the mother, father and other significant adults. Finding “your” way is the best advice a new parent can be given.
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