Written by Jess Macdonald


Rated or Dated: The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care

Dr Benjamin Spock’s famous child-rearing manual was published 70 years ago today. After she’s done the dishes and fixed her hair, Jess Macdonald delves in for some tips.

Dr Benjamin Spock listens to some audience feedback.

Dr Benjamin Spock listens to some audience feedback.

I’m not going to get beyond the first sentence before I reveal that this book is dated. That said, I’m not going to get beyond the second sentence before I reveal that in my opinion it is also highly rated.

What and why: The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care by Dr Benjamin Spock was first published in 1946 and was, bluntly, a phenomenon, selling more than half a million copies in the first six months alone.

By the end of the 20th century, it had racked up sales of more than 50m, second only to the Bible. Initially priced at a modest 25 cents, so that any parent could afford it, it was revolutionary in the approach it advocated.

Prior to Spock, the advice given to parents as to how to raise their children was… I’m trying to think of a diplomatic way of putting this, but I’m just going to plump for ‘horrifying’.

In Psychological Care of Infant and Child, published in 1928, Dr John B Watson sternly admonishes: “Never, never kiss your child. Never hold it in your lap. Never rock its carriage,” because to do so would spoil them, raising them as selfish, demanding little brats who might expect to encounter some form of kindness, empathy and love in the world. Yikes.

Feeding times were rigid and inflexible, weaning should be introduced as soon as possible, and some experts were utterly convinced that toilet training could be started at two weeks. There were no suggestions or advice, merely a set of rules to follow and if they didn’t work, then the mother was surely at fault.

“A man can be a warm father and a real man at the same time… It’s OK for him to do these things occasionally. He might make the formula on Sundays.”

Spock’s approach was based not just upon his own experience as a paediatrician, but also from the years he spent studying psychoanalysis and applying that to his patients. He believed that most parents intuitively knew what was best for each individual child, and that they should follow their instincts.

Most of all, he felt that although parenting was often boring, tiring and thankless, the most important thing was to have a contented house. Chapters had titles like Bedtime – keeping it happy and on the subject of leaving a crying baby he advised, “I don’t think it’s good to let a baby cry miserably for long periods if there’s a way to comfort him, not because it will do him any harm, but because of what it might do to his and his mother’s spirits”. Anyone who’s spent time in a house with a baby that refuses to just bloody well stop crying may experience a spasm of recognition in that.

Spock was empowering for a generation of parents to baby boomers who were often without close family and needed someone to place a gentle arm on their shoulder and say, “Hey? You’re doing alright. Keep at it. Have you tried holding your baby like this? Good job!”

His tone throughout the book is reassuring and friendly, and at times almost slightly too even-handed. His philosophy of “natural loving care” has laid him open to later accusations that he was responsible for generations growing up with no respect for authority, a breakdown of morals in society, that he created permissiveness, caused crime levels to soar, everything that’s wrong with the world is down to him and he has destroyed the American way of life (I’ve done quite a lot of Googling on this).

Dr Spock book coverThere are issues with the first edition. It is eyewateringly sexist for a modern reader. The assumption is that Mother will always be at home and very much the primary caregiver to the point that “Everywhere I’ve called the baby ‘him’… Why can’t I call the baby ‘her’ in at least half the book? I need ‘her’ to refer to the mother. I hope the babies of girls will understand and forgive me.” Hmm.

And then this throwaway little gem on how best fathers can be involved in every aspect of their child’s life: “A man can be a warm father and a real man at the same time… It’s OK for him to do these things occasionally. He might make the formula on Sundays.” Yes, that’s going to make all the difference.

There’s also advice to put your baby to sleep on her stomach so she doesn’t choke which had me rearing up in alarm (and yes, I did say ‘she’ and ‘her’ to make a petty point there).

To be fair to Spock, these clangingly outdated sentiments were removed from later editions he worked on, and we could file them under ‘Interesting Bit of Social History’, but they do remind readers of attitudes that once prevailed.

Rated or dated? A bit of both. Sexist, but at the same time, I can’t damn a book that starts with, “Trust yourself. You know more than you think you do.”


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Written by Jess Macdonald

Jess Macdonald is a quite sweary blogger and mother of two with Scottish hair. http://putupwithrain.blogspot.co.uk