Parenting off the shelf

My parents' generation turned to Benjamin Spock for advice and guidance on childrearing. In the 1950s and '60s, he was the authority on babies. When my son was born five years ago, Dr. Spock had been joined by William Sears, T. Berry Brazelton, Penelope Leach, and countless other experts. Sometimes, their advice conflicted. (See story.)

As a new mother (without my own mom around to serve as consultant), I waded through parenting books, often in a desperate state of mind. My son wasn't gaining enough weight, he was too sensitive to noise, he wouldn't nap except in the car. I alternately worried that I was starving him, irritating him, or guilty of wasting gasoline.

Looking back, I realize that such anxiety made me a sitting duck for every parenting theory around. I felt buffeted between experts who advocated constant contact with the baby (including bringing him into his parents' bed at night) and those who urged me to set boundaries and not totally submerge myself in the role of mother.

I felt so overwhelmed that I began to see enemies in every corner. I first read about "attachment parenting," which included "wearing your baby in a sling and taking him everywhere," in Dr. Sears's "The Baby Book," written with his wife, Martha, a registered nurse. All I could think was that I needed "detachment parenting."

I found a more reasonable and comforting approach in "What to Expect the First Year," by Arlene Eisenberg, Heidi Murkoff, and Sandee Hathaway, but felt guilty that I wasn't interested in cooking the foods recommended in the book's diet plan for infants. It seemed too complex to me.

I also had a difficult time getting started nursing my son. In reading advice from the women at La Leche League, I sometimes found myself agreeing with one frustrated friend, who called them "the breast-feeding Nazis" because of the organization's insistence on nursing exclusively rather than using formula, no matter what.

I found Penelope Leach's books to be helpful, and her tone reassured me. It was Ms. Leach's advice that gave my husband and me the courage when our son was 4 months old to let him cry a little bit longer each night in the crib, since we knew he had been fed, freshly diapered, and wasn't ill or teething. Gradually, he began to sleep through the night, and we gratefully regained our (almost) seven hours of rest.

Most good parenting books help moms and dads find their own way by learning to trust their instincts. I found that a situation improved only when the advice I followed felt right for the kind of parent I am, and right for my son's temperament, stage of development, and proclivities.

And, when all else failed, I clung to the favorite saying of a family member: "If [children] know you love them, they'll turn out OK."

As my son has grown, I've moved past all-purpose baby and toddler development books.

I rarely buy a parenting book anymore; if I am looking for a discipline strategy, for example, I poll my neighbors, go to the library, or browse the parenting section at Barnes & Noble.

At this point in my parenting career, free advice is the best.

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