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Sally Goddard Blythe Discusses What Babies And Parents Need

This blog has been provided and was first published by Mary Jessica Hammes and

It might not be easy for you to read all of Sally Goddard Blythe’s “What Babies and Children Really Need.” It turns out that what they really need is not what many mothers can provide, simply because they live in a society that, well, does not value those needs.

Here’s the gist of the book, summed up a little halfway through it, just after Blythe states that mothers should spend at least the first year (and preferably the first two years) at home, and work part-time until the child is in school: “Although this view flies in the face of political correctness and what many people would like to hear, the purpose of this book is to write about what children need, not what adults would like to do.”

Of course, staying at home as long as you can in those early years is just one of the suggestions made by Blythe, a British author who is director of the Institute for Neuro-Physiological Psychology in the UK. In fact, she has a litany of children’s’ needs near the end of the book, and some of them would require some extensive societal, and sometimes political, shifts (not just in the UK). The list is extensive; here is just a sample:

  1. * Enable women to take a career break during the years of “maximum fertility and brain maturity” (that would be the early 20s to early 30s). “A society which really cares for its children makes it possible for a mother and child to be together for at least the first 2-3 years,” she writes.

  2. * Tell people about the advantages of breastfeeding. “Celebrate breasts not primarily as sexual objects but also as nature’s gift to every child.”

  3. * Welcome children at city centers, meal times, public entertainment; make room for them in the adult world. She suggest taking a cue from Mediterranean culture, where “children do not dominate adult time, but they are an important part of it.

  4. * Encourage parents to have a “secure and positive climate of discipline.” (This goes back to a fascinating section which looks at three different kinds of parenting styles—rigid authoritarian control, which uses punishment; authoritative control, which uses discussion; and permissive control, which has no clear guidelines. The first and third styles, she says, “are generally the least effective.”)

  5. * Make parents know how necessary they are in children’s lives. Blythe devotes a section on “Why Children Need Fathers.” And, she writes: “We need to acknowledge as a society that in the first year(s) of life, babies need their mothers. Government needs to take a greater share in the financial responsibility of making it possible for parents to choose to stay at home.” (She suggests that in the UK, the tax burden be reduced for fathers for the first two years, encouraging dads to support their children and moms to return to work in the third year.)

There are other enlightening tidbits throughout the book, such as the importance of reading aloud to your child; the “3 Ms” of preschool education, which are mother, movement and music; and the importance of play in a child’s life.

I particularly liked the way she addressed how motherhood suffers generally from a sense of support and worth. She writes about how she dreaded social events when her children were young, knowing the inevitable response when she was asked about her career.

“I soon came to expect the glazed look of fading interest that would pass across the questioner’s face when I replied, ‘I have three small children,’” she writes. “It was as if I had just issued them with a certificate which confirmed my intellectual level was the same age as that of my youngest child…there is something fundamentally wrong with a society which regards motherhood as a temporary mental aberration which will only be restored to normalcy when she returns to the world beyond children.”

I was very pleased to interview Blythe.

You write how “the purpose of this book is to write about what children need, not what adults would like to do.” An example in this book is the section on breastfeeding. Most American pregnancy guides say that breastfeeding is best, but they emphasize the mother’s choice for whatever reason, including convenience, and include information on formula. Your book only has positive information about breastfeeding, and mentions bottle-feeding only when describing its disadvantages (although you do say, “A mother should never feel guilty or inadequate” in regards to feeding). Can you talk about that rather fearless approach? Blythe: Yes.  The aim of the book was to promote an understanding of factors which affect children’s development.  The fact that bottle-feeding is readily available as a safe alternative is not in dispute.  What I wanted to do was educate future generations of parents into understanding what breastfeeding provides that bottle-feeding does not, so that they can make an informed choice about which type of feeding they use.

Increasingly in the UK, we are seeing a new generation of young parents who have had little or no experience of full-time parenting themselves, who do not know what the benefits of breastfeeding are, and for some, for whom breastfeeding is regarded as an unnatural choice.  One example of this was only a few weeks ago, when I asked a woman who was 8 months pregnant if she had decided how she wanted to feed her baby when it was born.  She replied, “I am going to bottle-feed.  Ugh, I couldn’t do the other, I think it is disgusting, it is unnatural.” This is despite government advice to pregnant women that “breast is best.”

I wanted women to have a better understanding of the physical benefits to both mother and child.

You also talk about how it’s healthier for younger women to become mothers, but that society makes it very difficult financially (and of course these days, becoming a young mother rather than pursuing a career carries its own stigma). Do you feel that this sentiment may raise the ire of some feminists, who have worked so hard to ensure young women can pursue careers without the pressure of having children? Do you think it’s possible for mothers to “have it all” when it comes to both child-rearing and career-pursuing (or even fair to tell people they can do that successfully)? Blythe: I am sure that many of the points raised will invite the ire of some feminists. Once again the book was not written to praise or criticize different life style choices, and I am sure that nature did not have feminism in mind when human reproduction evolved.  While there are many older women who have healthy pregnancies and children, the evidence shows that the older women are when they start a family, the higher the risks of subsequent problems.  Ideally, nature designed women to have maximum fertility with minimum risk to mother and child in the early twenties.  The fact that this is now at odds with how modern technological societies have shaped themselves has in my view, brought new problems for parents, children and society as a whole.

My main area of work is with children experiencing specific learning disabilities (dyslexia, developmental coordination disorder, attention deficit disorder, under-achievement etc.).  In a survey we are currently carrying out of early developmental factors amongst this group, in a sample of nearly 80-plus children, at least 10 were conceived by older mothers as a result of IVF.  While we cannot say that IVF was the cause of their later difficulties, more than 10 percent is a high ratio within a given population.  When women delay their fertility for social reasons believing that IVF is available as an alternative in the future, they are not usually told, or do not heed that these techniques bring high risk pregnancies, greater likelihood of intervention at birth, and problems in the perinatal period with an increased risk of related sequelae.

Some things you recommend—staying close to the baby after birth, baby-wearing, sleeping close to baby, extended breastfeeding, not letting a baby “cry it out”—are the hallmarks of what some people call “attachment parenting.” Do you view this book as advocating attachment parenting?

Blythe: Attachment parenting is not a term I am familiar with and is an example of a parenting method, as opposed to being a natural parent who is responsive to the needs of their child.

The book is not intended to promote any single style of parenting, recognizing that what works for one child in a family will not necessarily work for another.  What I tried to do was to look at a baby’s physical and developmental needs at different stages in development and explain why physical contact and interaction and social engagement with a primary source of love are so important for a child’s well being.

One major point you make is that young babies need their mothers in the first few months of their life, and you suggest some taxation approaches that might make this possible in the UK. But it’s clear that at the moment, many mothers (especially here in the U.S.) must return to work after only a few weeks after the birth. Do you think that getting society to acknowledge the fact that babies need their mothers for several years is a hard task? Can we look to Sweden for a good example (even though the “welfare state” you mention in the book has its own problems)?

Blythe: Yes, this is becoming an increasingly difficult task.  In the UK, we have reached a stage where the government actively promotes earlier and earlier availability and placement of children in nursery care (this reduces the burden on the state for paying for benefits) as well as a statutory curriculum for the under fives (Early Years Foundation Stage).  Many of the so called “targets” a child is expected to reach before starting formal education at rising 5 years of age fail to take physical development into account or to acknowledge some of the research which has indicated that children who are placed in full-time nursery care before the age of two years benefit on cognitive measures but show higher levels of stress and emotional problems.  In the recent words of one respected academic, Sir Christopher Ball, “we are the only species of animal (mammal), which deliberately separates its young from its mother for social reasons, before it is mature enough to take care of itself.”

Sweden and the Nordic nations in general have much better child care policies and provision than we do in the UK but as you rightly say, the welfare state can also bring its own problems with it.

My first choice of title for the book was “First Love—Valuing Motherhood in Modern Society”, but this was changed by the publisher for a more popular title.  I still think that the original title better described the aim of the book—to re-instate motherhood as a valuable stage in a woman’s life—rather than it being seen as a second class alternative or adjunct to a career.  If society could only remodel itself to enable women to take time out in their early twenties to accomplish the early stages of motherhood, there need not be a contest between being a parent or having a career.  This is not to judge the many women who must return to work for financial reasons or to prejudice those who have not met the man they would like to be the father of their children in their early twenties. Rather to say, that we need flexibility to enable women to take a break and to be able to return to the world of work a few years later.  “Having it all,” as you describe it, may not be possible all at once, but it might be possible in stages. Perhaps a better title for the book would have been, “What parents need to know.”

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