We need a Dr. Spock to talk to us about babies
Babies are on our mind these days, and often for all the wrong reasons. It makes you wonder what America’s famous pediatrician, Dr. Benjamin Spock, who died 25 years ago Wednesday, would say to us now?
Bad news about babies is everywhere. America’s birthrate is down nearly 20% since 2007, following more than a decade of economic woes and a deadly pandemic.
An even more drastic drop-off in fertility can be found in Western Europe and particularly China. Experts wonder whether the world’s most populous country faces an irreversible decline.
The U.S. baby “crisis” goes far beyond last year’s nationwide shortage in baby formula, causing a panic among parents.
Studies show Black infants are far more likely to die from childbirth than whites, regardless of family income. Birth defects still affect one of every 33 newborns, the leading cause of infant deaths. And despite attempts at improvement, the nationwide child poverty rate is still 17%, impacting infants' health, education and future prospects.
This troubling news is in sharp contrast to a different time when America obsessed about babies for optimistic reasons and was far more hopeful about the future.
After World War II, many turned to Spock for advice as military men and women returned home, intent on marrying and starting families in suburbs like Long Island. Spock’s “Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care,” published in 1946, became a huge bestseller, second only to the Bible, riding a demographic wave of babies born during the 1950s and early 1960s.
Spock revolutionized American child-rearing by advising parents to rely more on a loving “common sense” approach rather than the traditional mix of punishment and fear. “Trust yourself,” he told newbie Moms and Dads. “You know more than you think you do.”
For millions of parents, he became the calm voice in the middle of the night when parents didn’t know what to do with a baby who was colicky or suffering from some other childhood dilemma.
In the eternal nature vs. nurture debate, Spock planted himself firmly in the nurture camp. At its heart, his book’s appeal sprang from telling parents they could make a difference: The future of your baby, he said, was not predetermined by heredity but could be made better through parental love.
Spock’s critics said his “permissiveness” created spoiled kids. Feminists cast doubt on his claim to be a champion of working mothers.
But over time, through several updates of his famous book, Spock adapted to many changes in society and in parenting needs. He revised the book to squeeze out any sexism and reflected more diverse family life, such as gay and lesbian parents.
Spock was among the first to raise concerns about child obesity. He recommended a “low-fat, plant-based diet” for children.
In the modern clutter of baby-advice books, what’s needed most is someone with Spock’s moral authority to be a public advocate for babies and their future. To stand up for immunizations — the kind that saved so many from polio in Spock’s heyday. To speak out for school kids fearing guns and mass shootings. To alert us to medical improvements, so we don't rely on faceless Google responses and unknown websites.
No one has quite replaced Spock as a champion of children, though such a voice is needed now more than ever. We don't know for sure what Dr. Spock would say to us now, but it surely would be something we need to hear.
This guest essay reflects the views of Thomas Maier, a Newsday reporter and author of “Dr. Spock: An American Life."
This guest essay reflects the views of Thomas Maier, a former Newsday reporters and author of “Dr. Spock: An American Life."