Book Review: Bumpology, by Linda Geddes
Bumpology is an attractive and accessible book with a very clear and logical layout, which compensates for the lack of an index. It is as easy to dip into as it is to read from cover to cover; I know because I did both.
This is a marvellously comprehensive collection of research evidence and occasional comment upon the lack of research evidence, for all the advice and received wisdom relating to pregnancy, birth and early parenthood. As Geddes says, the science is out there, but it often takes some digging to find it.
Geddes looks at the big issues such as place of birth, breastfeeding, and all those things you’re told you can’t eat during pregnancy; as well as bringing in some colourful sections on how the growing baby develops in the womb, what senses function from birth, and the role of newborn reflexes. This in itself is a useful part of learning to empathise with the baby, and might influence parenting choices.
I am used to reading far more dogmatic books (from all over the birth and parenting spectrum), so this measured tone is very refreshing. Research in this area on the whole appears to be very thin, often studies are very small or based on the behaviour of lab animals. The book does not offer many definitive answers, but its general message is not to take advice for granted, since much of what we are told from the moment we even start to think about having a baby has no basis in fact. This very important point was made by Octavia Wiseman in a recent Midirs article (July/August 2012:p22), pointing out that much health advice is risk-averse, undermining parental choice, and that “explaining to women the limitation of our evidence base is the first step to take when asking them to make ‘informed’ choices.”
It is lovely that the text is scattered with anecdotes about the author’s personal experience, but for the most part this book is about facts not feelings. It largely ignores ‘soft’ aspects such as how parents feel about risk, and how mothers experience birth and early motherhood. Statistical comparisons of different aspects of birth look at outcomes and define those in terms of health of the baby and mother, taking little account of how women feel during and after the experience. For example lying down or being mobile during labour may make no difference to the outcome in statistical terms, but different women may experience these scenarios as more or less positive. Lying down in a room full of medical staff may feel disempowering; a woman being made to walk around may feel bullied. Working with parents both antenatally and postnatally, I know that scientific evidence may not always be the most important factor when making decisions. A good example of this would be the decision to share a bed with your baby: whether, according to various studies, this increases the risk of cot death; or whether it increases your child’s self-esteem, are less likely to influence the decision to bedshare than the fact that it might just be easier not to have to get up in the night. This does not, of course, detract from the fact that parents can and should be made aware of the evidence in order to make an informed decision; and to be fair, Geddes does not set out to explore the qualitative aspects of parenthood, but to present the facts and figures, and bust the myths: a very worthwhile mission.
I would recommend Bumpology to anyone expecting a baby, but I think it is also essential reading for anyone working with parents, antenatally or postnatally. It is so important for us to get our facts right, to counter the myths and enable parents to be confident in their decision making. Very few of the books I’ve seen are so robustly evidence-based, and an awful lot of people working with parents will repeat advice without giving any critical thought either to the evidence behind it, or the effect it might have in an individual situation.
Sense About Science
Linda Geddes on Radio 4’s Today Programme with Belinda Phipps, CEO of NCT
Many people believe that parenting begins with birth, but the mother begins raising and nurturing a child well before birth. Scientific evidence indicates that from the fifth month on, the unborn baby is able to hear sounds, become aware of motion, and possibly exhibit short-term memory . Several studies (e.g. Kissilevsky et al., 2003) show evidence that the unborn baby can become familiar with his or her parents’ voices. Other research indicates that by the seventh month, external schedule cues influence the unborn baby’s sleep habits. Based on this evidence, parenting actually begins well before birth.