For the last six years I've been reading parenting books. I've read dozens of them, some good, some useless, but a handful stand out as books I've reached for time and again when I had a question or a problem, or just needed some reassuring company. These are the books I would buy (if I were rich) for every expecting mother I know.
Start At The Very Beginning
Well, not the very beginning—there are lots of books about pregnancy and childbirth out there, but childbirth is such an unpredictable and personal thing that you'd have to read a library's worth of books just to learn the handful of things which will apply to your situation. Your best bet is to find a good midwife and stay off the Internet.
Once the baby comes you'll want to feed it, and the best nursing advice I found (in book form—again, a trustworthy advisor is your best bet but unless you were clever enough to marry a lactation consultant you'll need a source of midnight advice) is Breastfeeding Made Simple: Seven Natural Laws for Nursing Mothers by Nancy Mohrbacher and Kathleen Kendall-Tackett. The title is an exaggeration, of course—no book can make breastfeeding simple— but their advice is soothing, practical, and research-based.
After a while your baby will be ready for, as we call it, people food, and the best introduction to the subject is Better Baby Food: Your Essential Guide to Nutrition, Feeding and Cooking for All Babies and Toddlers by Daina Kalnins and Joanne Saab. Published by Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children, this book introduces you to the nuts (actually no nuts) and bolts of feeding babies and small children, from nutrition advice to guidelines on when to introduce different foods. There are recipes for everything from purees to delicious entrees the whole family will enjoy. We love their hot and sour soup, and the chocolate chip oatmeal cookies are divine. There is a good mixture of healthy meals and homemade treats, plain food and sophisticated flavours. All the recipes are clearly written and easy to follow, with common ingredients.
My only caveat with Better Baby Food is that it was published before the latest advice moved weaning age up to six months, so their baby food recipes are suggested for four months and up.
Sleep, Gentle Sleep
The best sleep advice around is to be found in Dr. Marc Weissbluth's Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child. Weissbluth is pragmatic, respectful of your child's need to sleep (and yours) and insistent on the importance of a good night's sleep. I wish the book were better edited, as it is sometimes hard to slog through his academic pontificating to get to the actual advice, but once you've found it it's gold. People keep borrowing my copy.
Dear God What Next?
Children change all the time; no sooner do you think you've figured your little one out then they become someone slightly different. I have often thought to myself, sometimes dispairingly, "Is this just a phase, or is this what she's really like?" The Your N-Year-Old series by Louise Bates Ames and Frances Lillian Ilg can help answer that question. Each book comes with a subtitle which is a teaser for what you can expect in that year of your child's life; your three-year-old is "Friend or Enemy", your four-year-old is, alarmingly, "Wild and Wonderful, but then you're rewarded with a "Sunny and Serene" five-year-old.
These books have given me perspective on what my children are going through developmentally and what I can expect from them, both good and bad. Now, when Cordelia throws a giant fit because I cut her toast the wrong way, I can just wait it out with a shrug—"She's four"—rather than dispairing that I've borne a drama queen and she'll always be like this. These books make it possible to untangle the influences of developmental stage from my children's real personalities.
No less than four books (plus two) on this topic. They all cover about the same territory but in slightly different ways, so I suppose you could pick your favourite and just read that, but I find it's helpful to reinforce this stuff periodically, and this way you don't have to do it by rereading the same book over and over.
Kids Are Worth It by Barbara Coloroso, Positive Discipline by Dr. Jane Nelsen, Unconditional Parenting by Alfie Kohn, and Breaking The Good Mom Myth by Alyson Schäfer are all books about positive parenting, or unconditional parenting, or democratic parenting, or Adlerian parenting, which are variations on a philosophy of parenting which regards children as full and equal members of the family with equal rights to respect and dignity. It's the style of parenting I have chosen because it seems most right and effective to me, and the books listed are all excellent guides to parenting in that style.
How To Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish is a light but effective guide to talking to your kids (rather than at them). This book is thick with specific ideas and techniques to help you communicate with your kids. The same authors wrote Siblings Without Rivalry, which teaches how to manage siblings, with plenty of examples, cartoons and summaries.
In between feeding, disciplining and putting your children to sleep you might want to spend some time with them, and a great way to do that is in the company of books. Babies Need Books: Sharing the Joy of Books with Children from Birth to Six by Dorothy Butler is an impassioned appeal to parents to read early and often. Butler tells us not only why and how we should read, but what, with long lists of great books for every stage from birth to six.
In the thick of all this advice you'll want some perspective. Having a second child is a great way to get perspective, as well as a good dose of humility (if you thought your child's awesomeness was to your credit) or absolution (if you thought your child's horribleness was your fault). If you're not ready for another child, though, these books will put your parenting—and all the advice you're getting—into its proper context.
The amply sub-titled The Boy Who Was Raised As A Dog: And Other Stories from a Child Psychiatrist's Notebook: What Traumatized Children Can Teach Us About Loss, Love and Healing by Bruce Perry and Maia Szalavitz is a collection of case studies of children who have gone though horrible trauma—abuse, cults, neglect—and what they can teach us about childhood development and resiliency. This book will help you because no matter what you're doing "wrong" you can't do as much harm to your child as has been done to these children, and because despite such miserable childhoods many of these kids go on to be normal, functioning adults.
Perfect Parents: Baby-care Advice Past and Present by Christina Hardyment is an overview of the crazy, yet earnest, advice given to parents (usually mothers) over the last hundred and fifty years. Parents have been admonished on topics from hugging (bad) to breastfeeding (bad) to warm baths (bad), and some of the advice will leave you open-mouthed. Following the advice is almost always presented as vital to the fabric of society, and yet somehow, civilization has soldiered on despite the failings of mothers everywhere.
How Not To Be The Perfect Mother by Libby Purves is a memoir written by Purves while she was, as she puts it, at the "coalface of practical early motherhood". Funny and pragmatic, Purves offers advice and reassurance without judgement. "A good hungry dog mooching around the high chair helps."
My children are six and four, and I expect I have at least ten years of parenting books ahead of me, so I suppose this list will change, but I've been through two babyhoods and two toddlerhoods and am now firmly in the realm of parenting children. Books have been a terrific help and comfort to me through this journey, and I hope this list can help other parents find their path.