What Would Dr. Spock Say About the State of Babies Today? by Thomas Maier
Babies are on our mind these days, for all the wrong reasons. It makes you wonder what America’s famous pediatrician, Dr. Benjamin Spock, who died 25 years ago today, would say to us now?
Bad news about babies can be found everywhere. America’s birth rate is down nearly 20 percent since 2007, following more than a decade of economic woes, a deadly Covid pandemic and reports of declining sexual activity among adults.
An even more drastic dropoff in fertility can be found in Western Europe and particularly China, where experts wonder if the world’s most populous country faces an irreversible decline without producing more children.
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 percent, impacting each poor infant’s 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 a family in the suburbs. Spock’s “Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care”, published in 1946, became a huge bestseller, second only to the Bible.
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.”
Spock’s wildly popular book rode a huge demographic wave of babies born during the 1950s and early 1960s. On TV, “I Love Lucy” and Jackie Kennedy praised him. As the proverbial father of this “Baby Boom” generation, Spock became one of the most beloved figures in postwar America. (He later used his pediatric fame to oppose the Vietnam war, where young people brought up with his advice were getting killed).
At first glance, Spock’s book was filled with practical tips, borne of his experience as a baby doctor in New York. 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 colically baby – or bed-wetting, diaper rash, “spitting and vomiting” and dozens of other childhood dilemmas – and relied on his book for answers.
With his words, Spock struck a chord with parents, expressing the love and deep bond they felt towards their baby.
“Every time you pick your baby up, even if you do it a little awkwardly at first, every time you change him, bathe him, feed him, smile at him, he’s getting a feeling that he belongs to you and that you belong to him,” he wrote, using the preferred pronoun of that time. “Nobody else in the world, no matter how skillful, can give that to him.”
But most significantly, Spock’s book provided a new emotional framework for raising babies. Unlike the Calvinists and behaviorists who dominated child-rearing advice before him, Spock infused his book with Freudian psychology – carefully camouflaged in optimistic all-American lingo and good humor – to explain many insights about children, like a baby’s need to suckle.
In the eternal Nature vs. Nurture debate about how human beings are formed, Spock planted himself firmly in the Nurture camp. At its heart, his book’s appeal sprang from telling parents that they could make a difference. The future of a baby, your baby, was not pre-determined by heredity but could be made better through parental love.
“The child who is appreciated for what he is, even if he is homely, or clumsy, or slow, will grow up with confidence in himself, happy,” he assured. “He will have a spirit that will make the best of all the capacities that he has, and of all the opportunities that come his way.”
By the late 1960s, Spock’s critics challenged his views, now so deeply ingrained into the American psyche. Conservatives claimed his “permissiveness”, particularly frowning on corporal punishment, had created hordes of spoiled kids. Feminists objected to the inherent sexism of Freud’s views reflected in the book and cast doubt on Spock’s claim to be a champion of working mothers.
“I hope you understand that you are considered a symbol of male oppression – just like Freud,” feminist Gloria Steinem told him during one dramatic encounter.
But over time, through several updated editions of his famous book, Spock adapted to many changes in society and in parenting needs. By the 1970s, he revised the book to squeeze out any sexism and make sure baby references weren’t exclusively masculine. By the 1990s, it reflected more diverse family life, such as a gay and lesbian parents.
Spock was among the first to raise concerns about child obesity, linked to future heart disease among adults. Relying on new knowledge about nutrition, he recommended a “low-fat, plant-based diet” for children. Dairy farmers providing milk for bottle-fed babies howled, but Spock persisted. As he told another doctor, Spock always wanted his book “to be in the forefront of this awareness as it has been in many other respects.”
Today, some argue that a new Dr. Spock is needed to help sort through the clutter of so many baby-advice books. Last year’s slight “baby bump” in new births is a hopeful sign, but plenty of problems and disinformation still reign.
Given the current crises, what is needed most is someone with Spock’s moral authority to be an advocate for babies and their prospects for the future. Someone trusted to stand up for vaccines – the kind that saved many children from polio in Spock’s heyday – and alert us to medical improvements and doing things a better way.
Since his death in 1998, many have praised Spock as one of the most influential figures of the 20th Century with lasting impact. Indeed, when Apple computers started running its first ads, they chose an iconic photo of Spock holding up a baby with their catch phrase ‘Think Different’.
No one in this century has quite replaced Spock as a champion of children. Babies don’t have lobbyists and they don’t vote as a bloc. But they are the key to our survival as a nation and perhaps as a species.
Thomas Maier is the author of “Dr. Spock: An American Life”, a 1998 New York Times Notable Book, and last year was a recipient of the Columbia Journalism School Alumni Award