Sept. 30, 2022

Fresh Take: Penelope Leach on "Your Baby and Child"

Penelope Leach has been guiding and reassuring parents for more than 40 years. Her classic childcare guide YOUR BABY AND CHILD is out now in a fully revised and updated edition. Penelope tells us what’s changed in child-rearing– and what hasn’t.

Penelope Leach is a research psychologist and one of the world's leading experts in child development and upbringing. Penelope has helped millions of parents raise their children for more than forty years with her thoroughly researched, practical, baby-led advice, her wise, empathic, and sensible perspective, and her comforting voice. She also has two children and six grandchildren of her own.

Penelope's classic childcare guide YOUR BABY AND CHILD is out now in a fully revised and updated edition. Much has changed since this book was first published in the 1970s, and this new edition thoughtfully incorporates all that we've learned about child development and family structures in the many years since.

Amy, Margaret, and Dr. Leach discuss:

  • How thinking around child development has changed [2:50]
  • How a mother's stress affects her child [17:10]
  • What parents are still worried about 50 years later [30:00]


Grab your copy of YOUR BABY AND CHILD from our Bookshop store!

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Margaret: [00:00:00] Hello, and welcome to Fresh Take from What Fresh Hell: Laughing in the Face of Motherhood. This is Margaret.

Amy: And this is Amy. And today we're talking to Penelope Leach. She's a research psychologist and one of the world's leading experts in child development and upbringing. Penelope Leach has helped millions of parents raise their children for more than 40 years with her thoroughly-researched, practical, baby-led advice, her wise, empathic and sensible perspective and her comforting voice. She also has two children and six grandchildren of her own. She's the author of many bestselling parenting books, and the book we're gonna talk about today is "Your Baby and Child," Dr. Leach's classic childcare guide, which is out now in a revised and updated edition. Welcome, Penelope.

Penelope Leach: Lovely to be here. Thank you for asking me.

Amy: So "Your Baby and Child." I know my mom had this around the house. It was first published in 1978, [00:01:00] so it raised many of us listening who had parents who read "Your Baby and Child."

Margaret: Yes, we are seventies babies ourselves. So this was important if you think, if our listeners think we turned out well, this is part of the reason.

Penelope Leach: Well, yes, but from my point of view, 50 years is a heck of a long time for a book. And it reached a point where it either had to die or be rewritten. I couldn't leave it out there knowing that it was out of date. I mean, that just didn't feel right. Of course there've been lots of minor reprints, but the book hadn't changed along with society.

Margaret: So let's start there. What are some of the things in the book that have changed in those 50 years?

Penelope Leach: Oh, wow. When I wrote it, Daddy went to work to earn money and Mommy stayed at home and looked after the baby. [00:02:00] Not always, of course. I mean, that's a generalization, but there's been a huge change in the fact that now almost all adults go to work, and as many women are in the workplace as men, and we unfortunately don't have as many men as women in the home place. So there's a whole area of difficulty -- what I think your title refers to as Hell?

Amy: Yes, fresh Hells. New each day.

Margaret: Everything always new, always new.

Amy: And you also make the point that there were grandmothers around back then. Like, my grandmother lived with us and she helped raise us. She lived upstairs.

Margaret: My grandmother lived with us as well.

Amy: Is that right? And so our grandmothers were both, of course, younger because our mothers had us when they were younger, but our mother stayed home with us and our grandmothers also didn't work outside the home, and so were also available for childcare. [00:03:00] How have you seen that change? How people are raising their babies these days?

Penelope Leach: Huge change and interesting difference between the UK and the USA in that a lot of grandparents in the UK are wanting to do more childcare than they actually want to do. Whereas in the USA, it seems to be the other way around. You know, I hear quite a lot of families.... how can I put this politely...who don't want grandmothers too much involved? And of course things have changed in the sense that grandmothers used to retire at 60, and now who can afford to retire in either of our countries? So that's a big change. A lot of parents do of course rely on grandparents for childcare, but how many families still live close by? I mean, I know of grandparents who travel two or three hours to help out if one of the children is [00:04:00] sick and parents need to go to work, but that's very different from being next door.

Margaret: Or even in the upstairs bedroom in our case. Right.

Penelope Leach: I was so lucky I lived close by, but not with. And I think probably that's the ideal.

Margaret: Well, even in my mother's generation, there was a multi generation. They lived in a two-family house, multi-generational family, as they were moving from Ireland and coming to the United States that the family was just naturally extended. That there were always people around. And I think that's really interesting how much that has changed, whereas no one I know -- very few people I know -- they might have a grandma around, but they don't live in a multi-generational house where there are different levels of family.

Penelope Leach: But another thing that's changed that's part of this is that when I wrote the book, if you were a mother, and it would almost always be a mother at home with young [00:05:00] children, and you went out with your stroller to the park or whatever, there would be lots of others. Now you may be the only one in your street who's not at work. And the whole business has become much, much lonelier. And I think it is very lonely and looking after very small children is dreadfully boring a lot of the time. I obviously I'm interested in babies and small children. It's what I've done all my adult life, but doesn't mean that I can't remember what it was like some of the time or quite a lot of the time. And boring is part of that.

Margaret: Well, we say often I think that the human connection is very lost in some ways. I think I feel more connected to the idea that motherhood is difficult and boring and lonely through the online [00:06:00] world than I think my mom did. I don't think that she was able to have as many conversations as I am able to have about how much parenting stinks sometimes. I'm able to process that online and in my communities more easily than my mom was, but I think my actual community is much smaller. So it's been kind of a give and take. Right?

Penelope Leach: One of the things that, I mean, when I started thinking about rewriting this book, because it is a rewrite, it's a different book and people said: does anybody want a book these days? You know, all the parenting advice is online. I've found that in a way there's too much advice coming from too many different directions, and that quite a lot of parents and their relatives and friends find it muddling and bewildering.

And if you go to a different source of advice, every time you hit a problem, which after all with a new [00:07:00] baby, maybe every Monday,

Margaret: Let alone maybe every hour. Yes, yes,

Penelope Leach: Exactly. Then you do get great confusion. So the idea is for some people, at least, a book is a solid -- you know, if you can find a book that is a voice that resonates with you, that feels right, that you can really hear, then if it's good on breastfeeding, chances are you'll like it on daycare, and, you know, discipline and the splat of food on the floor.

Margaret: That's great. That's an interesting point.

Amy: It seems to me that your advice has always been very sort of baby led, but intuitive, right? That when, if your baby's crying every day at, at 4 or 5:00 PM, there are things you can do about that, but you can follow your baby's lead. And it isn't that you have to consult 18 message boards and read every article. You can read one book and you can let your baby [00:08:00] lead you. Do you think that parents, these days with this sort of onslaught of advice and social media, do you think that they have a harder time sort of listening to their instincts and tuning out the noise?

Penelope Leach: I think parents do. I mean, I hate these generalizations, but everybody must accept that of course what I'm saying isn't true for everybody all the time. But on the whole, I think parents think more about their babies and very young children than they did two generations ago. They talked to each other about them. They talked to their parents and friends about them and they talked to their children a lot more. I think even though people will tell you that half the time they've got ear about Z and they're not paying any attention. On the other hand, I think there's a real time conflict for a lot of families. And one of the interesting things is how it's altered the [00:09:00] kind of standard routines of baby care. I mean, it used to be that babies' and toddlers' bedtime was 6:00 PM, lights out at 7. If they did that nowadays you'd never see your children at all 'til the weekend because they're in daycare 'til that time and, you know, very small children are up and around until 9 in order to see something of their parents.

So there's a kind of sunny mixture of perhaps increased concern and maybe increased knowledge. I find parents know a lot more about the development of their children certainly than I did when I started out. But at the same time, life is very divided between work and home, and home doesn't get an awful lot of time in those households.

Margaret: I wanna talk a little bit more about this [00:10:00] expansion of knowledge. We're talking to Dr. Penelope Leach and we will be right back.

So before the break, we were talking about expansion of knowledge, and one of the things you cover in the book is the expansion of what we know -- actually know -- about babies' sensory integration. Are there things that you really changed your mind about, or are there things that this sense and this intuitive approach that wasn't very changed by more specific information about how babies' minds work?

Penelope Leach: I think it's not that my mind has been changed, it is that I've been educated along with everybody else. And I think it's enormously important for people's enjoyment of being parents, as well as the children's enjoyment of being their kids, they should have some idea of what's going on. I mean, an obvious example is what people will call discipline, even when they're talking about a one-year-old. Now, we know now from [00:11:00] the last decade's work on infant brain development, that there is no way you can teach an under-one how to behave his brain or her brain doesn't encompass that kind of thinking. You're too soon, mate. It can't be done. And all you do is create misery. So if I'm going in a book to say, if your baby keeps crawling to the refrigerator and opening the door and you think you're going to lose your mind? It's no good screaming at him, let alone smacking him. Distracting is the only thing that works. Because another thing that we've learned, if you like part of this whole package, is that if you pick such a baby up and take him into the next room or into garden or whatever, he will have forgotten the refrigerator game in 50 seconds, so the whole thing is over.

What [00:12:00] doesn't help is having expectations of a baby or child that can't be met. I mean, it can become positively cruel.

Margaret: Yes.

Penelope Leach: Some parents do make quite a -- I can only describe it as a mistake -- when they have a second child of comparing the two. So sometimes the second child is thought to be slower than the first one, and that's kind of a negative. Again, the stuff we've learnt in the last couple of generations tells us a great deal about the developments that are going on and how different children are going to be. So it's no good wishing that your child would get on and crawl. He's maybe never going to crawl. He may be one of those children who's gonna go straight from sitting to standing up and walking. Is that a good thing? It's a real thing. It's true. It happens. [00:13:00] And if you understand it, it helps you and the child.

Amy: Can you tell us a little bit about stress and what has been learned since this book first came out about the effects of stress on little children's development, both before they're born --this surprised me -- before they're born, in the womb, and when they're babies and it's their own stress.

Penelope Leach: Well, the really interesting thing about stress is that we now know that stress in the mother -- and I have to say mother, because it is the mother, because it's all to do with the uterus -- stress in the mother can affect the brain development of the fetus from conception onwards. In fact, you know, a stress free pregnancy is every child's right as well as every mother's right. We ought to do everything we possibly [00:14:00] can as partners, as relations, as friends, to keep pregnancy stress-free for women, because stress is bad for the babies. And people say, well, how can that possibly, you know, how can her stress influence the fetus? And of course the answer is hormones and hormones passed across the placenta to the developing baby.

One of the things that happens if a mother is highly stressed is that the amount of cortisol, which is kind of one of the main stress hormones that passes the placenta, goes up, and a baby who is bathed in cortisol in the womb tends to develop an exaggerated fight/flight reaction, and may actually become not just a baby, a child adolescent, but a whole person who [00:15:00] is always one of those who anticipates the worst and overreacts to minor problems. We all know people like that, but we don't always realize the basis of it is probably before he or she was ever born.

Amy: There's also new information in the last, you know, 40 years since this book came out, about the development of toddlers and how they understand how people think and feel, their sort of emotional education and the way that they grow. Did that change anything in this new edition of this book?

Penelope Leach: Yes. It changed it two ways. First, we're clearer now that it's tremendously important. We're also clear that it links with very early development so that a child who has warm, close parenting in the first six months or a year is quicker to reach that understanding of other people's feelings and behavior, quicker to be [00:16:00] able to see, at two, that another two-year-old might feel that way. If you, like, I think probably the secret of getting on well in groups with your siblings, with other kids in daycare -- if you can't see that another child feels like you do or doesn't, then you can't be a nice friend. It's no good, the adult saying: "Use your words." You know, your words aren't gonna work if the understanding isn't there.

Margaret: I wanna talk when we get back about the idea of guilt and figuring out moms' role in all of this. We're talking to Dr. Penelope Leach.

So one of our big tasks on this podcast is helping moms figure out their role in all of this, because we're a podcast, we offer some parenting advice, some parenting perspectives. One of the things we do try to put in people's way is to let [00:17:00] go a little bit of the guilt and this idea that the mother is responsible for everything about how this child turns out and has a tremendous amount of control over those things. How do you see in babies and toddlers areas where parents, especially mothers, can maybe find a little more joyfulness in their parenting and a little less guilt, hopefully.

Penelope Leach: Yeah. And of course the big answer to your "how" is your partner. I mean, it may be the father, it may be a biological father, it may be a partner of another gender, but from the point of view of the overburdened mother, having somebody else whom you trust with your child, I think, is crucial, and that's difficult, because however hellish we may be saying parenting, and mothering in particular, is, we'd do [00:18:00] anything and do do anything to keep our small children safe and doing what we think they ought to do. And that means that we are really fussy about anybody else. And I think one of the mistakes that some women make is by not allowing fathers, let's call them fathers, just cuz it's easier, but we all know it need not be the actual father, but, not letting fathers in at the very beginning. At the birth, yes, but in the months after. And if a woman is quick to jump in and tell her partner to do it differently, or not to do it like that, or to turn the pram around because the sun is in the baby's eyes, it's not going to get the kind of mutual parenting which actually helps with this guilt stuff.

I think one of the [00:19:00] things that has changed that's relevant to this is age. You know, when I first wrote the book, the average first child was born on average in a woman's early twenties. Now it'll be her mid-thirties, probably. A lot of life has gone on. She may have, I don't know, run a company or, you know, taught 30 kids in a classroom for years before she has this baby. And she very reasonably expects to be able to do it quite easily.

Margaret: Yes.

Penelope Leach: And she can't, cause it isn't the same, nothing is the same. And if there's one message that I've tried to get through in the sort of opening, new opening chapter to this book, it is that nothing will ever be the same. And that I think is the thing, many parents -- mothers and [00:20:00] fathers -- don't realize. In fact, in their efficiency, their relative efficiency and older age, they feel, you know, "Give us six weeks and we'll be back to normal."

There isn't a normal, there's only a new normal, which is them as parents. And if you are all the time expecting things to go back, you won't have your eye on where they're going forward and we're after bit of joy here, aren't we?

Margaret: Trying to, yes.

Penelope Leach: Most babies are wanted, thank Heavens. And although I've talked to a lot of parents who say they wish they'd never had children, really a surprisingly large percentage, I've never met one who wished they hadn't had their actual children.

Amy: So, you know, Penelope, the book. So much of your advice is actually given from the point of [00:21:00] view of the baby or the young child. And I think it's lovely, but I'm wondering why did you choose to write the book that way?

Penelope Leach: Oh, why did I write it that way? I wrote it that way because the reason I ever wrote it was that I felt that was the point of view that was missing. I mean, if you go back to parenting advice even of Dr. Spock, it was not from the baby's point of view. It was from a point of view of "Let's get her settled into a routine, so you can get some sleep" and so forth. So it was always my intention to get as close as one can, which is not very close, to getting inside the baby's head and showing parents what was actually going on in there. And I think to some extent with colleagues, it's kind of worked. People are on the whole, I think, gentler with very small children than they were.[00:22:00]

Your country hasn't yet banned physical punishment, but I think it's less used than it was. And perhaps it will go altogether as it has in 50 countries around the world. So, you know, there's a saying, which my family uses: You can't be happier than your least happy child. And I think that's very true and we have to acknowledge that happy children make happy parents rather than the other way around.

Amy: Penelope, let's finish by talking about what do you see as not having changed in over the last couple of generations. We have both parents working outside the home. They're not seeing their baby 'til 8:30 at night. They have their child in childcare instead of with their mom next door all day. What hasn't changed?

Penelope Leach: I think the main thing that hasn't changed is what we were just talking about, which dare I use the word, is something called love. You [00:23:00] know, most parents, most, not all sadly, most parents are besotted with a new baby and all set to be besotted with that child, as it becomes an older baby. That besottment sometimes changes a bit in toddlerhood because the beauty of toddlers is that they learn to say "No" and "Me do it" and "No way" and some parents don't like that. I like it very much. I think it's funny in my own children or other people's, but a lot of parents don't. But I think what hasn't changed is really why we have babies at all. We actually want that close human connection. And the fact that it's difficult, more difficult than we expected, is something that this book is trying to help with.

Margaret: Because you want to get back to the [00:24:00] core experience, which is that loving and, you know, wanted experience. But there are a tremendous amount of things that kind of get in the way of that when you feel, and you pointed this out earlier, my mom had children late, she had a career and she said, you know, I used to have a room full of people who just did what I said on command.

And now I have three little maniacs who literally, I can't get them to get off the kitchen table, or whatever it is. And I think that the overall unchanged thing about the book is that what you wanna do is get past the problems so that you can get back to some idea of love and connection with kids.

Penelope Leach: Yes, that's exactly, I mean, thank you, that's how I would have put it. But yes. And why it's difficult is that you start talking about love between parents and children, and it all gets a bit soppy, [00:25:00] but Bowlby, and indeed Freud, both describe that relationship as the strongest love relationship in the world. And it is, and I think it helps if people know that. It really doesn't matter if you are irritated because, oh, I don't know, your dinner party was interrupted again by this three-year-old who won't stay in his room. It matters at the time, but it doesn't matter in the long run because nobody's going to remember that evening, you know, when he's a big boy. And being a big boy is where it's going, or a big girl. And what kind of person is it going to be? And that's one of the most exciting things in the world.

Amy: We've been talking to Dr. Penelope Leach, her book "Your Baby and Child" is just out in a completely redone, new format. Dr. Leach, tell us where our listeners can find you on the internet.

Penelope Leach: Via the book, [00:26:00] actually. I don't have a website. There's a lot -- if you Google "Penelope Leach", you can find lots of stuff about the books. I don't work on social media, so I'm very grateful to be made welcome on yours and thank you for having me.

Margaret: Fantastic. And we will put links up to where to find the book. And this is a book that, you know, helped shape our lives and will continue helping shape the lives of children going forward. And we're just really honored to get to talk to you today, so thanks so much for being on.

Penelope Leach: Thank you for having me.

Amy: Thank you.