Sunday, March 1, 2009

Yet again, the ABC stoops low for high ratings

Sooner or later, defenceless babies were going to be the hapless victims of the television networks’ ruthless opportunism.

It happened in Britain over a year ago and now it’s happening again in Australia, despite the controversy that erupted the first time.

Bringing Up Baby, currently showing in Melbourne, is a reality TV program first screened on the UK’s Channel 4 that has as its basis three of the 20th century's most influential childcare manuals - Dr Truby King's 1913 Feeding and Care of Baby, Dr Benjamin Spock's Baby and Child Care and Jean Liedloff's 1975 The Continuum Concept. Each book presents a particular system for caring for young babies.

The show keeps tabs on six families as they attempt to carry out one of the three methods for the first weeks and months of their babies' lives. They grapple with methods of feeding, where the baby should sleep, how much parental contact it should have and whether it should be allowed to cry without being comforted.

The families are guided by three ‘mentors’ who single-mindedly instruct them on their chosen method. The mentors are intermittently shown arguing among themselves about the advantages and disadvantages of each method.

But one of the show’s ‘experts’, Claire Verity, who advocates the Truby King method, was shown to be a fraud and thoroughly discredited following the series’ UK screening, while qualified experts have decried her methods as life endangering. Parents were so concerned that they set up this blog before the show was even completed. A Facebook group against Verity was also set up and her own promotional website has now been taken down.

Yet the series is currently being screened in Australia, leaving Australian babies vulnerable to parents who might believe that Verity’s method has merit.

Two sane methods, one crazy one
Dr Spock is the closest the series gets to a mainstream view, and the most flexible method of the three. Spock’s advice, popular in the 1960s, could be summarised as ‘almost anything goes’. Parents follow their instincts and do what’s right for them, for example deciding whether to breastfeed or not.

The other method, the Continuum Concept, was developed in the 1970s and is based on the writer’s observation of South American tribes in which mothers carried their babies around with them constantly, resulting in incredibly happy, well-adjusted babies and children.

This method integrates the baby completely into the life of the mother (or any caregiver). She carries it around in a firm sling that allows her to do her household tasks, and breastfeeds on demand. She does not fuss over the baby but responds non-judgementally to its needs. The method is inflexible in that breastfeeding is mandatory. It also mandates that the baby sleep in the same bed as the parents so that it can feed whenever it’s hungry – considered dangerous by some as the baby could smother.

So far so uncontroversial, besides the sleeping arrangements dilemma. But the third method, based on a book by Truby King, is off the planet – a draconian, militaristic view that discourages bonding between parent and child and has been thoroughly scientifically discredited. Blogger Poor Pothecary has charted reactions to this method as practised on the program, including complaints from professional organisations.

Unscientific and dangerous
Truby King’s method, apparently widely followed in the 1950s, entails leaving the baby alone in a pram outside for hours to get ‘fresh air’, minimising cuddling, feeding strictly every four hours and leaving the baby alone to scream its lungs out for hours if need be.

Claire Verity, the ‘mentor’ who pushes this method, earns thousands of pounds for teaching parents to basically abuse their children. The method also includes the baby sleeping in a separate bedroom; the Times reports that the Foundation for the Study of Infant Deaths warned Channel 4 that this advice was putting babies’ lives at risk. In addition, feeding only every four hours can result in failure to thrive and could be life endangering for premature babies.

The method is also unscientific in that leaving babies to cry and providing minimal contact has been proven to leave them open to psychological problems in later life.

Calling herself a ‘maternity nurse’, Verity has since been investigated by Channel 4 and found to have lied about the raft of childcare qualifications she claims to have garnered. The anger that her appearance on the series generated was so great that a large baby show being held in London cancelled her scheduled appearance for her own safety.

What angers me about Bringing Up Baby is that the abuse of helpless children that Verity oversees was planned for the titillation (sorry about the pun) of viewers. Controversy for its own sake is a principle in the ascendant across all media, including respectable broadsheets, which have regular columnists who present unsubstantiated, extreme opinions, including climate change denial, because such extremity sells newspapers.

This attitude, replicated in Bringing Up Baby, reduces the quality of public debate, which requires an understanding of nuance, detail and grey areas if it is to enhance democracy. The extreme method demonstrated on the show is there simply to increase audience numbers, yet has already harmed the babies who had no choice but to be part of the show. In addition, it may have detrimentally affected the parenting styles of those viewers unaware of Verity's lack of authority to provide advice in this area.

But for the ABC to repeat this dangerous deception and expose Australian babies to dangerous parenting practices, particularly as Verity herself has since been exposed, beggars belief.

Verity doesn’t simply disregard parents’ instincts, she positively spits on them. She states with a chilling surety, again and again, that the baby doesn’t need to be cuddled (you may as well substitute ‘loved’ for ‘cuddled’): it needs to be warm, fed, in a routine and left alone. She makes the controversial ‘controlled crying’ method look positively permissive.

This is a woman who has never had children of her own and therefore has no firsthand experience of the strength of parental instincts and the cost, to parent and child, of disregarding them. It is clear to me that she is deeply injured and is taking out her fury at her own neglect on the babies unlucky enough to come under her care. And indeed, she was apparently brought up using Truby King's method.

I feel guilty watching this show because it basically facilitates child abuse for my entertainment. Almost certainly the parents who chose this method wouldn’t have followed it if it wasn’t for the show. All they started with was a general inclination for discipline and order (one at least seems to have chosen it because of the need to go back to work soon after the birth). They clearly had no idea what was in store for them or the poor baby.

I'm about to make a strong complaint to the ABC about screening this show and I'd ask anyone else in Australia reading this to do the same.

Stop press: Not surprisingly, Australian viewers started googling Verity after the first episode of Bringing Up Baby was screened, and the ABC received a flood of complaints. Following these complaints the ABC inserted a long and convoluted disclaimer at the beginning of the program. The issue was aired last night on Media Watch, a show that highlights poor performance in Australian media. According to Media Watch,the disclaimer clearly indicated that the ABC shouldn't have bought the program in the first place.


  1. I found this post because I have a Google Alert for "failure to thrive" but I was really interested in the Spock-babies being carried around concept.

    I work with children with developmental problems and one of the two interventions I use which consistently gets their developmental process back on track is rhythmic activity. I have long thought that children today do not get enough early rhythmic stimulation. Being left in a playpen or moved around in a stroller does not give some children the rhythmic stimulation needed for appropriate development. You can read more at

  2. It's a shame the program didn't deal with findings such as the one you've outlined. Researchers must be making new discoveries about babies' needs all the time -- why not a program that puts the best of such discoveries into practice and not the worst of the out-of-date ones?

  3. Actually I'm really glad the ABC showed this program, as it has helped me to identify a huge part of my upbringing. I was born in 1953 & raised in New Zealand, & my mother (with the best of intentions) followed the current practices of Plunket & Karitane, & followed the Truby King method. I think she abandoned it after I had anaphylaxis at 6 mths. My brother born 9 mths later certainly wasn't subjected to the same harsh treatment.
    We now know the downside of such a rigid method, & wouldn't advocate such cruelty to newborns. But for those of us living with the results of surviving Truby King, we can now identify what probably caused some psychological traumas & find treatments eg CBT to deal with them.