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Our Babies, Ourselves: How Biology and…

Our Babies, Ourselves: How Biology and Culture Shape the Way We Parent

by Meredith Small

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Read introduction and chapters 4-6 (sleeping, crying, feeding) on Ben's recommendation.


What no one sees is the personal and cultural influences that have brought them to their opinions. (xv)

Infants can be at a disadvantages when...culturally imposed ways conflict with baby biology. Human infants are all biologically very similar in their needs: that is, they need food, sleep, and emotional attachment. (xvii)

Chapter 4: A Reasonable Sleep

In a healthy atmosphere, where parents are not intoxicated, on drugs, or obese, the chance of overlaying [rolling over on a baby and smothering it] is zero. If this is true, why does the myth persist? (122)

If an infant can be physiologically affected as a result of separation from its mother during the day, there may also be powerful effects from being separated during the night. (125)

...data so far suggests clear benefits to co-sleeping, as opposed to the mountain of myths that stop parents from sharing the night with their young ones. (136)

Chapter 5: Crybaby

[At three months, babies' crying shifts from "expressive" to "communicative" (different cries for different reasons)] (144)

New research...indicates that Western babies typically cry for long periods, and even develop "colic," because the accepted and culturally composed caretaking style is often at odds with infant biology. When an infant cries inconsolably for hours...we see the clearest example of the clash between biology and culture. The baby is responding to an environment that has been culturally altered, and for which it has not been biologically adapted....The infant is biologically adapted to expect the constant physical attachment and care within which the human infant evolved millions of years ago. (155)

It is not that babies have changed, but rather that the environment in which babies send their signals has been altered. (157)

Chapter 6: Food for Thought

As many pediatricians and hospital staff now know, the sucking reflex is strongest within the first thirty minutes after birth. Newborns placed directly on their mothers' bellies directly after birth [move toward the breast] when left on the mother's body for twenty minutes....[an] interruption in the loop can derail the whole process. (179)

When the milk is low in fat and protein, as it is in humans, it is an indication that breast-feeding is designated or intended to be more continuous. Human milk is 88 percent water and 4.5 percent fat on average, depending on the style of feeding; interval feeding with long spaces in between produces lower-fat milk, while continuous feeding produces higher-fat milk. (193)

In all cultures, women adapt their lifestyles to infant needs, and to an extent, infants adapt to their mothers' availability. (202)

In the 1800s, more than 95 percent of infants in the United States were breast-fed by their mothers and children were not weaned until they were two to four years old. Today, about half the infants born in the U.S. are breast-fed, and breast-feeding duration is relatively short, about four months for most babies. (204)

Humans evolved in such a way that babies were sustained on continuous feeding with a substance relatively low in fat and protein, a system that requires constant access to the mother. (212) ( )
  JennyArch | Jul 20, 2015 |
I read this for an anthropology class at my university. Although I'm many many years away from parenting, I consider reading it a paradigm-shifting moment. I have so many ideas now about how I want to raise my children. And although I try not to be a proselytizing student of anthropology, I cringe whenever I see babies crying alone in their strollers, neglected by their caregivers and the world around them. I have to resist the urge to shove this book in the parents' faces. Please parents and future-parents of the world, put down your [b:What to Expect When You're Expecting|174703|What to Expect When You're Expecting|Heidi Murkoff|http://photo.goodreads.com/books/1298458822s/174703.jpg|257399] and read [b:Our Babies, Ourselves: How Biology and Culture Shape the Way We Parent|407854|Our Babies, Ourselves How Biology and Culture Shape the Way We Parent|Meredith Small|http://photo.goodreads.com/books/1320470493s/407854.jpg|397161] instead. ( )
  IAmChrysanthemum | Jun 8, 2013 |
this is such an incredible book, despite its unfortunate title (it has nothing to do with the classic "our bodies, ourselves"). it is an anthropological look at parenting and is supported by evolutionary biology too. it is full of interesting facts, many pertaining to our unique (and sometimes bizarre) american parenting practices, such as putting babies to sleep in their own rooms. however, it does not take a judgmental tone and is neutral in its presentation of facts of child-rearing across cultures. i learned so much from reading this (for example, SIDS and colic are virtually unheard of among people who hold their infants more often, nurse regularly, and sleep next to them at night) and enthusiastically recommend it. ( )
  julierh | Apr 7, 2013 |
I will preface my review by saying that I recognize that I might be biased about this book because it reinforced many things about parenting that I already believe.

That being said, I really found this book enlightening. Small, an anthropologist at Cornell University, outlines research done here in the West about parenting practices and the nature of human infancy and describes parenting practices in cultures around the world. Her basic premise is that, while parents (and even those without children) often believe that there is a "right" way and a "wrong" way to raise children, what is right and wrong in parenting varies dramatically across cultures.

As a mother, I find myself now looking at my relationship with my daughter through a cultural lens. This book has helped shift my perspective so that I feel better able to recognize when I'm doing something contrary to the best interests of my family because of cultural influences, and I feel more free to make choices that contradict those paths deemed right by my culture. I've actually reevaluated our family's sleeping arrangements when I realized that the changes I had made and was planning to make in the near future were more based on cultural pressures than on what seemed right for my family.

I especially appreciated the inclusion of James McKenna's research on cosleeping/infant sleep. Small's discussion of SIDS was much more logical and based more on research and evidence than a lot of the information parents receive about SIDS from physicians and public health agencies, which is often way too dependent upon scare tactics, in my opinion.

For those interested in reading more about James McKenna's research and about safe cosleeping, check out his 2007 book, Sleeping With Your Baby: A Parent's Guide. ( )
  ImperfectCJ | Dec 31, 2012 |
This book provides a fascinating perspective on the effects of biology on culture and vice versa. The author cites studies, and provides explanations of biological processes, that all relate to the questions of how babies grow, develop, and learn, and how the different attitudes toward childrearing in different cultures affect babies, adults, and society. There is some really interesting information here and it is especially enlightening to read about other cultures -- some fairly similar to ours, some radically different -- and how people in those societies conceptualize babies, parenthood, infant behavior, and so forth.

As a parent in modern Western society, if you are familiar with the concepts/philosophies of "attachment parenting," you will find a lot of the ideas in this book familiar and validating. From that perspective it can sometimes feel like the author is subtly pushing an agenda -- this might be the book itself, or might just be in the eye of the beholder. Certainly the author does a good job of presenting the pro's and con's of particular parenting practices from the perspective of the Western world (for example: breast-feeding is widely acknowledged as superior nutritionally, but can be difficult to manage in the context of a working parent's lifestyle). What is perhaps most interesting about this book is the way it really highlights the fact that most things we might think of as universal -- our ideas of how a baby "should" fit into a family unit, how parents "should" raise a child, and so forth -- are very much cultural constructs. This book is bound to get any intelligent person thinking, and prompt him/her to take a hard look at his/her assumptions about parenting, and about society's attitudes toward children in general.

As another reviewer wrote, the book does get repetitive at times and tends in certain sections to rely too heavily on a single researcher or study. In a few places the same information is reiterated repeatedly over the course of a chapter or section. On the whole, though, it's a very worthwhile read for anyone, parent or no. ( )
  mamajoan | May 7, 2008 |
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0385483627, Paperback)

How we raise our children differs greatly from society to society, with many cultures responding differently to such questions as how a parent should respond to a crying child, how often a baby should be nursed, and at what age a child should learn to sleep alone. Ethnopediatrics--the study of parents, children, and child rearing across cultures--is the subject of anthropologist Meredith F. Small's thorough and fascinating book Our Babies, Ourselves.

Small asserts that our ideas about how to raise our kids are as much a result of our culture as our biology, and that, in fact, many of the values we place on child-rearing practices are based in culture rather than biology. Small writes, "Every act by parents, every goal that molds that act, has a foundation in what is appropriate for that particular culture. In this sense, no parenting style is 'right' and no style is 'wrong.' It is appropriate or inappropriate only according to the culture." Our Babies, Ourselves is a wonderful read for anyone interested in the social sciences, and will be especially meaningful to those swept up in the wild adventure of parenting. --Ericka Lutz

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:16:07 -0400)

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"In the winter of 1995, in a dimly lit room in Atlanta, Georgia, I witnessed a birth. Not the birth of a baby, but of a new science, ethnopediatrics." Thus begins Dr. Meredith F. Small's new book on the study of parents and infants across cultures and the way different caretaking styles affect the health, well-being, and survival of infants. Each culture, and often each family, offers advice and directives on the right and wrong way to raise and care for infants, from feeding, interaction, and emotional support to mandating what is normal in terms of infant sleeping, crying, and more. Yet scientists are finding that what we are taught is the right way to parent our children is often based on nothing more than cultural tradition - and may even run counter to a baby's biological needs. Written for parents and science lovers alike, Our Babies, Ourselves shows what makes us bring up our kids the way we doand what is actually best for babies.… (more)

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