Until recently, researchers showed a breathtaking disregard for the issues that most concern parents and even now there remain many fundamentals that have been ignored. This means that the babycare books on which you may rely for advice cannot be much founded on hard science. Take that hardy perennial, "infant-centred" versus "stricter, routine-based" care during the first six months of life (in crude babycare book terms, Penny Leach versus Gina Ford).
Ford advises some parents to leave their very young infants to cry themself to sleep, asserting that "provided your baby has been well fed, and that you have followed the routines regarding awake periods and wind-down time, your baby will not suffer psychological damage". But when I questioned Ford, she admitted that her method is primarily founded on her experience as a maternity nurse, not controlled studies. Her approach may make working mothers feel more in control but that does not mean it works or that it does no harm to the baby.
I recently had to trawl through the international academic journals and could only find four studies which address the relative effectiveness of demand-led care versus imposed regimes in reducing crying and getting infants to sleep during the first few months. Only one of them supported Ford.
From birth onwards, the mothers of 13 babies followed very detailed instructions to offer a "focal feed" between 10pm and midnight and to gradually lengthen the gaps between middle-of-the-night feeds by using alternative methods, such as reswaddling or nappy changes. By eight weeks of age, all these babies were sleeping through the night compared with only one quarter of a control group of 13 other mothers who were given no such instructions.
This finding - based on a tiny sample - was at least partly gainsayed by the three other studies which found that rapid and sensitive maternal responses to infant cries predicted less crying. In one example, during the first 12 weeks there was nearly half as much daily and evening fussing or crying in babies of mothers who pick the baby up whenever it cried. The normal pattern of a build-up to a six-week peak for crying was halved by such care.
But this handful of studies hardly prove Leach right and Ford wrong, as Leach is the first to agree. While citing anthropological accounts (and her own experience) of the lack of crying in those developing societies where babies are constantly held, Leach told me, "The hard science isn't really there. Definitive studies have just not been done."
Alas, there has been contemplation of academic tummy buttons rather than answers to the questions which tax parents, especially in Britain. Where is the evidence of the long-term effects of breast versus bottle? Of forced versus gradual potty training? Of hostile versus benign parental response to the normal sex games of their 3 to 5-year-old children? What is the ideal age gap between children? What might be the lifelong emotional consequences of complying with increased demands to pressure children to do well at exams, starting at what age, using what methods?
The fundamental problem is that until recently, believe it or not, the vast majority of academics did not accept that what goes on between parents and children in the early years is terribly important in determining how they turn out, especially the doctors controlling research purse-strings. Vast sums have been spent on investigating the role of genes and a large majority of the remainder tends to go on studying how the mind works, not the impact of early parental care on emotional wellbeing.
However, there is an expanding cadre of mostly American researchers who do investigate matters of interest to parents (notable British exceptions are Peter Fonagy at University College London and Kathy Sylva - with Penny Leach - at Oxford). In the past decade, some gripping results have been published. For example, it has now been shown that the care you provide in the first three years has a greater effect than that provided in the second three, which in turn, has a greater effect than the next three.
There is also growing evidence that enduring patterns of electricity and chemistry in our minds and bodies are shaped by different childcare experiences. On average, a girl whose father leaves the family home before she is 10 comes into puberty six months before a girl from an intact family. However, it's not just divorce that affects this. In intact families, if the girl's father is a distant figure she is also likely to come into puberty early.
In the months to come I shall be trawling through the journals in search of the sparkling nuggets to be found amid the academic chaff. Inside track will supply the evidence you would never normally see.