The Secret Life of the Unborn Child

is fascinating, infuriating, stimulating, controversial, and perplexing. It is, in short, good reading. But I hesitate to classify it as a "parenting" book, since the people least likely to benefit from it are, I think, new parents. For a pregnant woman, the book's theme can seem a frightening one: Everything she thinks and feels, say the authors, is transmitted to her unborn child and helps shape his personality. This is intended as a message of hope-- as the authors write, "by creating a warm, emotionally enriching environment in utero, a woman can make a decisive difference in everything her child feels, hopes, dreams, thinks and accomplishes throughout life"--but to an anxious expectant mother, it can seem quite otherwise. Already conscious that everything she eats, drinks, breathes, and smokes will affect her unborn child, what woman can bear knowing that she has to be careful about what she thinks as well?

Unwittingly, this book can erase the calming influence of a dozen good baby books. Other books, for example, soothe the frazzled mother of a colicky, hard-to- please infant by assuring her it's not her fault; some babies are just born fussy. But this book says the mother may have created the fretfulness in her child by transmitting to him, during her pregnancy, her ambivalent feelings about motherhood, making him fearful to emerge into a world in which he knew he was unwelcome.

Dr. Thomas Verny is a Toronto psychiatrist who, with science writer John Kelly, sets out to describe the sophisticated mental and emotional equipment of the unborn and newborn child. The authors use scores of biomedical studies to back up their often bold assertions. They refer, for instance, to an Austrian study in which 141 pregnant women were divided into four "emotional categories": ideal mothers (who wanted their babies, both consciously and unconsciously); ambivalent mothers (who consciously wanted their babies, but unconsciously did not); cool mothers (who consciously did not want their babies, but unconsciously did); and catastrophic mothers (who didn't want their babies at all). Ideal mothers were found to have "the easiest pregnancies, the most trouble-free births, and the healthiest offspring-- physically and emotionally." Catastrophic mothers "bore the highest rate of premature, low-weight, and emotionally disturbed infants." And, somewhat surprisingly, conflicted mothers bore babies with significantly more problems too. When mothers unconsciously rejected their fetuses, even when to the outside world the pregnancy was a wanted one, newborns were more likely to have behavioral and gastrointestinal problems. And when mothers really wanted their babies, even though they said otherwise, their newborns tended to be apathetic and lethargic.

This study, say the authors, "shows the very fine emotional distinctions the fetus is capable of." A woman may pretend she really wants--or doesn't want--the baby she's carrying, but a fetus can't be fooled. The authors cite other studies as further evidence of the fetus' uncanny ability to read his mother's mind. In one, fetal heartrates increased (a sign of fetal distress) not only when their mothers smoked, but when their mothers even thought about lighting a cigarette. And in another, fetuses responded to their mothers' terror--sparked by a doctor's announcement that the fetus had stopped moving--within seconds of its onset, by kicking actively. "Very likely," the authors conclude about the latter study, "part of (the fetus') reaction was due to the rise in maternal adrenaline levels produced by (the doctor's) frightening announcement, but only part. On another level, these children were reacting sympathetically to their mothers' distress."

I'd have been more comfortable with this book if Verny and Kelly had stuck with physiological explanations for the mother-child bond, in which the infusion of certain brain chemicals across the placenta induce in the fetus an emotional state that mimics that of the mother. But the authors venture, often heedlessly, into the uncharted terrain of prenatal psychology, ascribing to the fetus the ability to differentiate self from non-self, to empathize with his mother, and to experience such complex emotions as sadness. This requires a leap of faith from the reader, one that all but the already- converted may be unwilling to make. At the same time, though, this new and controversial field is what makes the book most compelling, and most worth reading and thinking about.

Playful Parenting, like The Secret Life, has the potential to create unnecessary guilt in a parent/reader, but it does so on quite another level. When the book is read straight through, the way a reviewer reads it, it is exhausting. Can there really be parents out there who spend up to one-half hour a day in organized play with their infants, and as long as an hour each day in organized play with their toddlers? Are other mothers and fathers willing to purchase elaborate gym equipment--including, by the time a child is 11/2 years old, a parachute, three tires, bolsters, wedges, big and small ladders, and a homemade balance beam-- and to set aside a special room just for "playful parenting"? The parents who don't approach "play" this enthusiastically (who are, I suspect, in the distinct majority) might read this book and wonder, What's wrong with me? If I don't take my five-month-old through all the prescribed paces--including games like "Upsy Dubsy," "Pully Wully," and "Tumbleweed"--will my baby ever learn to crawl?

Guilt-tripping aside, however, Playful Parenting is a good resource book for parents who are looking for a way to corral and stimulate a rollicking child. It's comprehensive, lavishly illustrated, clever (though often cloyingly so), and imaginative, probably most useful for parents involved in neighborhood play groups and looking for an alternative to disorganized socializing. And, if the progression of the exercises is any indication, all the hours spent in play seem to have an enormous payoff. By the time a toddler is 16 months old (the age my cautious daughter was when she started walking), he's expected to be able to turn a forward somersault over a bolster, walk a balance beam alone, climb a ladder unassisted, and perform a handwalk on a plank while a parent holds his legs. The book also includes suggestions for stimulating a young child's smelling, touching, seeing, hearing, speaking, and socializing skills, but the physical challenges it presents, covering ages six weeks to three years, are what make the book unique.

Quite a different, and much less satisfying, book is To Love a Baby. This book is beautiful to look at, with full- page photographs of parents and infants falling in love with each other, but the text is full of psychobabble. Here, for instance, is Sandy Jones, author of two previous baby books, describing the process of "bonding" with a newborn: "In the moments after birth, try holding yourself back in centeredness rather than overwhelming your sensitive baby with your words or your need to relate to him. . . . Open your center to receive the specific energy gifts he is prepared to give you. As a new mother, allow your pulsing womb to speak to him, your tingling breasts, your eyes." It goes on like this for more than 100 pages, sounding more like a description of a California encounter group than like what really goes on in the homes and hospitals of most new parents.

The touchy-feely tone of the book is especially confusing in light of its excellent reference section. Here, Jones becomes straightforward and professional, describing in crisp prose the findings of 60 studies in various aspects of the parent-child bond. She has found some exciting research that supports her belief that infants need much skin contact, rocking, carrying, swaddling, nursing, and cuddling to ease the transition from the womb to the world. The studies, fully referenced and intelligently summarized, provide a first-rate guide for new parents or for anyone studying very young babies. But a $17 book really should be more than an illustrated bibliography.

For the money, the slim guidebooks of Dr. George E. Verrilli and Anne Marie Mueser are a better idea. Each of them-- While Waiting and Welcome Baby is $5, and together they can carry an expectant couple through pregnancy and the first six weeks of parenthood. The sections are brief and to-the-point, covering such essentials as nutrition for the pregnant woman and for the newborn, food additives to avoid, details of labor and delivery, and the care and handling of a new baby. Welcome Baby also lists other books that may help readers seeking more information on breastfeeding, infant development, or parenting of twins. Each book is good for those who want a quick description of what their unborn or newborn children need, but it may be insufficient for those who want more of the "why" to supplement the "how."

The last book, Your One-Year-Old, attempts to provide the same snappy guidance for parents of older babies--aged 12 to 24 months--but it's a bit old-fashioned. While I applaud the authors' casual approach to baby play--"spend a lot of time with your baby; be enthusiastic and interested. . . . Play with him or her in ways which come naturally to you. You do not need much learning equipment or fancy toys"--I shudder at some of its suggestions. Dr. Louise Bates Ames and the late Dr. Frances L. Ilg, who were co-directors of the Gesell Institute of Child Development, recommend such mothering "techniques" as liberal use of the playpen, judicious use of a harness, and folding gates to keep 18-month-olds off the stairs and out of the bathroom. This runs counter to the current trend in baby advice, which is to allow young children to explore a house made safe for roaming, and to learn the meaning of the word "No."

The arrangement of the book, with separate chapters on a one-year-old's accomplishments, routines, mental life, and individuality, makes for a lot of repetition, but the book is short and easy to skim. I do like its rather quaint tone, and its gentle reminder that "it is not entirely to your credit if your child is witty, happy, and wise. Nor is it to your discredit if he or she is quite otherwise." Unlike many other such books, especially The Secret Life of the Unborn Child, this book (like the others in the Ames and Ilg series, which now takes a child year-by-year up to age six) frees parents of apprehensions and self-consciousness about molding their children, and allows them, simply, to enjoy them.y