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

4.17  ·  Rating details ·  1,899 ratings  ·  228 reviews
New parents are faced with innumerable decisions to make regarding the best way to care for their baby, and, naturally, they often turn for guidance to friends and family members who have already raised children. But as scientists are discovering, much of the trusted advice that has been passed down through generations needs to be carefully reexamined.

A thought-provoking c
Paperback, 320 pages
Published May 4th 1999 by Anchor (first published April 13th 1998)
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Apr 20, 2010 added it
Shelves: health, parenting
I'm not sure how many stars to give this book, because I had very mixed reactions. The earlier parts of this book are full of interesting biological and anthropological descriptions of (1) evolutionary and biological information about babies, and (2) how parents in various cultures care for babies. Totally fascinating, well-described, and exuding open-mindedness and curiosity about the wonder of human biology and the rich variety of human behavior.

Then, suddenly, the book changes, and the second
Feb 26, 2009 rated it it was amazing
This is the book I like to give every pregnant friend. When you have a child, you inevitably receive a lot of well-intentioned advice. Writing from a biological anthropologist's point of view, Small helps you pick apart which bits of wisdom are cultural (which is not to say that they should be discarded!) and which are more naturally aligned with babies' basic biological design.

This crucial knowledge, which most parents and even pediatricians do not possess, will help make some aspects of babie
Jan 08, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Written by an anthropologist, this is an intriguing account of how humans care for infants, from a cross-cultural and evolutionary perspective. It begins by providing a fascinating summary of infant care in several diverse cultures including three hunter-gatherer societies and the modern industrial societies of Japan and the U.S. The variety of practices described, not only of caring for the young, but also related to social structure, mating, pregnancy, and birth made for some interesting readi ...more
Jun 06, 2012 rated it liked it
This was a really thought-provoking read that overall I enjoyed quite a lot. But I feel like she frequently repeated herself; by the end I was pretty tired of hearing about the !Kung San, and wished I had skimmed rather than read the whole thing. Also, despite her overall commitment to a scientific approach, she did use fairly biased/loaded language in her treatment of Western practices. I often agreed with her, but it seemed a bit heavy handed.
Michael Burnam-Fink
Nov 27, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: parenting, 2020
It is a pleasure to read an interesting academic book on babies. Small is an actual professor (well, was, emeritus now) of anthropology at Cornell, and this book is a popular gloss on ethnopediatrics, the anthropological subfield focusing on childrearing.

The first two chapters are a quick survey of the underlying theoretical perspectives. From an evolutionary perspective, humans are intelligent bipedal apes, and this basic biology informs the limits of what can pass through the birth canal. Hum
Nov 22, 2011 rated it liked it
Shelves: parenting, adult
There is so much that I agree with in this book. I loved reading about the anthropological support for the idea that attachment parenting is what is best for babies, and I really enjoyed reading about how babies are cared for in some non-Western cultures today (though I would have enjoyed reading about more of them and also about Western countries other than the U.S.)

That being said, I did find some significant flaws with this book. For one thing, Meredith Small asserts at times that all parenti
Kelly Holmes
Jan 19, 2009 rated it it was amazing
This was a fascinating read. The author relates the parenting practices of different cultures around the world and talks about how certain parenting styles are due to the biology of human babies. As a simple example, babies were designed to be breastfed, biologically speaking. But in Western cultures, we've decided to diverge from those biologically-based practices to gain more convenience and independence from the traditionally more intimate parent-infant relationship. I like how the author say ...more
Oct 02, 2009 rated it liked it
Well, nothing to make you feel insecure about your own parenting than reading about cultures where the kids get held for 3x the amount of US kids, and only cry for a few seconds at a time. Gives you something to think about, but I don't think I'll be very successful at this until I have a whole village to pass my kid along to, or at least a back strong enough to wear a sling for more than half an hour.

So far, long on introduction - as in, I read the intro and am now 60 or so pages in and still
Mar 06, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Excellent! A review of the way humans around the world parent, including hunter/gatherer tribes and Western, industrialized countries. It is shocking how backwards many American traditions are. Why are we more concerned about facilitating a child's independence over their emotional security and well-being? That is the path that we are on when we stop breastfeeding a few months after birth, leave infants to sleep alone in separate rooms, and spend just twenty percent of the time in physical conta ...more
Sep 19, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Readable, informative, interesting, fact-based - what's not to love? ...more
Nov 30, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Great book even for us dads!
May 26, 2010 rated it it was amazing
I wish I had read this book before I had babies, but I'm definitely glad I'm reading it when they're still little. It is about the field of ethnopediatrics, the comparative study of parenting across cultures, with the ultimate goal of determining where mismatches between biology and culture exist so that we can better meet our babies' needs.

A major tenet of Small's argument is that the biology of babies has evolved at a pace much slower than our culture's technology and lifestyle. As a result,
Jun 04, 2008 rated it really liked it
Recommended to Regina by: parents
This book is better than the usual pop psychology book on parenting. It is essentially a review of the relatively new field of ethnopediatrics by an anthropologist. It tackles the nature/nurture question head on and makes some truly subtle points in places. At times the author lapses into vague generalizations about our Pleistocene past determining our current biological drives. And rather suprisingly, given that the author is a female anthropologist, some of the discussions about co-sleeping et ...more
Dec 03, 2010 rated it it was ok
Shelves: parenting
If I could rate this 2.5 stars I would....

What I liked: the examples of how a variety of world cultures approach major parenting choices such as breastfeeding, babywearing, and bedtime/sleep issues. Really fascinating to read, and a variety of different approaches can still lead to healthy, happy, well-adjusted children! I wish she'd focused more on this aspect and left the other stuff out.

What was interesting but I'm on the fence about it: the evolutionary biology stuff. It was interesting to r
Mar 24, 2009 rated it really liked it
This book was really good but, a bit hard to get into. Its also a little academic. That said, I think it really challenged me, was full of very stimulating meaty research and kind of changed my perspective as a parent. I've always leaned towards attachment parenting and felt a little disjointed from much of common American parenting philosophy, but this book pushed me even further into that camp. I felt like reading the careful research on cultures around the world and how they raise children re ...more
Mar 11, 2013 rated it it was amazing
An ethnopediatric argument for reevaluating the ways we in the West have been taught to care for babies, combining evidence from anthropology, evolutionary biology, and pediatrics. The author makes a strong argument for immediate contact with the infant after birth, co-sleeping, continuous feeding (or as close as possible to it), and responding quickly to cries, and uses case studies from !Kung San people in Africa, Japanese parents, and American parents to demonstrate how extremely different pa ...more
Aug 18, 2010 rated it really liked it
Shelves: parenting
"Culture should not be a dictator but a facilitator," according to the author of this really interesting book. Small looks at many different cultures and the lessons they bring to raising babies, along with why each culture may have different approaches (e.g. longer term societal goals not just short-term goals for not crying). She encourages parents to question their own cultures, to seek what is best for the child and to examine what our parental goals may be. While I may not adopt all of her ...more
Aug 13, 2009 rated it really liked it
I read this book when my son was around 5 months old - so that was over a year and a half ago. In the sea of parenting books that are constantly shoved in our faces as new mothers, this one was like a life preserver for me! Learning a little about how people of all different cultures all over the world raise their children helped me to let go of some of the ideas our society has put into my head over the years about how I was "supposed to" parent my son. As a first time and kind of high strung m ...more
David Schwan
Oct 15, 2013 rated it really liked it
This book broadly covers the ideas of ethnopediatrics, the study of how child rearing practices differ around the world. There were two areas where it is obvious the Americans (and some related groups) fundamentally differ from the rest of the world in child rearing practices, feeding (including breast feeding) and sleep practices. The American notions on child sleep and eating practices seem to stem from puritanical beliefs and are not grounded in biology. American doctors recommend child reari ...more
Jan 08, 2013 rated it liked it
Shelves: read-2013
I appreciated the break from the normal pregnancy books with this one... But I was hoping for something a little more enlightening. But I felt like the most interesting points about other cultures were discussed in the preface. It did give me some things to think about related to breastfeeding and co-sleeping. I can't believe America is the only culture where co-sleeping doesn't really happen. And the idea that babies need co-sleeping so they can learn to breathe since they aren't completely dev ...more
Aug 27, 2012 rated it it was ok
I felt like this book tried to be both academic and parent-friendly and missed the mark on both. Much of it was repetitive with minimal breakthrough concepts. It focused a great deal on parenting in developing nations - but was done in a manner that really was offensive to Western culture. With the breadth of material on this subject I wouldn't recommend reading this book. ...more
Jan 08, 2014 rated it it was amazing
So I’m having my first baby in 10 weeks time (assuming punctuality on the part of my unborn daughter). As the oldest of 5 with an extensive track record of babysitting my own and other similarly Catholic (i.e. large) families I’d like to think I’ve got an advantage when it comes down to some of the nuts and bolts of basic baby maintenance. I can bottle feed, burp, bathe, and change a mean diaper. I have experienced the existential horror that is a baby that won’t stop crying.

I have never actuall
Apr 10, 2021 added it
I'm not going to rate this book because I couldn't finish it. I've been having a hard time finishing books lately so I'd give this the benefit of the doubt but it certainly wasn't for me.

Firstly, this book is not an objective portrayal of different parenting methods. The author clearly has a bias. Now there is nothing wrong with arguing for your point of view but based on the summary that was not what I was expecting.

Secondly, this book is out of date. It was published in 1998 and a lot has ch
May 21, 2018 rated it it was ok
While the premise of the book (examining cross cultural variation in parenting practices) is interesting, the book is overly repetitive and academic. The first 70 or so pages read like an introduction to anthropology - something I’ve already covered in my university days and certainly not necessary for preparing for parenthood. The experimental evidence in the book is dated, and the author seems to have cherry picked studies to support their view which becomes obvious early on: as much as they t ...more
Jul 25, 2017 rated it it was amazing
I really enjoyed everything in this book. Written from an anthropological point of view, the reader is introduced to different ways of parenting and how, while there is no right or wrong in the decisions that parents make, most of our seemingly logical choices are culturally influenced and regularly clash with how human babies have evolved to act and respond.
Definitely food for thought. Personally, I am now more convinced than before of the benefits of "on-demand" (rather "on cue") feeding, brea
Oct 27, 2016 rated it liked it
Great overview of the anthropology of parenting worldwide, with lots of mini-ethnographies showing the difference between cultures. Despite the intention to reassure and show that there's no one right way to parent, it does tend to have the vibe that Western parents are doing it all wrong, so take with a grain of salt. ...more
Emily Monroe
Sep 27, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Though it took me a while to get through this book it was very worthwhile. The font is small and the author covered a LOT in 232 pages. I appreciated Small's writing style and interpretation of scientific research into common English. This was an educational read about parenting in several cultures and I picked up a new understanding of how both human biology and my culture affect my parenting. ...more
Shanda Scherdin
Aug 15, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
An ethnopediatric (combining fields of anthropology and pediatrics) look at parenting babies. This is my kinda book. (I’m a parenting nerd, friends! A human-ing nerd, maybe.) I love having my parenting choices informed from a large context (across cultures and history) and this book gives exactly that.
Sep 10, 2019 rated it it was amazing
I appreciated the anthropology in this book, and found the examples of various baby-care and parenting styles from around the world really fascinating. I also appreciated Small's gentle respect for parenting while also providing "alternative" perspectives on what might be best for the parent-child dyad. ...more
Esther Piñero
May 30, 2019 rated it it was amazing
One of the best books I have been recommended ever in my life. It really helped me clarify why my instincts were telling me opposite things to the people around me. Motherhood is inside us. We just need to listen to our wisdom. And all this is scientifically explained through anthropology.
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Meredith F. Small is a science journalist, anthropologist, professor emerita Cornell University, and a visiting scholar at the University of Pennsylvania. Although well known for her award winning magazine writing, she is also the author of several trade books that take an anthropological look at parenting, sexuality, and mental illness. Her book Our Babies, Ourselves has been called a "cult class ...more

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