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Beginnings Guides Blog

Health Literacy & Advice for New Parents: Then and Now

I visited my parents last week. Mom had been going through the “keepsakes”. She had
the letters my third grade classmates wrote to me when I had my tonsils out; they said
I missed a geography test. And every poem I wrote in high school. Piles of stuff. Including
the “Baby’s Book” she got from the hospital when my brother was born, copyright 1959,
revised 1961.

Health Literacy: The “Baby’s Book” (36 pages self-cover) fails the SAM – Suitability
Assessment of Materials for evaluation of health information for adults. Today’s conscientious
health literacy practitioner would edit out the long complex sentences, uncommon words,
gender bias and patronizing tone. S/he would acknowledge the presence of poverty, diversity
and unplanned pregnancy. She would insert some interaction to stimulate learning. She would
select illustrations that model desired behaviors in specific ways and give them captions.
S/he would consider reading gravity in the page layouts. Regarding the readability of health
information, we’ve come a long way.

A panel of independent experts rated Beginnings Pregnancy Guide Superior on all 22 factors
rated by the SAM. These factors work together to make health information more or less
useful to a particular audience. Click here for other aids to evaluate the usefulness of the
information you give to new parents.

Surprising Content: The “Baby’s Book” of 1961 reflects the times, so some concepts are
surprising to see now: Babies cry for exercise. Telephone the doctor to avoid an unnecessary
house call. Keep the baby in a playpen so he can learn to play quietly in his safe space. The
drawing of a baby of uncertain age wearing a grocer’s hat and apron with a bowtie and holding
a steak as big as his head.

(Lack of) Content on Breastfeeding shows the historical background of the current MCH
paradox in which every health authority in the developed world recommends 6 months of
exclusive breastfeeding as the foundation for child development and adult health while U.S.
healthcare institutions and professionals continue to help manufacturers promote formula
(See postings of July 26 and 28.)

Gerber Baby Foods produced the “Baby’s Book”. The first edition was published in 1935.
The revised edition was given to my mother as she left the hospital with my new baby
brother in 1962. Here is the only sentence about breastfeeding:

Sometimes the breast milk is not sufficient in quantity or quality, especially as the
baby gets older.

This statement is preceded by a list of “supplementary foods” a baby needs “in the early
months” including orange juice, cereal, strained vegetables, fruits, meat; all Gerber
products. The statement suggesting the inadequacy of mothers’ milk is followed by two
pages of instructions on boiling bottles and nipples and mixing formula, holding a baby while
bottle feeding, and getting a 4-month old to eat vegetables.

It’s easy to explain away this misinformation-for-profit as immature science or part of the
1960s Mad Men mentality. Except that healthcare organizations still are sending mothers
home with formula and only 13% of babies are exclusively breastfed for 6 months according
to national and international guidelines.  

Reference:  Davis, H. (1961) Baby’s Book. Gerber Baby Foods, Freemont, MI.

EARNEST YOUNG PARENTS are sometimes rather overwhelmed with the seriousness of
their responsibility and are not able to enjoy their babies as much as they should. It is
most desirable and sensible that instructions on feeding and general care be followed
conscientiously….                                                                      
(excerpt for Baby Book, 1961)
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