Does This Baby Come with Instructions? 5 Great Books for the First Year

When I was pregnant with my first baby, I went into full-on research mode. It was impossible not to – I am a planner by nature and a researcher by training. I like logic, practicality, science, and questions that have answers. Some of you can see where this is going.

I had no idea what to do with a baby.

The scientist in me went looking for information. I scoured blogs, websites, forums, and books. I questioned my friends and family who’d had babies and asked for opinions. I went to childbirth classes, and, once the baby was born, to mom groups. Some of what I learned was very helpful, but some of it was not.

The most valuable nugget of parenting wisdom I picked up, though, was that every baby and every family are different. Schedules, values, goals, personalities and temperaments, family dynamics, resources, and limitations all vary widely from one family to the next. What works great for one family may not work at all for another. Even within the same family, what works great for one baby may not work at all for the next.

As I was preparing for our second baby’s arrival, I revisited the books that ended up being lifesavers for my family the first time around. With the above caveat in mind, I am sharing my top five picks for parents of babies.

1. Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child by Marc Weissbluth

If there were one gift that I would give a new parent, it would be this book. I can’t emphasize enough how much it saved our sanity. Although we thought the sun shined out of her diaper, I know in retrospect that our first baby was a difficult baby. She would.not.sleep. She had to be held at all times, no matter what, so we could never put her down. The snuggles were nice, but it meant we never got any sleep. She had to be bounced for an entire hour before she would let herself drift off in my arms. (I bounced her so much on my exercise ball that one day it submitted its resignation papers in dramatic fashion by exploding underneath us.) If we did manage to put her in bed asleep, her eyes popped right open the second she touched the mattress. Even in our arms, she would only sleep for 45-minute stretches.

We swaddled, we shushed, we swung, we drove around in the car, we let her cry, we didn’t let her cry, WE cried…none of it worked, and we were at our wit’s end.  Then I found this book, and everything changed.

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There are approximately 1 million books on infant sleep, but what drew me to this one is that it is based on the biological science of sleep and research on real human babies. In writing that’s easy to understand, it describes how infant sleep is different than adult sleep and spells out a rough sleep schedule for various ages that helps babies avoid sleep problems. It explains that when we are tired but do not get to sleep soon enough, our bodies set biological processes in motion in order to help us stay awake. So, when babies are overtired, it’s actually going to be harder to get them to sleep than if you can catch them in just the right window of time. It teaches you how to recognize the early signs of tiredness so you can avoid the overtired state (hint: if they’re already crying, you’ve waited too long!).  

Unlike so many other sleep books, it doesn’t pass judgment on issues like feeding your baby to sleep, co-sleeping vs. sleeping alone, or crying it out.  It leaves the family values decisions up to you, and just explains what you need to know about when your baby’s body needs to sleep, and how you can help that happen.Photos Post-24

When we put the information in this book into practice, life changed dramatically. After a two-week transition period, our baby finally slept on her own, all night long for the first time, and she never stopped.  Sunshine and rainbows and baby unicorns came down from the heavens and we all basked in the warm glow of a full-night’s sleep after four long months of severe sleep deprivation. I would let you borrow my copy, but with a new baby in the house, you’d have to pry it from my cold, dead hands.

2. The Wonder Weeks by Hetty van de Rijt & Frans Plooij

Anyone who has interacted with babies knows that, at first glance, they are kind of just little blobs staring at the ceiling. New parents may wonder how on earth they are supposed to play with their blob. What is the blob interested in? What is it capable of learning and doing? This book answers those questions for the first one-and-a-half years of your precious blob’s life. It describes the leaps that babies make in their mental development at various ages, and explains that, prior to each of these leaps, babies may become very fussy. It predicts when to expect each of these periods, and gives you an action plan for interacting with your baby in ways that will satisfy Little Blobby’s new curiosities and capabilities. (Website here, if you’re interested.) 

3. Superbaby by Jenn Berman

This book could easily push you over into Tiger Mom territory if you’re not careful, so you’ll want to read it with a grain of salt.  That said, it’s an excellent guide for how you might parent in a perfect world. I do like it, and I take it as a good model to strive for, but I don’t follow it to the letter. If you’re interested in the critical windows of development and how to best take advantage of them, this book is for you. Just maybe read it with a glass of wine and your sensibilities handy.

4. Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting by Janet Lansbury

There are about as many parenting philosophies as there are parents in the world, so again, every family will want to find what works for them. Elevating Child Care is based on the RIE approach, which focuses on treating babies and children with respect as independent, individual people and partners in our relationships, young as they are. (I should clarify that this is different than permissive parenting, where the child runs the show!) If that idea appeals to you, this book will be very helpful. The book is a collection of the author’s blog posts, all focused on the baby stage. (She also has a book for the toddler stage, No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline Without Shame, that has been very helpful with my two-year-old.) She offers practical suggestions and real-life anecdotes that help move this approach from good-idea-in-theory to something that you can actually implement in your home.

5. Baby Bargains by Denise & Alan Fields

These days, it seems like a positive pregnancy test may as well read, “$$$$$.” For first-time parents, the amount of baby gear on the market can be overwhelming. Luckily, babies truly need very little, and the rest are really just small luxuries and conveniences for the parents. (Check out Jessi’s list of baby items she actually used.) That said, sometimes those conveniences are the path to a few hours of sleep or a shower at least once a week.  

You could spend hours shopping, researching, and comparing prices, but this book does all of that for you. The authors test every product imaginable, assign ratings, and provide three levels of their top recommendations (good, better, best). They also provide tips for saving money and finding bargains without sacrificing quality. It’s basically the best compromise imaginable for balancing your desire to research everything you might need with your desire to take a nap while someone else makes your decisions for you. (If you like the book, you may also be interested in their website.)


Again, every family is different, and you will have to find what works best for yours. But if you have no idea where to start or are looking for new ideas, hopefully one of these suggestions will speak to you. Now may we all get some sleep.

What are your favorite books or resources for getting through baby’s first year? Please share!


Kristin Flanary
Kristin met her husband in college at Texas Tech University, and they later moved to New Hampshire, where they earned his-and-hers advanced degrees (complete with matching towels) at Dartmouth. They had their first date on Valentine's Day, got engaged on Valentine's Day three years later, welcomed their first daughter (Charlotte) on Valentine's Day three years after that, and their second daughter (Claire) on Valentine's Day three years after that! Kristin and her family moved to Iowa City in 2014 so her husband could begin his residency at UIHC. She is currently laugh-crying her way through raising a threenager and an infant while simultaneously working full-time at the Belin-Blank Center for Gifted Education and Talent Development and juggling the crazy schedule of a resident's wife. Kristin has been a stay-at-home mom, a work-at-home mom, and work-outside-the-home mom, so she can officially judge that each scenario is hard and equally wonderful. In her free time, you can find Kristin either taking pictures and learning about photography, reading about how not to screw up her daughters, on her soapbox about women's rights, enjoying a hard-earned glass of wine, or collapsed from exhaustion. Her life is ridiculous and her heart is full.


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