baby proof: what to read when you’re expecting.

May 17, 2017

Whether you’re carrying the child yourself and preparing for childbirth, or expecting a baby who will arrive in another kind of way, here’s a petite list of reading that I found to be helpful and inspiring while waiting on babies to arrive myself. 

For my part, checking in with a manual to calm nerves about every strange tug or pull in pregnancy only inspired more of them (nerves, not tugs, though I swear the two can be related). I never had any interest in books that told me what kind of schedule I should plan to feed my kid on, or if I was doing sleep right. I didn’t really want to read about every possible gestational hiccup that could be coming my way. 

But there were other kinds of books that did feel at least a little bit helpful. Books that humanized the mothers (and the impending babies) were especially welcome to me. These books all embraced pleasantries and unpleasantries, but unless I’m too inured to recognize it, none of them fall into a fear-mongering or stress-celebrating habits common in the genre. 

Little Labors by Rivka Galchen
This slim volume is just right: part intellectual investigation of the absence of babies in literature, part personal stories of parenthood. It’s a quick and encouraging read without ever being insipid.

After Birth by Elisa Albert 
This brutally honest novel was riveting. There were passages that I didn’t identify with at all, and others that made me want to cry from the raw, relatable humanity of it all. Maybe a better read for sleep-deprived nights post-birth when you may or may not be wondering how many hours until morning, but worth a read at some point all the same. 

Operating Instructions by Anne Lamott 
Anne Lamott is an original in the elusive writers who write about infancy club. One of my friends gave me this book when I was pregnant with Faye and I so appreciated Lamott’s characteristically honest and funny account of grappling with the first year her son’s life.

Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth by Ina May Gaskin 
Designed to prepare women for natural childbirth, I’m inclined to say that there might be something useful for anyone preparing to give birth (and partners planning to stick around for it). More useful than any of the techniques offered, is the simple recounting of birth stories more generally. Reading them made me remember that “Yes. This is a thing. People have done it before.” And it just made a whole lot of murky stuff seem a lot clearer. Childbirth can feel daunting and unknowable, this made me feel less that way.

Expecting Better by Emily Oster 
I listened to this book on tape after Silas was born which meant it was a little beside the point by then, but I’d definitely recommend it for anyone who does want some concrete answers and who isn’t terribly interested in myths or legends but would very much like some cold, hard facts.

If you have favorites to share, please do.

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  • Reply Joanna May 17, 2017 at 10:35 am

    You covered my favorites (Operating Instructions and Expecting Better), but I also enjoyed reading “Labor Day: True Birth Stories by Today’s Best Women Writers” in the last weeks before my first baby came… when all I could think was babybabybabybaby and couldn’t consume enough about what was to come.

  • Reply Kathryn May 17, 2017 at 10:39 am

    A life’s work by Rachel Cusk!
    I’ve read most of the others you’ve listed and enjoyed all. But this one I found myself underlining literally entire pages and nodding my head and exclaiming “yes!” Aloud. Definitely better for post baby arriving…and at any stage of young motherhood I think. She is brutally honest and so perfectly captures the joys and struggles of motherhood.

    • Reply Lindsay May 17, 2017 at 1:31 pm

      Yes, this book! I read it while pregnant, and it was like being given permission to feel all sorts of ways about having a baby (the giving birth part as well as what comes after). I’d also recommend Expecting by Christine Lehner–somewhat in the same vein.

  • Reply orchids May 17, 2017 at 10:47 am

    French Children Don’t Throw Food is a great read, even for parents of very small babies. It confirmed rather than inspired my parenting. I would also recommend the Secret of Childhood by Maria Montessori, the language may be a little stilted and old fashioned but it is a great book to help you understand why children need some of the things they insist on.

    • Reply Maree May 17, 2017 at 7:51 pm

      Yes! French Children Don’t Throw Food was about the only baby related book I read whilst pregnant & then again when Innes was about 3 months old. It was funny & comforting & not at all rigid.

    • Reply Angela May 17, 2017 at 9:51 pm

      I read French Kids Eat Everything and Bringing Up Bebe whilst pregnant and they suited my practical, logical way of thinking. Not to mention, I really think the principles I’ve applied,as listed in these two books, really work. Both my children are excellent, adventurous eaters and they both “did their nights” pretty early for American standards. And the best part about it was that there was little to no crying involved with either learning process. Win win!

      Anyway, I loved those two books and appreciate that they are very considerate of children and are reasonable for parents.

  • Reply Sasha May 17, 2017 at 11:05 am

    Expecting Better is excellent. As a birth doula, I highly recommend it. I also love the stories section in Ina Mays book. The info section is really helpful for women who want to avoid unnecessary interventions and be well informed about their birth. Her first book, Spiritual Midwifery is a classic, but also still very relevant (after all, although technology and fads have changed, birth itself has not). I also recommend Henci Goers book The Thinking Woman’s Guide.
    In the realm outside of birth itself, I love Myla and Jon Kabat Zinn’s Everyday Blessings. And Gordon Neufelds book, Hold On To Your Kids, is the single most important book I’ve ever read. His teachings and wisdom will help you make peace with how you were parented, understand the dynamics of families and your role as a parent, and lead you to a place of consciousness and trust with your own parenting. If you have children, please read this book.

    Thank you for a great post Erin, I know it will be helpful for so many parents.

    • Reply Taylor May 26, 2017 at 2:25 pm

      I read many of these books and enjoyed them a lot. One warning. “The Thinking Woman’s Guide to a Better Birth” seemed a little outdated to me. Some studies were 20+ years old and I’d love to read the updated info.

      Otherwise, Erin, I think you’d love “Baby Catcher: tales of a modern midwife.” So fun and interesting!

      • Reply Rebecca May 24, 2018 at 12:11 am

        I have read baby catcher from cover to cover at least three times. So good….

  • Reply Sally May 17, 2017 at 11:12 am

    Reading “Homing Instincts” by Sarah Menkedick right now so this post is quite timely! You might like Menkedick’s precursor to the publication of her book, an op-ed essay she wrote for the LA Times entitled: “Why don’t people take writing about motherhood seriously? Because women do it.” (See here: I’m not actually a mother or close to being one but I like stories of women and their lives so all of the above sound appealing. 🙂

  • Reply Julieta May 17, 2017 at 11:50 am

    What do you guys think about Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts? I’m planning to conceive and this book was a challenging, unsettling, fascinating reading. Particularly helpful with my anguishes about pregnancy as an act of assimilation and conformity to oppressive gender norms… while it can actually be the opposite.

    • Reply ERIN BOYLE May 17, 2017 at 11:51 am

      Haven’t read yet, but it has been uploaded to my Kindle for the past four months!!! On my list!

    • Reply Caroline May 17, 2017 at 8:13 pm

      I was going to suggest this. I read The Argonauts while I was waiting for my daughter to arrive, and I loved it.

    • Reply Genevieve May 18, 2017 at 1:54 pm

      I’m not a mother but agree that book is incredibly good, unforgettable really.

    • Reply Hollis May 22, 2017 at 10:47 pm

      I loved this book. I read it pretty early in my pregnancy and am due in 6 weeks and want to read it again before the baby comes.

  • Reply Kelly May 17, 2017 at 11:53 am

    I felt JUST the same way about Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth, and loved Expecting Better. (Don’t get me started on the myriad ways the US medical establishment obfuscates and misrepresents medical facts and unknowns in its thoroughgoing effort to talk down to expecting mothers!)

    My very favorite pre-birth read was Great with Child, by Beth Ann Fennelly, which features one side of an epistolary exchange between Beth Ann (poet, young mother) and her friend who is unexpectedly expecting. It is beautiful, thoughtful, evocative, humble, often funny, and wise.


    • Reply ERIN BOYLE May 17, 2017 at 11:55 am

      So glad you loved Great with Child. Has also been on my list, but I haven’t read it myself!

      • Reply Kelly May 17, 2017 at 12:34 pm

        I think you’d love it!

      • Reply Alina May 18, 2017 at 10:55 am

        Great with Child is a terrific read, especially if you are sick of how-to-do manuals and just looking for something uplifting and comforting (without being achingly sugary).

    • Reply Kimberly May 17, 2017 at 1:16 pm

      My absolute favorite is Great With Child as well. I read it during both of my pregnancies and am about to read it a third time.

    • Reply Alexandra May 18, 2017 at 8:45 am

      I came in specifically to recommend Great With Child! I read it during my first pregnancy and found it so touching and calming. I returned to it now in my second pregnancy just because I loved it so much. I have also sent it to several friends when they are expecting.

      I was lucky enough to stumble upon Expecting Better at the beginning of my first pregnancy – it was a total comfort game-changer for me and gave me so much confidence that I have carried through both pregnancies and beyond. I recommend it to everybody.

    • Reply Taylor May 26, 2017 at 2:32 pm

      Along these lines, “Waiting for Birdie” was hilarious.

  • Reply Christie May 17, 2017 at 12:02 pm

    The Expecting Better came out after I had my first son. Before I was pregnant with him, I had a glass or two of wine every night. I also knew that my mother had drank alcohol with me, my husband’s mom with him, and my grandmother with all her kids–as with every mother in the history of humanity, basically. So the idea that I couldn’t drink really struck me as odd. I did a lot of research, and I came to the same conclusions as Oster did. In fact, after my first trimester (when I was too sick to even think a glass of wine sounded good), I did drink a glass of wine with dinner most nights, when I felt like it. My son, like me, my husband, and all of my aunts and uncles, was perfectly fine and normal. Her book came out between my first and second, and I didn’t hesitate to drink with my second, as I did with my first. Some people say that it is foolish and that I should make the “sacrifice” for my child, but if there is no evidence that it is harmful, yet evidence that it makes me calmer and makes life more enjoyable at the end of a stressful day (and enhances my food) then why not? The societal pressure to be a perfect, self-sacrificing mother begins at conception, and I will have none of it. Science all the way, baby!

    • Reply julie May 17, 2017 at 2:45 pm

      100% to all this, Christie. Expecting Better was positively liberating and I recommend it to every pregnant lady I know. I was so grateful for this book, as I was will all things Ina May. Yay for science and the wisdom of women!

    • Reply Kirsten May 18, 2017 at 6:11 pm

      So nice to read this, Christie. I’m pregnant now and despite my adamant belief that MANY recommendations for pregnant women have so much more to do with controlling women’s bodies than actual evidence, I’ve found that the propaganda has infected my psyche in ways I’d like to reverse! I’ve had the occasional defiant and much enjoyed glass of wine throughout my pregnancy, but almost always have this “ah but what if!” feeling the day afterwards. It’s so nice to hear voices like yours, and I should really just read the Oster book already…

  • Reply Liz May 17, 2017 at 12:45 pm

    I’m so glad you included Expecting Better. It is hands down my favorite book that I read while TTC and then finally pregnant. I love data and facts! If I am told to give up turkey sandwiches and soft cheeses, then there had better be a great reason, lol.

  • Reply Dominika May 17, 2017 at 1:05 pm

    I also loved Great with Child. When I was pregnant the first time, it was such a beautiful break from all the practical, medical, joyless information about pregnancy and babies I was being inundated with. I’m pregnant again and have been meaning to re-read it.

    After I had my son, I was blown away by the sheer living poetry of babyhood and then startled by it’s absence in literature, so I’m really interested in the Little Labors book.

  • Reply Jessie May 17, 2017 at 1:13 pm

    Great list! In addition to your list, I really loved reading Dad is Fat.

  • Reply Megan May 17, 2017 at 1:29 pm

    I found Expecting Better super helpful during pregnancy in empowering me to make my own decisions. My daughter is now 11 months and I just finished Operating Instructions. Loved it! So raw. One addition I’d make, for preparing for the birth itself, is The Birth Partner–both my husband and I found it extremely informative, with a straightforward tone. Totally helped us feel at least a tiny bit more ready for the birth.

    • Reply Rachel May 18, 2017 at 2:06 pm

      Yes, highly recommend The Birth Partner as well.

      I liked Expecting Better, but I ultimately had to reconcile its relatively lax conclusions with the fact that I am a Worrier. I almost felt silly for *not* drinking and I felt super guilty after having a glass of wine in my first trimester based on the information presented there, but I decided that not inducing anxiety in myself (even if unfounded) was part of what I should be aiming for!

  • Reply Kim May 17, 2017 at 1:47 pm

    While not a book, the Podcast Brynn Huntpalmer hosts “the birth hour” is a fantastic resource, especially for women and partners who have long morning commutes or like to podcast whilst jogging. All types of births are represented, judgement free, and Brynn rarely interjects except to set the stage and essentially allows mom’s full ownership over their own birth story. This goes along with the goal for women to hold full autonomy in pregnancy and childbirth, plus, the more we document real birth stories laced with real facts and real emotions and share them with other women, the better (IMO).

    • Reply Angela May 17, 2017 at 9:53 pm

      Yes, this is an excellent podcast!

  • Reply Cindy D. May 17, 2017 at 3:28 pm

    Some of these sound great, some of them I have read and loved. I would add to the list for anyone interested in a natural birth both “The Thinking Woman’s Guide to a Better Birth” by Henci Goer and “Birthing From Within”, by Pam England. Both very different but helpful and honest for birth preparation.

  • Reply Erin May 17, 2017 at 4:16 pm

    While, not as serious a read as most previously mentioned, The Girlfriend’s Guide to Surviving the First Year helped me tremendously. It addresses a lot of the pressures society puts on new moms anymore, but in a humorous way. Definitely don’t read this book if you tend towards pretentious nature, as you will most likely look down on it. But, if you consider yourself to be of good humor and can laugh at yourself and the world, you might want to pick it up.

  • Reply Danielle C. May 17, 2017 at 4:42 pm

    One of my favorites is How Eskimos Keep Their Babies Warm by Mei-Ling Hopgood. It’s about how people parent around the world and gives such a nice perspective on the many ways a child can be raised well.

  • Reply Jen May 17, 2017 at 9:01 pm

    I keep meaning to read Operatimg Instructions. My favorites are A Life’s Work by Rachel Cusk and Buddhism for Mothers (can’t think of the author).

  • Reply Anna May 17, 2017 at 9:07 pm

    This book is by no means something to turn to if you’re looking for advice or real life accounts of parenting BUT, I read Diary of a Mad Mom To Be when I needed a pick me up. It’s super silly and very funny and I really enjoyed it! I also read Panic Free Pregnancy which made me feel better about…everything 🙂

  • Reply Rebecca May 17, 2017 at 9:50 pm

    I’ve read the French books and love them! My 22-month-old son still throws food, and neither he nor his sister will touch a veggie not in a pouch, despite all efforts to make gorgeous and yummy options. Ha!

    My favorites are apps/online, really, and two books:

    Ovia App for daily “what’s happening” stuff and learning when my baby is the size of a quokka.

    Baby Sleep Site for really effective and realistic sleep advice and schedules (which my sanity required with twins and which I plan to implement for #3, who is just 3 weeks old).

    “Maybe Baby” (essays about yes/no/not sure parenthood — refreshing and interesting — I read it twice).

    “Mother’s Almanac” (original or revised). The authors clearly love and respect children. There are great bits about different ages and stages and some neat activities for tiny humans.

  • Reply Mei May 17, 2017 at 10:38 pm

    Thank you Erin! I am newly pregnant and have been combing your archives for recommendations. I will definitely be looking into these options!

  • Reply Katrien May 17, 2017 at 10:56 pm

    your timing couldn’t have been better. thank you for sharing, erin. My bestie is having her baby shower this weekend and I’m thousands of miles away waiting until my flight to visit after her bub arrives, so sending a parcel of books is the next best thing. so happy to support you by clicking through to the amazon links. you’re a woman wonder x
    p.s. I’m not a mother but i did read lovely things about this book which I’m also sending to my bestie: The First Forty Days: The Essential Art of Nourishing the New Mother by Heng Ou.

    • Reply Kristina May 18, 2017 at 4:01 pm

      I loved The First Forty Days. My third is 15 weeks old and I read it before his birth. I decided to make my post partum days be a wonderful time of healing and bonding and this book helped with that. I really think her broths made a huge difference in my recovery time and my mood.

  • Reply Laura Fenton May 18, 2017 at 9:38 am

    My favorite for the health questions related to pregnancy and birth was Common Sense Pregnancy: Navigating a Healthy Pregnancy and Birth for Mother and Baby Paperback by Jeanne Faulkner. She is a labor and delivery nurse and has a wonderful, down-to-earth voice.

  • Reply Annie May 18, 2017 at 2:33 pm

    I don’t have any kids (yet) but I did read Bringing Up Bebe for fun and after recommending it to a few of my friends who do have kids, they all say they wish they had read it sooner! My aunts and uncles always told my mom that she had it easy with me because I was such a “good kid” but after reading this book, I realized that my mom raised me in a similar manner as the French and got the same results: I always greeted adults, never threw food or acted out in restaurants, etc.

  • Reply Lindsay May 18, 2017 at 3:35 pm

    Anyone have any recommendations specific to infant adoption? I’m 9 months into waiting for THE CALL and could definitely use some reading distraction.

  • Reply Sarah May 18, 2017 at 9:23 pm

    Expecting Better was my favorite read during pregnancy, and the only one I’ll recommend. I was really put off by “What to Expect”–particular the ‘scare’ chapter–and as I had a medicated birth I knew Ina May wouldn’t be for me (but to each their own). I really appreciate how Oster recognizes pregnant women are, ya know, *people* who have their own levels of risk assessment and identity that aren’t sacrificed on the great altar of pregnancy/motherhood. I actually loaned this out to my son’s daycare provider when she was talking about pre-conception reading.

  • Reply Brianna May 18, 2017 at 10:13 pm

    Oh my goodness. Lovely list. I would absolutely add Mama Bare: The Birth of Mother by Kristen Hedges (can find on Amazon). It’s a collection of short essays and it will make you feel all of the feels in the best way. I promise you’ll love it, esp with how you describe feeling about After Birth.

  • Reply Caroline May 18, 2017 at 10:40 pm

    Waiting for Birdy is great, especially for second pregnancies . I think Catherine Newman is hilarious.

  • Reply Barbara May 19, 2017 at 7:25 am

    Your post inspired me to search for books on the far end of the mothering timeline . Sadly, there wasn’t much. I don’t really want to read about boomerang children just as I’m learning to let go. It feels like learning to let go is a whole unexplored experience for women who’ve devoted decades to mothering and suddenly find ourselves a little uncertain about what to do next. It’s as though an entire facet of our identity , of how we’ve defined ourselves disappears. It happens over time, of course, but I wasn’t really ready for it. Still not.

  • Reply Leslie May 19, 2017 at 12:49 pm

    Thank you for these suggestions! When I was pregnant, I loved Michel Odent’s “The Scientification of Love” about the role of love hormones during pregnancy and childbirth. Many of his other books look just as fascinating.

    • Reply Sasha May 20, 2017 at 11:47 am

      Michel Odent is wonderful! I wholeheartedly agree. I find his ideas fascinating and thought provoking, especially…do we really need men in birthing rooms (including partners)?

  • Reply Karen May 19, 2017 at 4:30 pm

    Ooh! I haven’t heard of some of these and will have to check them out before baby #2 arrives! One I don’t see listed that I found immeasurably helpful – if you’re planning an as-natural-as-possible birth – is The Birth Partner. It’s intended for a labor partner to read, but it was informative to both me and my husband. I haven’t read it yet, but I also hear good things about the book Birthing from Within.

  • Reply sarah May 20, 2017 at 8:09 am

    Great suggestions! I also loved Bountiful Beautiful Blissful by Gurmuhk. Very inspiring and I enjoyed the yoga poses and meditations. I did read Bringing Up Bebe and French Kids Eat Everything too– those were a little more prescriptive in a “do this not that” kind of way, so less relaxing to read, but they were enjoyable and I did get some valuable insights.

  • Reply Nicole May 24, 2017 at 11:26 am

    I recently read Waiting for Birdy by Catherine Newman. It would be particularly prescient for people thinking about (or uncertain about) having a second child. She captures the complexity of being a parent, that push and pull between love and grief that is inescapable, with humour and clarity. I really loved it. I am about to start her second book about life with her children as they are growing up called Catastrophic Happiness.

  • Reply Amy V May 25, 2017 at 8:24 am

    I enjoyed Expecting Better, it made my first pregnancy feel more matter-of-fact and what lay ahead manageable. Here in New Zealand the “baby bible” is Baby Whispering by Sharlene Poole, a midwife who’s worked around the world but now calls NZ home. In a sea of (generously gifted) baby books, I found hers refreshingly easy to read, sensible and non-judgemental.
    A friend lent me a book called Baby Love that I would *not* recommend – I swear I struggled through half of that dry doorstop of s book and still hadn’t left the topic of breastfeeding. Daunting much! And somewhat outdated.

  • Reply Taylor May 26, 2017 at 2:38 pm

    I enjoyed a lot of those books you listed, and made more comments above. But one book I just remembered and DO recommend is The Science of Mom. A great follow-up for people who liked Expecting Better. She also has a blog:

  • Reply Taylor May 26, 2017 at 2:40 pm

    Ah, and another, “Home Game” by Michael Lewis was pure gold. Both my husband and I enjoyed it immensely.

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