I always wondered what the deal was with Dr. Spock. I saw the name on my parents’ bookshelf throughout my childhood, and for a while I had a vague notion that Leonard Nimoy, the actor who portrayed Spock on Star Trek, was also a pediatrician. That is not the case and doesn’t make any sense now that I think about it.
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When I was pregnant, my curiosity about Dr. Spock finally got strong enough to do a google search. To my amazement, one of the top results was a New York Times article about Dr. Spock encouraging parents and children to go vegan!
I also learned that the book of his I’d seen on my parents’ shelf, “The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care,” is one of the best selling parenting guides of all time. And yet, throughout my pregnancy in 2019, I never saw it recommended or even mentioned in the many mom groups I belong to on Facebook – not even in the vegan ones.
The Take Down
According to the article I found, Spock’s directive for parents and children to give up animal products was newly added advice in the 7th edition of his childcare book, which had just come out a few weeks after the doctor’s death at the age of 94.
This was in 1998, and the article, “Final Advice From Dr. Spock: Eat Only All Your Vegetables,” by Jane E. Brody, focused on pushback against Spock’s new nutrition guidelines.
The New York Times included quotes from four different medical doctors whose criticisms of a vegan diet for kids ranged from “risky” to “absolutely insane.”
The newspaper also quoted a registered dietician who argued that any dietary changes should come from those outlined in the USDA’s food pyramid guide. (The pyramid, only introduced in 1992, has since been abandoned, and numerous exposés have shown how the USDA’s dietary guidelines are heavily influenced by lobbyists for the meat and dairy industries.)
But, the most damning part of it all was that Spock’s co-author for the new edition of “Baby and Child Care,” Dr. Steven J. Parker, told the newspaper that a vegan diet was “too extreme and likely to result in nutritional deficiencies unless … very carefully planned and executed.”
Parker added, “I think the book is a terrific book. There was no other area in which we had a disagreement.”
How awkward. I wondered if this article and others like it, positioning Spock as at best weird, and at worst reckless, could have been the downfall of the book’s popularity. I also wondered if the article might have come out differently had Spock been around to share his perspective.
Tellingly, the New York Times did not interview any doctors or dietitians who agreed with Dr. Spock’s advice. They did not even speak to Dr. Neal Barnard who had drafted the book’s new nutrition section, which Spock then edited.
A Vegan Before His Time
The article does give some background on Spock’s vegan conversion. After a series of illnesses left him weak and unable to walk, Dr. Spock himself went vegan in 1991 at the age of 88, and subsequently lost 50 pounds and regained his health and abilities. He sought to share his new lease on life with his readers.
So, when Spock’s co-author Dr. Parker pushed for including other dietary options for parents in the 7th edition, according to the New York Times, Spock wrote Parker a letter of refusal, saying that he wanted his book to be “in the forefront” of the increasing understanding of the link between disease and consuming animal products.
Three editions of “Baby and Child Care” have been published since that controversial 7th, the last that Spock lived to have a hand in. I wondered if with Spock out of the picture, subsequent editions would backpedal on his last nutrition advice.
I ordered the 8th and 10th editions from Thrift Books and while I waited for them to arrive, I did some more research.
Benjamin Spock (1903-1998) was arguably the most famous American pediatrician of the 20th Century. His book “Baby and Child Care” has sold over 50 million copies, and was for a time the #2 selling book in the United States after the bible.
Prior to the book’s first publication in 1946, prevailing authoritative advice on childcare was regimented, strict, and cold, advising against too much affection for fear of spoiling kids.
Spock’s “Baby and Child Care” was revolutionary in promoting loving care, and encouraging parents to trust their natural instincts and common sense.
An Evolving Book
Advocating a vegan diet was not the first major change to “Baby and Child Care.” Spock updated each subsequent edition to reflect new medical and social understandings.
For example, the first edition (1946) refers to babies as “he” by default. Later editions switch pronouns and embrace ideas of gender equality.
In the 1940s, like most American doctors, Spock advocated for early male circumcision. But, by the 1970s, Spock felt there was no medical reason for it, and wrote as much.
Unfortunately, several editions of the book warned against putting children to sleep on their backs – a mistake that likely had tragic consequences considering how popular the book was.
Spock eventually reversed course and advocated putting infants on their backs to sleep which is now understood to help prevent SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome).
Not Afraid to Speak Out
Spock was never afraid to speak out about issues he cared about, even if it meant alienating potential readership.
Spock supported nuclear disarmament and was an outspoken critic of the Vietnam War. He became a leader in the draft resistance movement and was eventually indicted, along with four others, who together were known as The Boston Five, for conspiring to encourage draft dodging. Spock was so well-known that his indictment made the cover of major newspapers.
Spock saw his trial as an opportunity to contest the war itself. According to coverage by The New Yorker, under cross examination Spock replied, “‘What is the use of physicians like myself trying to help parents to bring up children, healthy and happy, to have them killed in such numbers for a cause that is ignoble?’”
What exactly did the controversial 7th edition say about nutrition?
Before we can compare later editions, let’s look at what the controversial 7th edition of “Baby and Child Care” actually said about nutrition. And, for the record, I am an ethical vegan and my focus is not in promoting veganism as a necessarily healthy lifestyle, or otherwise. My interest in researching these editions is to understand how Spock’s advice was received and what became of it.
In Edition 7, Spock writes that, “While we used to advocate including generous amounts of meat and dairy products in children’s diets, we have learned that children are better off getting their nutrients from plant sources.”
Throughout the sections on nutrition, Spock reiterates the benefits of plant foods and the risks of animal foods, but always in his characteristically friendly tone:
“Let me encourage you to explore plant-based foods and to have as many meatless meals as you can.”
Spock points out the link between “excessive animal fat, cow’s milk, protein, and the high number of calories in the typical American diet” and high cholesterol, heart disease, strokes, diabetes, cancers and more.
Noting that many of the aforementioned diseases originate in childhood, and that childhood obesity is on the rise in the United States, Spock emphasizes the importance of the entire family switching to a healthier diet to set a good, early example for children.
Spock on Protein
“Animal products – meats, dairy products, and eggs – do have protein and lots of it,” Spock writes, “but they tend to cause more problems than they solve because of the animal fat and cholesterol they contain.”
Spock suggests green leafy vegetables, beans, tofu, and tempeh as sources of protein, and advocates getting vitamin D from fortified cereals.
Noting that B12 is the only vitamin which cannot be found in a plant-based diet, Spock says, “… if children consume no meat or dairy products, which is actually the healthiest diet, a [B12] vitamin supplement is prudent.”
In one section, Spock gently suggests trying the meatless burgers and hot dogs made from soy and wheat that are available at health food stores, adding that, “many of them are really delicious.”
It’s hard to imagine that these 1998 products were “really delicious” by today’s standards, or that the average reader would be able to find them – but perhaps introducing the mere existence of faux meats to readers was worthwhile.
Spock on Milk
In the section “The Question of Cow’s Milk After Two Years” Spock is unequivocal in his dismissal of cow’s milk, saying, “I no longer recommend dairy products after the age of two years.
He goes on to discuss the benefits of non-dairy calcium sources, which unlike milk, also offer iron. He recommends calcium-enriched soy or rice milk as a replacement for cow’s milk.
Spock details many health problems associated with dairy consumption: impaired iron absorption, “subtle blood loss from the digestive tract in small children,” asthma, respiratory problems, skin conditions, chronic ear infections, stomach aches, bloating, diarrhea, gas, and possible colic in infants.
Later, in the “Foods for a Sensible Diet” section, Spock talks more about cow’s milk.
“… it turns out that the fat in cow’s milk is not the kind of fat (‘essential fatty acids’) needed for brain development. Instead, milk fat is too rich in the saturated fats that promote artery blockages.”
He also writes that “[Cow’s milk] is extremely low in iron and slows down iron absorption … Since cow’s milk contains practically no iron, infants who consume lots of [cow’s] milk, often eating little else, may become profoundly anemic.”
In this edition, Spock also alludes to something that’s now getting more attention today: “[Cow’s milk] also has traces of antibiotics, estrogens, and other things a child does not need.”
Spock on Breastmilk
Spock says, “There is, of course, nothing wrong with human breast milk – it is perfect for infants.”
He adds that breast milk contains sufficient iron for babies up through six months – something my doctors have said to me in 2020.
When children move off of breast milk or formula, Spock recommends trying rice or soy milk, even when it comes to ice cream, rather than cow’s milk. This was of course written before the widespread availability of oat, pea, hemp, almond, and other non-dairy milks and ice creams.
Spock on Meat
In another section called, “Eliminate meat and poultry, and cut down on fish” Spock says that chicken meat is not much better for you than red meat. Fish is strangely not mentioned apart from the title of the section.
Spock then says, “Children who grow up getting their nutrition from plant foods rather than meats have a tremendous health advantage. They are less likely to develop weight problems, diabetes, high blood pressure, and some forms of cancer.”
Spock highlights another danger from animal foods: “In recent years, the prevalence of disease-causing bacteria in meat, poultry, and eggs has sharply risen, which is why health authorities insist these products be carefully handled and thoroughly cooked, if they are used at all.”
And another tidbit: “Meatless meals also help your child to keep stronger bones. Children stay in better calcium balance when their proteins come from plant sources.”
Spock on Eggs
Eggs only receive a brief mention: “Eggs contain a substantial amount of animal protein in the white, and cholesterol and fat in the yolk, and are not necessary for children.
Spock talks about his own life and diet:
Spock says that he and his siblings had no red meat until age 12 and all turned out “oversize and healthy.”
According to several accounts, Spock was 6 foot 4 inches.
On the significance of a plant-based diet in his own life: “I have personally been on a nondairy, low-fat meatless diet since 1991 when I was eighty-eight years old. Within two weeks of beginning this diet, my chronic bronchitis went away after years of unsuccessful antibiotic treatments.”
He also mentions several friends who have “halted heart disease by eliminating dairy products, meats, and other high-saturated-fat foods from their diet.”
There’s a ton more nutrition advice in Edition 7, zeroing in on every relevant vitamin as well as advice about picky eaters, and everything you would expect in a comprehensive baby and childcare guide.
Comparing Edition 7 with Subsequent Editions
The 8th, 9th, and 10th editions of “Baby and Child Care” were all revised by the same person, Dr. Robert Needleman, so I figured I’d skip the 9th for now, and I ordered used copies of the 8th and 10th.
Though 6 years had passed, the spirit of Spock’s last nutritional advice was mostly intact in the 8th Edition of “Baby and Child Care” (2004). Dr. Needlman spoke to the New York Times in 2004:
Needleman says that “children can thrive on vegetarian and vegan diets” and he also explicitly states this in the book.
The 8th Edition on Milk
Needleman also told the newspaper, ”I did a lot of research on nutrition, talked to many experts, pro-milk and anti-milk … At the end of the day I was closer to Spock’s opinion than when I started.”
In fact, Needleman not only backs up, but expands on some of Spock’s warnings about milk. In a new section, “Cow’s milk, calcium, and bones,” Needleman cites recent research which found “no connection” between “the amount of milk children drink and the amount of calcium they store in their bones.”
He goes on: “the United States has both very high per capita milk consumption and very high rates of osteoporosis … So as far as building bones is concerned, it may be just as good, if not better, to take in less calcium as well as less sodium and animal protein.”
Needleman also adds to the previous edition’s list of possible risks from dairy intake: eczema, constipation, juvenile diabetes in at-risk kids, and prostate cancer in older men.
As if anticipating pushback about his dairy critique, Needleman includes commentary suggesting that certain national advertising campaigns are the reason that Americans default to dairy as a calcium source.
The 8th Edition opens the door for some animal products
As in the 7th Edition, all sample meals are vegan, and while a few animal products are mentioned in examples of calcium sources, there is a lengthy discussion about plants being a better source.
One notable difference is a newly added section “Meat and fish and fowl.” Needleman says that lean meats, fish, and poultry can provide high-quality protein. He doesn’t discourage their use here but says the servings should be small, only two to three ounces, and that a ten ounce steak is more than three portions worth.
Edition 8 includes a new “Classic Spock” feature – inserts sprinkled throughout the book of direct quotations from the late doctor. Spock’s telling of curing his chronic bronchitis by switching to a vegan diet appears in one of these.
10th Edition Overview
The 10th Edition still enumerates the benefits of plant-foods and the risks of animal-foods, with two notable differences.
The first difference is a general one: the book seems to acknowledge the fact that many readers are probably going to be eating some animal products no matter what. Rather than appearing to ignore these foods (“fish” is not in the index of Edition 8, but is included in Edition 10), there is more guidance about them.
It’s not that the guidance is so different, it’s more the way it’s presented. By including “Meat,” and “Fish,” (the book makes this distinction, not me), in the “What to Cook” section, it’s implied that it’s okay to eat these things.
However, when you actually read about meat and fish, you realize that they’re offered with many caveats about health and contamination.
Needleman writes that an adult serving size of meat is only 3 oz, that grass-fed animals are healthier than conventionally farmed animals, and that ground beef is risky. He makes the most accessible forms of meat seem off limits, but the book offers many affordable protein alternatives.
The benefits and risks of fish are discussed, but by the end of the paragraph it seems that the only healthy, risk-free fish are sardines from the Pacific Ocean. Huh.
A Change on Eggs
The only animal product mentioned without caveats is now eggs which brings me to the other notable difference in this edition, a very specific one: Eggs now seem to be okay by Needleman’s standards.
Needleman writes that egg yolks are a source of “healthy fats, calories, vitamins, and iron” and though they are high in cholesterol, he adds that, “it’s not clear that this is a bad thing.”
This change relates to more recent research about cholesterol. However, for ethical vegans, whether or not egg yolks are healthy to humans is of no importance.
Still, in the “Simple Meals” section – different from the “What to Cook” section which only mentions broad ingredient categories – all of the specific meal ideas remain vegan. Even breakfast calls for scrambled tofu rather than eggs, though Needleman allows for “a little fish or meat, optional” as guidance in the introductory paragraph.
Where does this leave “Baby and Child Care”?
Although the directive to go vegan has loosened in some ways since Dr. Spock passed away, the 10th edition of “Baby and Child Care” is still way ahead of the curve in terms of showing that animal products are not necessary to be healthy, and offering comprehensive guidance as far as what and how much of different vegan foods to serve.
The only other encyclopedic childcare book I own, Michel Cohen’s “The New Basics: A-to-Z Baby & Child Care for the Modern Parent” (2005) is pretty far behind in comparison. With no mention of the word vegan, the book does say that “a vegetarian diet is perfectly healthy at any age …”
But, Cohen also includes the cringeworthy note that “some kids, especially young girls, spontaneously adopt a vegetarian diet on their own, often as part of a trend they pick up at school.”
Is he serious?
More than nutrition advice
Besides nutrition, the 10th edition of “Baby and Childcare” is a great all-around parenting resource. The book is at the forefront of important topics like gender identity, noting that when a child’s conviction that their gender does not match their body persists, “efforts to ‘reeducate’ such children are futile and cruel.”
There is a thoughtful section on vaccines that explains their importance and risks.
The book also covers everything from how to react if your child walks in on you in the bathroom, to dealing with overbearing grandparents, and of course topics you’d expect like rashes and spitting up.
I think “Baby and Childcare” should be on every vegan family’s shelf, and would make a great gift for vegan and non-vegan families!
Was Spock’s veganism the book’s downfall?
We know “Baby and Child Care” isn’t selling like it used to, at least in the United States, but it’s still holding its own.
At the time of this writing, the 10th Edition is listed at #10 on Amazon US’s “Best Sellers in Babysitting, Day Care & Child Care” list, and at #4 on the same list in Canada. But it’s only #82 on Amazon US’s “Best Sellers in Baby & Toddler Parenting” which seems like it might be a more relevant list.
I don’t have access to hard historical sales data, but it seems that other factors had already contributed to dethroning “Baby and Childcare” from the #1 spot long before the 7th Edition’s release.
Sales declined during Spock’s anti-war activism when he was blamed for a generation of kids being raised too permissively. Spock strongly denied this and pointed to the actual advice in his book as evidence in his defense. According to Spock, sales did eventually creep back up again.
But as time went on, there would be competition from a new generation. Dr. T. Berry Brazelton and Dr. Penelope Leach are two doctors-turned-bestselling-authors who seemed to inherit the throne. Both cited Spock as a major influence.
And now, the parenting book landscape has fragmented into more specialized areas. Some books that outrank “Baby and Childcare” on Amazon focus only on weaning, or only on toddler discipline.
While I don’t know for sure, I don’t think Spock’s veganism is responsible for the book’s fading from the top. But, I think with veganism on the rise, it could actually bring the book back into the spotlight today!
And, what about Spock from Star Trek?
In the episode “All our Yesterdays,” of Star Trek (The Original Series), Spock is revealed as being vegetarian. The vulcan race, which values logic and abhors violence, is vegetarian.
Leonard Nimoy was a meat lover in the 1960s. I’ve seen some claims that in later life Nimoy went vegetarian but I haven’t been able to find a reliable source, so if anyone has more information, please send it my way.
And one more interesting fact
Dr. Benjamin Spock won an Olympic gold medal in rowing in 1924.