Roz Webb considers how to find your way through the maze of advice for expectant and new parents without feeling miserable
1. Rest during your pregnancy
2. Don’t rest during your pregnancy
3. Give birth in an upright, forward and open position
4. Have a caesarean birth
5. Have whatever pain management you wish
6. Avoid epidurals and any other pain management drugs
7. Have skin-to-skin contact immediately after the birth
8. Have skin-to-skin contact when you can
9. Breastfeed your baby but you can supplement with formula
10. Never supplement with formula
11. Breastfeed in public because the law says you can
12. Don’t breastfeed in public because some members of the public say you can’t
13. Share a bed with your baby
14. Never share a bed with your baby
15. Comfort your baby whenever he or she cries
16. It is ok to leave your baby to cry
17. Wear your baby in a sling
18. Put your baby in a pram
19. Send your child to nursery
20. Don’t send your child to nursery
21. And on and on and on and on……
So, that’s pretty clear, then…..
Every statement there can be backed up by research-based evidence, albeit of varying quality, or is found in a ‘parenting manual’.
When my first child was very new I read a book that described the sound of each cry my baby would make and told me exactly what it meant and what I should do. It took me a while, but when I realised it was nonsense I was so relieved.
There are so many books out there that claim to have ‘the answer’. Sleep books are particularly lucrativebut research-based evidence across many trials tells us that no sleep training methods work for babies under six months. They just aren’t programmed to understand the difference between day and night; their tummies are teeny-tiny and so they need to feed a lot, and their brains are wiring up more rapidly than they ever will again, so they need comfort and reassurance. That might be hard to remember at 3am, but feeling like you’ve failed because you did what the book said and your baby is still awake is, perhaps, even harder.
Of course every piece of research and every book will tell you that they are right, but even that needs to be taken with a pinch of salt. Here’s two examples: ‘Can our genes pass on our life traumas?’ asks the newspaper article. Well, possibly it does in mice but they aren’t really sure yet. And because epigenetics is a buzzword at the moment, ‘researchers who are not getting positive results are finding their work more difficult to publish, which is feeding hype around the field.’ So, bucketfuls of salt needed there then.
And what about birth statistics? ‘Homebirths twice as dangerous as hospital births!’ cry the papers. Actually, the statistic is that 5 in a 1000 hospital births have a ‘poor outcome’ and 9 in 1000 in a planned homebirth. They don’t even know why that is – it just might be the way the statistics are collected or measured, and phrasing the stats in a different way puts that headline into sharp perspective.
How can you be a perfect parent if even the advice is contradictory and the stats are unreliable? The straight answer is, you can’t be, and your children probably don’t want you to be. Everyone makes mistakes and being able to acknowledge, learn from them and apologise if you need to is a far more important skill for your children to learn from you than an impossible search for perfection (though of course that’s just my opinion!)
Many years ago Donald Winnicott talked of ‘the good-enough parent’ as being – well – good enough. Recently Mary Nolan, a birth and beyond educator and researcher, talked about ‘ordinary muddled parenting’. Another opinion coming, but I think that’s a great way of looking at it. Sometimes things might go brilliantly, and sometimes they might not, and that’s perfectly normal. That’s the thing about looking after a baby – as soon as you get in a routine, something changes. How can you keep up with that? Maybe we just need enjoy it if it is good, and remember that ‘this too shall pass’ if it isn’t. There aren’t any right or wrong ways to be a parent; life is so much more complicated than that.
Finally, I would tentatively offer the opinion that if someone uses the words ‘should’, ‘ought’ or ‘must’ about babies and children, consider giving them a wide berth. Trust your instincts, find a support network that works for you and respects your choices, and enjoy the ride!
I’ve been trying to think of a parenting book to recommend that does not have an agenda. It is really hard, but perhaps ‘How Mothers Love’ and ‘What Mothers Do Especially When it Looks Like Nothing’ by Naomi Stadlen might fit the bill.
Roz Webb www.babyin-babyout.co.uk is a baby massage teacher and a Birth and Beyond Practitioner with the NCT. She runs Developmental Baby Massage and Movement courses at Gymboree Islington and St Luke’s Community Centre and offers individual or group courses in your home.