Expert / 18 October, 2020 / Sarah Norris
You can catch Sarah Norris, The Baby Detective on My Baba’s panel at The Baby Show Live @ Home on Sunday 1st November at 5 pm. Sarah will be joining our panel on How To Survive The First Three Months, along with Lucinda Miller, Nature Doc Clinic, Becca Maberly, Amother Place and Dr Sophie Niedermaier Patramani from Little Tummy.
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I have worked with hundreds of new families over the years and seen just about every problem or variation of problem you can imagine. I have also noticed that parents are becoming more and more stressed. I have thought about this a lot, and talked it over with other childcare professionals, and have come to the conclusion that much of today’s parenting problems seems to stem from fear.
Fear of not ‘getting it right’ or ‘not being good enough’. Fear of criticism from family, friends, people on social media, or random strangers. Fear of the ‘latest research shows’ articles in the press and on the news.
These fears cause confusion and stress, and can quickly lead to loss of confidence. This, in turn, leaves new parents unable or unwilling to listen to their instincts or trust their own judgement, or even to make the decisions they feel would be right for them and their baby.
We live in the ‘Google Age’, expecting to be able to find instant fixes for all our problems via our keyboards, except that amongst all the helpful and accurate information out there is also a mind-boggling mass of misinformation, conflicting information, distorted facts and downright lies… so how is any new or prospective parent to find their way through this minefield of confusion?
When faced with confusion and loss of confidence I find parents tend to react in one of two ways:
when parents are so overwhelmed they can’t actually decide on anything, but flit from one thing to another in response to other people’s suggestions/opinions, something they read/heard. They can’t decide on routine or demand feeding so they do a bit of both, they swaddle one day and un-swaddle the next, use dummies, then ban dummies, switch formula/bottles/feeding schedules, etc… Neither they nor their babies know from one day to the next what they are doing but muddle on somehow, like a human pinball machine.
These are parents who place everything they do under a microscope, analyse it, and overthink it to the point of paranoia. They make a plan, check and double-check everything they do and are afraid to change or try anything new in case they ‘get it wrong’. They have order, but it can often be the wrong sort of order, perhaps with an overly strict routine that doesn’t quite meet the needs of baby or parents (or both) or that limits socialisation. The flip side of this can be a sort of decision making paralysis because there are too many variables to consider.
The root cause of most parenting confusion can be traced back, not to what we do, but to how we think about what we do. The tendency is to focus unhealthily on isolated aspects of parenting, and on minor details to the point where we lose track of the big picture.
Let’s go back to where we came from, before agriculture, to when we lived in extended family groups that were nomadic, following the herds. We carried our possessions, walked for days at a time, and were opportunistic feeders, eating whatever we could find at the time. The survival of the group depended on the skills, effort, and health of the individuals, and we took care of each other because, apart from affection, it made the group stronger and helped ensure the survival of everyone.
Older women helped the younger women birth, and the only thing that mattered was the survival of both baby and mother. If the mother didn’t have enough milk baby would be fed by other women, or given animal milk because the only thing that mattered was making sure baby was fed.
They didn’t have calendars or know weeks or months, they just knew seasons, and they weaned baby when baby showed signs of being ready, using whatever food was around, probably pre-chewed by adults or older children.
They did all this based on instinct and on the experience of other group members, and they focused on what was important for the wellbeing of individuals, and each individual knew their own importance and responsibility within the group. Everybody was valued, parents, grandparents, siblings, extended family… not just the newest baby.
No mother would have been allowed to torture herself trying to exclusively breastfeed a baby if she had cracked and bleeding nipples or mastitis. Others would have stepped in and taken over the feeding to ensure the health of both mother and baby, and the mother herself would have known that she had other roles to play as mate/mother to siblings/worker, etc. so needed to be well and strong.
Babies would have been carried by adults or older children in fabric or animal hide slings or swaddled and put on domestic animals or dragged on wooden stretchers. They would have been fed when hungry if that was convenient, and if not, they would have had to wait until the group stopped their march.
Now, I am not saying that this was some sort of ‘ideological ideal’ that we should try and mimic because it was natural. Nature is cruel and relentless, mortality rate was high, and women would have 10 children and be lucky if two or three made it to adulthood.
What I am trying to illustrate is the fact that we, as a race, are extremely hardy and versatile. We survived, endured, and evolved to be the most dominant race on the planet, and we did this by being able to recognise and focus on what was really important, and disregard what wasn’t.
Luckily, today we are don’t have to worry so much about survival but those same principles apply to your emotional and physical health and to your quality of life and parenting experience. The way to become a confident and competent parent hangs largely on being able to zoom in to attend to detail, but ALSO to zoom out and see the big picture. Only then will you be able to see what really does matter, and what doesn’t.
These are the things that seem important now, and, when you look back in one month, six months, or six years, know that they were, indeed, important.
These are things that seem important now but, when you look back in a week, a month, a year, or ten years, you realise they didn’t actually matter, and that stressing and fretting over them was a waste of your precious time with your baby and damaged your quality of life.
Writing this list I can almost feel your hackles rising as you get defensive and feel I am belittling you and your parenting choices but please don’t misunderstand me.
I know many of these things stem from choices made as a result of careful thought and love and do indeed matter to you, and if your choices are working well for you and your baby and your whole family then they are obviously the right choices so carry on, don’t change a thing and ignore me.
What I am talking about is when something is obviously not working for someone in the family, but you are reluctant to change things in case you make a terrible mistake that could have catastrophic results for your baby/child. What I am trying to do is to reassure you that there are very few ‘wrong choices’.
Babies are as resilient now as they were thousands of years ago and can adapt to pretty much every possible way you could think of to raise a child. A healthy, happy, well-balanced child becomes this way as a result of thousands of different decisions you make as a parent, combined with their own DNA, plus whatever life throws at them as they grow up.
There is no right or wrong way, no parenting method better than any other, no feeding method or diet, no way of educating, etc that acts in isolation to deliver what you want for your child. Everything acts and interacts with everything else. If you get something wrong you will have plenty of opportunity over the years to make up for it.
The way to becoming a confident and competent parent is to let go of perfect and embrace ’good enough’. Do the best you can when you can, and accept those times when your best is just you getting yourself, your baby and the rest of your family through the day in one piece. As long as everyone survives you can draw a line under your bad day and start again tomorrow.
If something doesn’t feel right, let it go and try something else. Be brave enough to challenge your own preconceptions, get creative, experiment, use trial and error safe in the knowledge that there is no right or wrong answer and that the likelihood of you doing any long-term damage to your baby’s future life is extremely small.
Trust your instincts and have faith in yourself because you ARE totally capable of figuring out what is right for you, your baby and your family. Think back to your own childhood. Think of your friends and neighbours brought up differently yet equally happy and successful.
Could you meet a stranger and guess accurately anything about their childhood? How they were fed, educated, when they slept through the night, first smiled, got potty trained, whether they did lots of after school activities, had playdates, learned to talk early or late, or were an only child or one of ten children?
I know how hard being a parent is and how much research and thought goes into your choices, and I’m not saying that there is no point in bothering with details and the immediate picture because they can be very important. What I am saying is don’t get stuck there. Focus on the immediate, by all means, but remember to zoom out sometimes and remind yourself of the big picture to give context and perspective to what is happening.
If you are stressed about something, ask yourself:
One of the saddest things I hear is second or third-time parents saying they wished they hadn’t wasted so much of their time with their first baby worrying about things that didn’t really matter.
Remember: zoom in for detail, zoom out for perspective, have faith in yourself, and, last but not least, be kind to yourself.
By Sarah Norris, The Baby Detective