Whilst I was up feeding my 16 month old third baby at 1am (who is still boob obsessed and often still requires comforting and reassurance in the night) – it suddenly dawned on me that as first-time mothers we are often led to believe that if we just follow the ‘rules’ or do things ‘right’ we can alter the future when it comes to our babies.
How many times have we all heard things like:
‘If you feed your baby to sleep now, they will develop a sleep association and will always
need you in the night’ or
‘If you spoil your baby and hold them too much, they’ll never learn to self-soothe’ or
‘If you co-sleep with your baby, they’ll always want to sleep in your bed’ or
‘If you use a dummy, you’ll have so many problems later and your kid will never get rid of it’
And the list goes on…
I hear these concerns almost daily in the consulting room. Parents questioning their instincts and biological yearning to respond to their babies in a way that feels right, out of fear that they will set up ‘bad habits’ for the future.
I find that this type of advice, whilst well-meaning, is misleading. It indicates to us that we are somehow able to ‘control’ our babies and that actions we take now will clearly dictate
our and their future.
I am currently reading a book called ‘The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read’ by Philippa Perry, in which she reminds us that babies and children are people, not objects to control, and that as parents we will be better served when we have ‘felt’ with our children, rather than ‘dealt’ with them:
“As soon as you announce you’re pregnant, you are given a barrage of advice about how to eat, what not to drink – and generally what not to do…
Such a large number of rules and advice to be followed may give you the impression that there is such a thing as an optimal pregnancy…which may lead you to assume
there’s such a thing as a perfect parent who produces an impeccable child…(but) this puts us in danger of bringing into the world an object to be perfected rather than a
person to relate to.” “We should not see our babies, children and teenagers as chores to feed and clean or otherwise fix but as people from the off, people we are going to have lifelong relationships with.”
Of course we all lead busy lives, and many aspects of parenting babies and children of any age do in fact feel like chores, and defiant children can definitely feel like ‘things’ to be dealt with. But I think this is also a poignant reminder that we are, in fact raising human beings. Human beings with their own thoughts, feelings and ideas about the world. And while yes, there are things that we can do, model and teach as parents that we hope will have a positive impact on our children as they grow up – we can’t actually control who they are, what they do or who they become. I think this becomes more and more apparent as our children age when we see their own personalities coming through and as they start to exert their own sense of control (I am definitely in denial about how my future will look when trying to parent 3 teenage girls!)
When it comes to our tiny babies, this is less obvious, but still applicable. They, too, are individuals. Each with different temperaments and needs. Some happy to be left a while to play alone, others are koalas who like to be held close to a caregiver at all times. Some who need a lot of sleep and some who need less than their parents. Like with all of humanity there is a very wide spectrum of difference.
In my personal experience, this has been one of the joys of having subsequent babies. The validation that it wasn’t ‘me’ – something that I did ‘wrong’, some ‘rule’ that I failed to follow or the fact that I didn’t wear my purple socks on Thursday was not the reason my first baby was unsettled and had trouble sleeping. She is just on the more sensitive end of the temperament spectrum – and that’s ok. This tendency affords her lots of wonderful qualities that make her who she is. For me, having subsequent babies has afforded me perspective and freedom from this sense that I could have done something to control or improve those early challenges with my eldest baby. It has been one of the most liberating realisations: Its not me – it’s the baby – they already are who they are. I can guide them, but I can’t control them or their future.
I am not by any means saying any of this is easy – having to hold a baby constantly or feed a baby around the clock or having uninterrupted sleep for many years – is not easy. And parents of young children, especially mothers, need a lot of practical and emotional support to survive these challenging and exhausting times.
But making parents feel like they need to follow a set of ‘rules’, and a failure to do so means they are somehow ‘failing’ as parents and setting themselves up for a ‘less good’ future in some way, is simply not helpful, and can often be damaging to mental health.
Supporting parents to follow their instincts, to tune in to their babies and their needs and respond to those in a way that fits with their values is how we sow the needs of the parent/child relationship, developing secure attachment. This, actually, is what will stand our children in good stead for their future.
Dr Alice Roberts-Thomson