Sally Hogg is a mother who works in children’s policy, research and practice, and has done extensive work on the subject of excessive crying in infants. She is now the lead for the Mums and Babies in Mind Project, from the Maternal Mental Health Alliance. Our thanks to Sally for her support for Growing Families: Facts, Fiction and Other Stuff. Here she discusses parental expectations and the realities of new parenthood.
I often need to go to bed quite early and nearly always fall asleep as soon as my head hits the pillow. In the morning, I am ready to get up as soon as my alarm goes off (although I have a toddler, so don’t need an alarm these days!).
My husband, on the other hand, needs time to relax and ‘switch-off’ before he can sleep. And in the morning, he has multiple ‘snoozes’ before he’s ready to face the world.
When it comes to food, I need a good breakfast early on, but then can go without food until lunchtime. My husband likes a later breakfast, but needs to eat and drink regularly or else he gets ‘hangry’.
You may be wondering why am I writing all this in a parenting blog.
I want to illustrate how people can be really different, even in some very basic ways. We have different characteristics and constitutions. It’s part of how we are made.
And babies are just little people. So they are all different too.
This may seem obvious, but I think it is such an important point for expectant and new parents to keep in mind.
The parenting books, public opinion, and sadly some professional advice too, can lead us to believe that all babies should be the same, that they will have similar sleeping and feeding patterns, and that there are simple rules and routines that we as parents can, and should, follow, to get our babies to behave in the expected way.
Not enough recognition is given to the fact that every baby, every parent, and every situation is different. Ok, so the 10-point plan in the baby book MAY have helped the author’s baby to sleep. That doesn’t mean it will work for Joe and Joanne Blogs and their baby.
Parenting isn’t about sticking to someone else’s 10-point plan. It’s about getting to know your baby and their likes and dislikes, strengths and struggles, and finding a way through that works for all of you.
I heard some wonderful advice recently; One mum asked another at what age she stopped feeding her baby at night. Her answer,
“We just gave him what we needed, and when he stopped needing it, we stopped giving it to him.”
If parents expect their baby to feed, sleep, cry and behave like other babies (whatever that actually means), then it’s more likely that they will feel something is going ‘wrong’ in the first few months when their baby doesn’t match these expectations. They may start to believe that they, as parents, are doing something ‘wrong’ because their baby struggles to sleep, for example, or that there is something ‘wrong’ with their babies because they cry or feed more than others. This line of thinking leads parents to beat themselves up; to get stressed, or to try and find endless cures or solutions to ‘problems’, rather than settling in to find the best way to parent the wonderful, unique baby who has joined them.
There are lots of examples of how, when parents expect that they, and their babies, will have a textbook experience, the reality can be really difficult.
We know, for example, that postnatal depression is more prevalent among mums who plan to breastfeed and then don’t, compared to both those who don’t plan to at all, or those who plan to and do so. It’s really hard when we struggle to be the parent we expected ourselves to be.
We also know that the expectation is that parenting will be a magical time. And the (misplaced) belief that everyone else feels that way, makes it hard for the 20% of mums with mental health problems to talk about their feelings and seek help.
Conversely, we know that when we prepare parents for the fact that things might get difficult, it can make a big difference. The NSPCC found that showing parents a 10 minute film explaining the reality of how much babies can cry, and how stressful this can be for parents, had a significant and prolonged effect on parents’ confidence, their ability to talk to others about problems, and their use of different soothing techniques.
And when midwives and health visitors spend just 10 minutes helping new parents get to know their baby and understand his or her unique characteristics, and how easy (or not) he or she find it to stop crying, or get to sleep (using an approach called the NBO), this helps parents to feel closer to their baby and more confident as a parent, and reduces the incidence of postnatal depression.
I don’t want to suggest that parents-to-be should expect to parenting to be difficult, breastfeeding hard, or babies to cry a lot. But they need to be prepared that they may experience these things, and that if they do, it doesn’t mean there is anything wrong with them or their baby. It’s part of the normal rollercoaster of parenting, and there’s a lot of support out there to help.
If I had to tell parents what to expect when they have a baby, I’d tell them to prepare to meet your own fantastic, individual little person. And don’t expect anything to be like you read in the books.