The barrage of advice is constant when you are a parent, especially a new one. Why does everyone feel equipped to comment on other people’s parenting, whether they have experience or not? So often well-meaning people seem to repeat what they’ve heard — echoing common tips without knowing the reasons behind them and without realizing this might feel like criticism to a sensitive new mom.
When my daughter was a few weeks old, I was still deep in that altered state of labor-land, mixed with roller coaster emotions, lack of sleep, and hormones. Holding my daughter close in my arms, or staring into her dark shiny eyes, grounded me and healed me. Filled me with joy, brought me to tears, and just helped me cope from moment to moment. She has always been a teddy bear — she would just melt in my arms, molding to my body, face in my neck, warm and snuggly. She loved being held, and I loved holding her (still do). She would stay attached to my body all day and all night if I let her. So delicious!
But everywhere I went, people told me, “You should put her down!” Usually they were more subtle, but that is how it sounded to me.
I want to be clear here: every mom and every baby has different needs and finds a different rhythm that works. My daughter wanted to be physically close as much as possible. And she demanded it very loudly and very persistently. The symbiosis we settled into involved a lot of physical closeness: nursing often (evenings were like one long feed), wearing her in baby carriers, napping together. Most of this lasted at least the first year. This doesn’t work for everyone, but it felt right to us.
As a new and impressionable mom, I felt so disoriented and I wanted guidance and support. I felt very vulnerable to the advice that I should hold her less, nurse her less, put her down more, teach her to sleep by herself, and do it now! Soon it will be too late! If they were right, was I doing something wrong? Often the guilty ‘shoulds’ battled in my mind as I let her sleep in my lap.
Empires are built on parenting books offering advice to new parents, because we are so vulnerable and so in-need. The content trickles into our culture creating trends and popular advice we soon hear all around us. Any given piece of advice may work for some parents and for some babies. But, 1) not every baby or every parent is the same, so it may not work, and you may stress yourself out trying and trying before you figure that out. And 2) many books are based on someone’s opinion, but it is not evidence-based information. It is hard to navigate this barrage of information. So hard. It comes at us from all sides — friends pass it on, parents on the playground, the lady who chats with you in the grocery line, the ads around the edges of your email, news stories on TV/radio/online, the plot lines of movies and TV shows, and on and on. It’s overwhelming!
There was a moment for me, when I felt in tune with my own instinct, and I kept going back to that moment to keep myself in that place. My daughter was probably 8 weeks old and we attended a City College of San Francisco parent-infant class (which I mentioned here).
The instructor, Frankie, was an older man who has run day cares for his entire career; he’s seen it all, ranging from home-based family-style to the big centers with tons of babies. We sat in a circle with our babies wiggling on the floor in front of us and each mom shared questions or concerns. As the babies started to fuss, and then wail, and moms attended to them, soon we were all standing in a circle with our babies in carriers or in our arms, bouncing and swaying. And then silence — they all slept! Cozied up to mom’s chest, upright, moving rhythmically. Sigh! We all relaxed.
We asked, Why was this so hard at home, getting them to sleep and us to relax? Frankie gave us what I think of as the Human Evolution speech. Over millions of years of evolution, human babies and mothers co-evolved in a certain way. Babies are born early in their development due to the large-brain-small-pelvis problem; the “fourth trimester” is a vulnerable time when babies still need intensive care that mimics their experience in the womb. For tens of thousands of years babies were attached to mom’s body at all times, were carried upright and in-motion, could nurse at-will day and night, slept with mom, were close to mom’s heat, mom’s breathing, and mom’s heartbeat. Mom’s body taught baby’s body how to stay alive while sleeping. Baby’s needs were automatically met: for comfort, food, closeness, and safety.
We’ve turned all of this upside down in a mere 200 or 300 years, a flash in evolutionary time! We now have technology available to do all these things for us: rubber nipples, formula, pacifiers, strollers, cribs, bouncers, swings, white noise machines, baby monitors, and on and on!
But baby biology has not changed a bit! Of course babies are fussy and needy when they don’t get the hunter-gatherer treatment.
So, I thought, relax, take a breath. That you feel this tension and conflict is totally normal. It makes perfect sense. It’s not your fault; it’s not your baby’s. These are forces bigger than us all! Bigger than any one piece of advice, bigger than any marketing scheme. The way we approach this intense time as parents of young children is up to us. Today, with so many overwhelming choices, only our parental sensitivity and intuition can tell us which strategy is best for our own family.
For me, this was a turning point. I heard that story from a real person not from a book, a person of experience and authority. But more importantly from someone who had built trust by listening to us, validating us, and offering nurture and reverence to us rather than criticism and advice. I could accept his words. I could give myself permission to go with my evolutionary instincts, my intuition, my gut. To trust myself as a human mother!
I began to see the different parenting techniques as choices rather than as shoulds, musts, and or-elses. The put-baby-down people were giving techniques to mold a baby around his family’s needs, which could take work and struggle to achieve but could result in more parental freedom. The carry-baby people were giving in to the Human Evolution story and mimicking ancient parenting techniques to mold the family around the baby’s needs, less struggle but possibly a longer path of intensive parenting ahead. Each technique meets a different need, has a different purpose, and is a fit for different families.
The conflict between these two paths has remained strong, in my own head, in my community, and in the mommy wars that the media tries to incite around us. In that moment, in that classroom, I felt free to make my own choice for my own family.
When I hear some advice, and I feel self-doubt and second-guessing creeping in, I close my eyes and look inside myself for that feeling. For my own internal well of mothering, for mothering myself and for mothering my baby. My connection to the ancestral mothers of our past, to las abuelas. That helps me find the path to meet both of our needs the best way that I can.
“No se ve la cruz del sur / en las noches de tormenta / Hay que mirar dentro de uno / para encontrar a la huella.”
It means: You can’t see the Southern Cross (a constellation of stars) on stormy nights. You have to look inside yourself to find the way.
More Information (Books)
The put-baby-down advice mostly regards teaching babies to fall asleep by themselves, so parents can have more freedom. It ranges from sleep training involving letting babies “cry it out,” to simply letting babies wait a while to be picked up when they cry, or putting them down awake, so that they gradually get used to falling asleep by themselves. A helpful book on the more gradual approach is The No-Cry Sleep Solution by Elizabeth Pantley.
The hold-baby-more advice says that by picking baby up when she cries she is learning that her needs will be met when she communicates them. She keeps trying to communicate to her parents, who then learn her specific cues, and soon baby and parent are in communication. This attunement, when parents read and respond to their child’s needs, is related to strong attachment between parent and child. Both are linked to positive outcomes later in life including relationships, self-esteem, and self-discipline. The Dr. Sears books cover these topics, including The Attachment Parenting Book and The Baby Book.
The well-known Happiest Baby on the Block books and videos give a 5-step technique for soothing fussy babies during the fourth trimester, based on the science indicating that what we know as colic happens because modern life doesn’t meet babies’ evolutionary needs for soothing.
Breastfeeding is an area where there is solid evidence-based information that often contradicts the common advice given in our culture. A few great breastfeeding books: Breastfeeding Made Simple and The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding.
One of my favorite books discusses human evolution and baby biology in great detail: Our Babies, Ourselves by Meredith Small. A fascinating read! It turns out that only industrialized Western nations have SIDS and colic . . . hmm, perhaps this modern fast-paced life has consequences!