New mums are magnets for unsolicited advice most of which is, at best, unhelpful and at worst, potentially harmful, writes Andrea Mara
“BUT why isn’t she sleeping through the night?”
“You’re probably giving in too easily,” said the older woman sitting beside me in the GP’s waiting room. My baby was four weeks old, and I was exhausted.
Being told I was doing it wrong didn’t make me feel any better. But unsolicited advice is part of being a new parent, and a recent US study by C S Mott Children’s Hospital shows that six in 10 mothers have been criticised for how they’re bringing up baby.
The most common topics up for debate are discipline, nutrition, and sleep — everyone else, it seems, knows we’re doing it wrong.
Indeed, nutrition was a hot topic when I became a parent — I was told not to breastfeed because I was making things difficult for myself, and later told not to let my kids leave the table without clearing their plates, because they’d become undisciplined.
Blogger Jenny Sherlock (SeriouslyMammy),was also given advice on breastfeeding, and a whole host of other topics.
“I was told by one woman I should give up breastfeeding, or the baby will use me as a dummy.
“Another told me I should have an elective section on my second to make it handier for my husband. And when my baby was 18 months old, I was told by a public health nurse that she was ‘too tall’!”
Sleep is also something on which everyone has an opinion, and my encounter with the woman in the waiting room is far from unique.
“I had a friend of a friend tell me when my son was four months old that I had to do ‘cry it out’,” says Lisa Ryan, a Cork-based parent blogger (BadMammy).
“She said: ‘He’ll roar for an hour the first night but he’ll get over it and it’s for his own good’.
“Needless to say, not advice I asked for or heeded. New mums are under a whole lot of pressure — the last thing they need is yet another opinion on what they’re doing wrong.
“What they could do with, however, is a sign that they’re doing it right; that their baby and their parenting is normal, and that one day, regardless of what they do now, their baby will sleep through the night.
“If you can’t say anything to that effect, simply stick on the kettle or give them a hug, that’s definitely better than unsolicited advice.”
‘Spoiling’ children is a common theme too — I was told that if I carried my baby in a sling, she’d never let me put her down. Sadly, I let the little voice of doubt creep in and I put away the sling, something I still regret. That’s the danger of unsolicited advice — new mothers are vulnerable, and at best, being told we’re doing it wrong doesn’t help build parenting confidence - at worst, we may heed bad advice.
And in reality, there are very few universal truths about bringing up children, says parenting coach Aoife Lee (parentsupport.ie).
“There’s no one way to parent — we all call on our unique life experiences and instincts when nurturing a child. What’s important is that we provide new parents with empathy — and a hot dinner during those initial weeks will never be turned down.
“If you’re tempted to tell a new parent ‘you can’t pick a baby up every time it cries’, acknowledge instead how hard it can be, and assure them that you’re there to help, whether it’s advice or a bit of help around the house. Confidence builds, and adjusting to this new role takes time.”
Of course, most of the unsolicited advice is well-meant and often comes from those closest to us, like our own parents. But there are good reasons why advice from grandparents doesn’t always tally with how we do things, says Dr Katherine O’Hanlon, clinical psychologist.
“Knowledge and guidelines on best-practices in infant care has changed vastly over the last 20-30 years and with the explosion of online information, new parents have often spent a lot of time thinking about how they want to raise their children, and need support for their decisions, rather than criticism or negativity.
“A recent study in the USA found that many grandparents hold outdated or erroneous beliefs about what is advised when it comes to caring for small children.
“While this study looked at physical healthcare knowledge, on the basis of my clinical and personal experience, I suspect the same would be true for many in relation to practices known to impact negatively on bonding/attachment and psychological health, for example sleep training, time out, smacking.”
So what would she advise grandparent who want to help?
“Unless specifically asked for advice, it’s best to keep your views to yourself. Offer empathy, a listening ear and practical support instead.
“If you have real concerns about something, think carefully about how you bring it up and try not to interpret your children choosing to do things differently as a criticism — we all do our best with the knowledge and information we have, and the world today is very different to when your children were small.”
Tips to support new mum
- Offer to make tea. Even better, hold her baby while she makes tea, because doing so with two free hands is a novelty in the early days.
- Only give advice if asked for in the context.Listen more than you talk.
- Take her baby for a walk so she can sleep.
- Don’t assume if she’s doing something differently to you that it’s a criticism of your choices.
- Bring cake, not advice
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