Don't Take My Advice: Pregnancy Advice from the Childless Expert
I don’t know how you guys do this. How does a pregnant woman navigate the sea of information available (some good, some horrible) and balance the typical level of anxiety that any pregnancy warrants? The beginning of any pregnancy is exciting and lovely but then your worldview extends to include this new little person (who is taking over more and more of your body) and you have no idea what they’ll be like. What will go wrong, what will go well. Nearly every day it seems that more information comes out about how to parent. There are lists, and books and message boards, and slideshows and anecdotes about one product or method that either totally ruined or totally fixed a child. Different parenting dogmas are competing for your attention. You’re stressed and worried. And then you’ll stay up all night reading about the impact of maternal stress on your developing baby’s brain. AH!
“We’re not equipped to tell a parent what to do, but what we can do is describe what we see” - T. Berry Brazelton to a room of the some of the biggest names in child development. Still unsure how I ended up in that room. This is my attempt to describe what I have seen about infants, parents, developmental science and relay it to you.
Try not to take anyone’s advice about parenting unless it’s your mother or mother-in-law (there’s just no way around that) or your pediatrician (side note on pediatricians – make sure you find a pediatrician that listens to you – really listens – and don’t feel bad about breaking up with a pediatrician to find a new one).
Don’t read articles about parenting that include the words “always” or “never” in the title unless it’s about safety (i.e. “never let your baby drink bleach” or “always use a car seat”). Flexibility is paramount to navigating any successful relationship.
Don’t learn about parenting, learn about development. The more you know about how children grow the better prepared you will be to make smart (and effective) judgment calls. You need information and support, not advice. Development is not linear. Before a new skill is acquired or a milestone is reached, there is a certain degree of regression that happens. “A baby has to deconstruct crawling before it can walk” - Dr. Ed Tronick (and that applies to nearly every skill).
Don’t feel bad if you want to call your baby a jerk, just do it behind their back.
The really neat thing is that you and your baby are already designed to work together to create a powerful healthy bond that will nurture both of you. You are both perfectly primed to fall in love with each other. There isn’t a single thing on earth that is healthier for your baby than you.
It has been documented that healthy new moms instinctively tend to cradle their newborn on their left side, where it is easier for the baby to hear their mother’s heartbeat which soothes the baby (Murray, 2009). New moms unconsciously adjust their speech to speak “motherese” which is a slower-paced more melodic sounding pattern of speech that newborns can process more easily that typical speech patterns (Fernald & Kuhl, 1987). Anyone who lauds the idea of speaking to your infant like an adult does not understand or appreciate very basic development. Don’t be afraid to sound silly, your baby loves it. New mothers tend hold their new baby so that their face is at just the right distance for a newborn to keep her mother’s features in focus, and mom will instinctively mirror the newborn’s face (Papousek & Papousek, 1987). How cool. That’s just a fraction of the thing’s your body will already know how to do when your baby comes.
Your baby comes with all these amazing abilities that make it ready to bond with you and to ensure its own survival. As one researcher Dr. Heidi Als (outstanding scientist and wearer of the coolest pantsuits around) put it “newborn infants can be said to be perfectly designed to elicit from their new environment all the support they need for their survival.” Babies come ready to be taken care. A newborn can imitate as early as fifteen minutes old, if they see an adult stick their tongue out, they will do the same. (Meltzoff, 1978). They recognize (and prefer) their mother’s faces and voice nearly right out of the womb (Pascalis, de Schoenen, Morton, Deruelle, & Fabre-Grenet, 1995; Clarkson & Clifton, 1995). They pay attention to things you pay attention to and can appreciate the difference between different facial expressions (Blass & Camp, 2003). They can even distinguish your smell from a stranger, and it’s even been reported that they can identify their own mother’s amniotic fluid (the goo they live in while in utero) three days after birth (Nugent, 2007; Murray, 2016).
What all of this means it that you and your infant are synced up from the very beginning and that you both have a lot of wonderful instincts. You don’t need to read the right book, or article or blog (sorry) to tell you how to do this; you’re doing it. Your whole biology is set up for this job.
Of course nothing will feel scarier than when you find out they let you take that magical bean home with you and that you are in charge. The good news is that you’re a lot more ready than you know. Ask your mom for help, let anyone who offers to help (dishes, laundry, walking the dogs, diapers, food etc) HELP! Don't ever think when you’re feeling overwhelmed with exhaustion and existential dread that often accompanies a new baby that you’ll feel that way forever. You won’t.
These are the books I suggest
1. ANYTHING by Dr. T. Berry Brazelton - the standard handbook is "Touchpoints" but he has more books about varying topics if you should need them.
2. Dr. Lynne Murray “The Psychology of Babies: How relationships support development from birth to two”, a beautiful book with some of the best research on child development available and very useful practical insights.
3. Dr. Kevin Nugent's "Your Baby is Speaking to You" is a lovely book of photography and infant development. He's incredible at being both a scientist and a firm believer in the magic of motherhood. He's good people.
4. Emily Flake "Mama Tried" it's a comic book about the reality of parenting. Hilarious and accurate.
5. Ina May Gaskin "Birth Matters", no one knows a cervix like her, I read the book in one sitting. If you're scared about childbirth (duh) pick it up. It is the most comforting book you will read about birth.
Relax. When you meet them, what I or anyone else writes won’t matter. You’re their mother, and no one knows them better.
P.S. What I’ve described is, of course, not the case for every pregnancy or every mother. Every pregnancy, birth and parenting experience is different, these are simply observations and my personal, limited experience.
For Lauren, Bobby & Evie <3