Most new mums start on the road to parenthood with high-minded ideals and the best intentions. But are we making a rod for our own backs with this parenting perfectionism?
As mothers we want the best for our children and so we embark on the path to parenthood filled with good intentions and high-minded ideals.
No sooner has the blue line appeared on the pregnancy test, than the transformation into well-meaning mother begins. The resolutions and promises come thick and fast: eat, sleep and exercise well, no alcohol, caffeine or nicotine and nothing stronger than a Paracetamol.
Many women produce a birth plan, hoping to put themselves in control – although childbirth is notoriously unpredictable. And then the real business begins. Information about how to bring our children up is hurled at us from every which way. Midwives, health visitors and GPs offer their professional support, while friends and relatives chime in with advice. We fill in the gaps with books, magazines and websites for what we do and don’t want for our children.
But in being so idealistic, are we actually setting ourselves up for failure? Is knowledge really power or simply a rod to beat ourselves with when things don’t go to plan? Whether it was hollering for the anaesthetist from the birthing pool or sending daddy out at 3am to buy the big bad and banned dummy, we’ve all felt rather sheepish about falling off the ‘good’ parenting wagon.
Yet what is ‘right’ changes over generations and varies from family to family and culture to culture, so parents shouldn’t tie themselves in knots, says Dr Miriam Stoppard, who has written countless books on pregnancy, birth, child development and more.
Dr Stoppard, who recently launched her own range of Galt toys, says, “There’s controversy about feeding, crying, sleeping and about toilet teaching. Mothers can get very worked up about them and they will quote one expert versus another. The only thing to do is what’s good for your family.”
“Parents should assume parental instincts are best. They have been tried and tested over millenia and are nearly always right. The most you should do is to fine tune them.”
In her view, healthcare professionals and experts, “should give parents enough information to free them to follow their own instincts”. She adds, “Nobody should be dogmatic about what parents should do because nobody knows their situation better than that person themselves.”
One group who can be vocal about their opinions are grandparents, which can cause tension. “Grandparents can contribute a great deal,” says Dr Stoppard, but should sometimes take a step back.
A grandmother-of-11 herself, she adds, “I don’t see myself as an oracle. I help my children to bring up their children the way they want to.”
Attitudes have changed immensely during Dr Stoppard’s lengthy career, but one thing that is especially dramatic is the advancing age of first-time mothers.
“Women are staying longer in their careers and I think that the advancing age of mothers is causing problems – fertility for one!”
“Quite a lot of women think that because they are in control of their careers, they can just flick a switch and get pregnant.”
That sense of control often spills into parenting styles which can be problematic, according to Dr Stoppard.
“This is one of the reasons women adhere to some extremely controlled methods of upbringing that involve feeding by the clock and having a strict routine. To my mind it’s bad for the mother and baby and sets the mother up for failure because it doesn’t take into account the baby’s physiology.”
Today’s parents are subjects to many more “factions, fads and fashions” than previously, which Dr Stoppard largely attributes to the online revolution.
She says, “There’s no hierarchy of information, so nobody knows what’s good or bad. Bad information has exactly the same prominence as good and results in a lot of confusion for parents.”
Similarly, not every newspaper headline should be accepted as truth, she says.
“Many things are seen as fact when they aren’t. The only fact is science. Opinion is fickle, but science isn’t.”
And yet science is constantly evolving. If national guidelines occasionally change, there is usually good reason, says Dr Stoppard.
“The fact that doctors change their minds about things isn’t frivolous – it’s because science and research pumps out new information all the time.”
Annabel Karmel began devising recipes because of her fussy son. That was almost a quarter of a century ago and much has changed since. She recalls, “Then babies were only given very bland food, but I couldn’t get my son to eat that. So I tried food with garlic and herbs, which he preferred.”
Annabel has almost single-handedly revolutionised the way British babies and toddlers eat. She says, “The amount of people preparing fresh food has increased hugely. I’ve shown mums that it isn’t difficult to cook with fresh foods.”
Our range has also changed. Annabel says, “There were worries about feeding children eggs because of allergies, but now the feeling is that withholding foods makes things worse.”
“Eggs are important and very few babies will react to them. The same applies to fish and meat.”
The rise of the sterile kitchen is also partly to blame for the allergy explosion, she says. “More and more children are becoming allergic because of being brought up in a sterile environment. The only things that need to be sterilised are bottles, because milk is a perfect breeding ground for germs.”
While older generations may have weaned early, the current recommendation is six months. “The general rule is to breastfeed exclusively until six months. It’s great if you can, especially if there are allergies in the family, but parents shouldn’t get all worried if they want to wean early because babies can tolerate simple solids from 17 weeks.”
Weaning is the easy part – the trick is to keep it up. A recent poll found that British toddlers are the most fussy in Europe and Annabel puts this down to snacking. “Research shows 43% of mothers let their toddlers get away with not eating certain foods. And as far as vegetables go, it’s the same old thing, with almost half (48%) bribing their kids to eat them.”
She adds, “A hungry child is more likely to experiment with something new so the less they snack, the more hungry they will be. It’s common sense.”
As a nation we have become much more health-conscious, though what’s healthy for an adult is not always good for baby. “We are all taught that low fat and high fibre is best, but babies’ digestion systems can’t cope with too much fibre.” For that reason, she recommends a balance of a variety of food groups – including the odd treat.
“I have never been a purist,” says Annabel. “There’s nothing wrong with occasionally giving them ice cream or fruit juice or going to McDonalds. If you ban things, they end up wanting them all the more.” She adds, “Comfort foods like cottage pie, fish pies, and crumbles are all still popular so find your own versions. Kids also love ethnic foods like noodles and naans.”
“They don’t care how healthy something is, only whether it tastes good. That’s the challenge: to find something healthy that your child will like.”
Download Annabel’s Essential Guide to Feeding your Baby and Toddler available on iTunes and Google Play for £3.99.
Sleep, and how to get more of it, has obsessed new parents for generations. There are several schools of conflicting thought, but baby sleep expert Jo Tantum says babies generally set their own routine.
She says, “Parents should choose which mode of parenting they want to do. It’s always best to choose something that fits in with your lifestyle. A lot of people I speak to are routine people while others say a strict routine will not fit with them.”
Times may have changed, but a baby’s natural rhythm has not. According to the Baby Secrets author, newborns are naturally tired after every waking hour. They can stretch an extra half an hour by three months and manage two hours at six months. “The most important thing a parent needs to realise is to be flexible. My routines are all about the babies’ natural rhythm patterns and flexibility.”
One significant change Jo has noticed in 25 years working with babies, is how hands-on fathers have become. “Babies need that connection and bonding with Dad so I encourage them to do the dream feed. Dads love it because they’re in charge.”
The advice on co-sleeping has also changed, with previous generations actually being encouraged to share a bed with baby. Jo says, “They used to say don’t co-sleep if you have had anything to drink or any drugs or are desperately tired. But can any new parent say they are not desperately tired?”
“A lot of parents do it out of desperation, but say they find it very unnerving because they’re so worried about rolling onto the baby.”
“The best thing to do is get a crib that attaches to the bedside. They are safe – the baby is in its own patch and you just roll across.”
Advice also varies about when to move baby out of your room. The national guideline is six months, but this is not always practical, says Jo. “If a baby at four months is sleeping in your room they will sync their sleep patterns. So if you come into a light sleep, they will too. It’s like they wake up at four months.” With baby monitors now so sophisticated, parents should feel calm about finding their own path, says Jo.
“Try not to listen to everybody and get your knickers in a twist. Pick one plan and stick with it.” ✿
For more information about Jo’s methods, visit www.babysecretsltd.com