Today’s society pays much more attention to raising children and fostering their development relative to the past. Parents have more resources they can rely on and knowledge about children’s wellbeing than they used to, and more and more scientific evidence points to early child-rearing as being central in human development. This emphasis on children’s development though, may have the negative effect of promoting judgment towards other parents who are not making the same choices as us. We may also experience strong self-judgment, if we are not raising our child the way we had anticipated before becoming a parent. When I work in therapy around parenting issues, I often hear clients perceiving parenting as a sort of competition, where they have to make sure they are doing all the right things to be the perfect parent. Here are some thoughts on highly controversial topic, which are often divisive for parents and may lead to dangerous judgment on your or others’ way of parenting.
1) Breastfeeding vs. Formula.
Research shows that breast milk is the best nourishment for an infant and it is important that women are supported with all possible resources when they want to breastfeed their infants. With that said, if for different reasons women do not feel they can breastfeed their infants, or they are contemplating adding formula to the infant’s diet (because of mother’s or infant’s health reasons, or because of difficulties in the breastfeeding process) it is important to keep in mind that infants can grow well physically and establish a healthy emotional bond with their parents also when they are fed through formula. While we should support women as much as possible in their goal of breastfeeding, shaming mothers because they cannot/do not feel comfortable doing it is unethical. This also applies to individuals who adopted their infants and therefore were not able to breastfeed them. It is true that breastfeeding foster secure attachment between mothers and infants, but this does not mean that infants who are not breastfed will not become securely attached to their parents. To develop a healthy bond with their caregivers, infants need plenty of physical contact and ongoing sensitive interactions with their caregivers. Breastfeeding fosters this type of interactions, but there are other ways parents can make sure they are in close physical and emotional contact with their infants.
2) Co-sleeping vs baby sleeping in a different room.
This is another topic that generates much controversy. The truth is, different solutions work for different caregivers and families. Regardless of the method chosen, infants need to have plenty of hours of sleep and quiet time, and a way to drift into sleep, which is comforting and consistent. Does this mean that infants need to sleep all the time next to their parents? No. Does this mean that if infants co-sleep they will never become independent? No. For some families, co-sleeping (when done in a way that does not jeopardize infants’ physical health) makes things easier, as infants fall asleep quicker and stay asleep longer, so that in the morning everybody is more rested. For other families, co-sleeping means limiting couple intimacy and some needed alone time for parents to mind their own personal needs. In this case, co-sleeping would result in being more resentful and frustrated the day after. For these families, having the baby sleep in a different room may be the best solution.
3) Daycare/nanny vs. staying at home parent.
This choice is particularly hard during the first year of life, when infants are really small. What infants need in their first year of life is bonding with their parents and enjoying good quality care. If parents are able to stay home for the first year, this certainly ensures that infants have plenty of time to interact with them and develop an emotional bond. However, being home with a parent who is frustrated and unhappy, can actually impair the infant’s chance to develop a secure attachment to that parent. In this case, if parents are still able to spend daily time with their infant, a better solution would be to have someone else sharing the infant’s care (either a nanny or a daycare), so that the parents can continue feeling satisfied about their life and have the mental energy to be fully present when they take care of their infants.
The bottom line is: parents need to take care of their emotional and physical needs to be able to care for their children in the best way. A drained and exhausted parent is not a good parent. When parents have children, self-care becomes the last thing they worry about. Over and over in therapy with my clients, I remind parents that self-care should be at the top of their list, because just like phones don’t work if their batteries are not charged, it is not possible to be emotionally available if we feel that all our mental resources are depleted. For this reason, in taking decisions about our children, we need to consider what is best for them, but also how realistic and viable for our family a certain solution is. Further, our children are all unique, and what we may have chosen or planned may not work for that specific child. For example, some children are soothed by co-sleeping, whereas others become overstimulated and therefore may not be well rested if they sleep with their parents.
For these reasons, comparing ourselves to other parents, judging us or them for what we do or not do, it is not useful and it is dangerous. We do not know what that family life and path is. As a clinician, I often wish that there was as much emphasis/debate on strategies to foster parents’ mental health as we have on what we should do with our children.
What is your point of view on parenting issues? I would love if you can share it with us here :)