10 Early Parenting Myths (and my Responses)
There are some common early parenting “myths” that come up over and over again that I’d like to address. I find myself responding with a counter to these statements and thought I would share them with you. I call them myths, as I have found that they are not helpful ways of looking at these issues. However, there are many styles of parenting, and many ways of looking at early parenting. This is my perspective after many years of working with parents and babies.
Myth 1: You will spoil a baby if you pick them up when they cry, or if you hold them a lot.
Response: There is no research to back this up. In fact, there is new research that suggests just the opposite. Babies who are held and cuddled and responded to when they signal they need help are better able to cope with life’s challenges. Loving contact, singing, talking, and reading are all ways to help your child learn about the world.
Suggestion: Know that crying is communication. Really listen to your baby to hear the message in the crying. If your baby sounds panicked and overwhelmed then respond so they know that they can trust that you will come when they can’t cope. That said, it’s okay to wait to respond to see if your baby might figure out how to settle on their own. As much as it is okay to pick your baby up and hold them, it is okay to let your baby have some time to try and figure out what to do on their own.
Myth 2: If you respond to your baby when they are crying, they will learn to cry to get your attention.
Response: For younger babies this is simply not true. They are crying to let you know that they are uncomfortable and may need help. By responding to a baby who is upset you are teaching them to trust their world. By giving a baby time to try and settle themselves you are teaching them that you trust them to figure it out. It’s a back and forth communication dance. Listen and respond.
As babies get older they start to learn more about cause and effect - If I do that, you do this. This is a developmental step that needs to be celebrated. However, at that point, your toddler may be calling you to come in not out of need, but out of a scientific inquiry. What happens when I yell? They come running! Hmmm…
Suggestion: As in Myth 1, really listen to your baby to hear what the crying is telling you. Not all crying is the same, especially as a baby grows. Wait before you respond to give your baby time to try and figure out how to settle. If they sound really upset, then respond in a calm manner that lets them know you will be there to help if needed.
Myth 3: If you bring your baby to sleep in your bed, you will never get them out.
Response: I have worked with lots of families who have slept with their babies and then transitioned them to a crib or bed. The main issue with bed sharing is to do it safely. (There are some people who do not feel bed sharing is ever safe, so when you make the choice to bed share, understand the risks.)
Suggestions: Be sure you are making it a conscious choice to bed share. If you do it out of exhaustion and/or frustration, it is not safe. Follow safe sleep guidelines. If possible, try and start your baby out in their own sleeping space at bedtime so they get used to sleeping independently.
Myth 4: Once you sleep train your baby, you never have to do it again.
Response: This is rarely the case, though for some babies, once they have gone through the process, they can get back to sleeping longer stretches on their own again more quickly. Illness, travel, developmental milestones (leaps), can all derail sleep.
Suggestions: If you have a sleep setback, go back to the basics with your baby getting back to settling themselves in to sleep. Go back to your regular routine and let your baby know that it is time to get themselves back to sleep. Talking to your baby is an important part of the process so they know what is coming next.
Myth 5: There is only one way to get a baby to sleep independently, and it involves a lot of crying.
Response: I just don’t believe this is true. There are some methods that work for some babies and parents better than others. There is no one way to help a baby get to sleep. There are some methods that work well at one point, but not at another. Some babies learn how to sleep independently at an early age, and others need lots of support to get the hang of it. The main thing is to find a way that works for you and be as consistent about it as you can so your baby knows what to expect.
Suggestion: It’s okay to learn about all the sleep training methods out there, but know that ultimately you have to listen to your gut about what to do. There are lots of opinions, facts, stories, and advice about sleep, but it comes down to what feels right for you and your family. The main thing is to make choices that are safe for your baby, and that allow you enough time to get the rest you need.
Do what you can to be on the same page with your spouse or partner so that you both can be consistent with what you do. If you are exhausted, and want to change what you are doing, then it’s best to have a game plan before you make sleep changes. Hiring a consultant can help you sort through the process and come up with a plan to follow.
Myth 6: Sleep learning/training damages attachment.
Response: From my many years of experience, and from the research I have done, I do not think that attachment is damaged when a baby is in a safe space crying for short periods of time with a parent who is present and emotionally available. I do think that prolonged stress is damaging to any person, especially infants, but a parent who is attentive and loving is not going to damage their attachment to their baby by giving them time to try and settle themselves, especially if they are offering support if a baby becomes overwhelmed.
Suggestion: You know yourself and your baby best. Know that you can help your baby learn independent sleep even if they cry some, and know they will be okay. And if you decide you don’t want to let your baby cry and want to be there while they fall asleep, that’s okay, too. The main thing is to make the choice clearly so your baby knows what to expect. And make sure you get enough rest yourself so you can be present and available to your baby during the day.
Myth 7: All crying is bad for babies and should be stopped right away.
Response: Crying is a baby’s way of communicating. There are other ways they communicate as well, but crying in particular is designed to get your attention. Not all crying means the same thing. Some crying is a signal that your baby is in distress, or in pain, or hungry, while some crying can be a way for a baby to release tension and upset. Some babies cry just before they fall asleep, or when they are very tired.
It can be really hard to listen to your baby cry, for sure, but by allowing your baby to cry, and by listening to determine what the crying means, you are giving them time to express their feelings. Then you can decide the best way to respond. By letting your baby cry, you are letting them know that all their feelings are okay and you will hold space for all feelings.
As you get to know your baby, you can begin to hear the difference in the kind of crying your baby does and what it might mean. Fussy, tired crying sounds different than hungry crying, and distress crying has a different sound as well. By taking some time to really listen you give your baby a chance to let go and begin to find ways to settle themselves. Of course, if your baby is crying in overwhelm and distress you can help them calm down as best you can, but know that sometimes your baby will cry even in your arms. Learning how to accept that crying is a part of life with a baby helps you manage your own emotions.
Suggestion: Try and hear the message in the crying. If you know your baby is tired, you can start to hear how their crying may be a way to release tension in order to get to sleep. If you hear panic in your baby’s cry, or pain or distress you know it’s time to help your baby calm down since they are not going to be able to calm down on their own.
Myth 8: Taking care of a baby isn’t that hard. You should be able to do it easily, and without any help. It’s natural, after all.
Response: We don’t have to take classes in caring for a baby, but that doesn’t mean it is easy, or comes naturally to all of us. Caring for the needs of another person is exhausting, rewarding, challenging, joyful and overwhelming. With so many different feelings mixed up in the process it is no wonder we can become overwhelmed.
Babies’ needs are constantly changing and it can be very hard to keep up with all the changes. We want structure, order and routine in our days and nights, but your baby does not start out that way. Creating a flexible structure to your day is helpful in dealing with the overwhelm. Resting is essential, and getting help is vital in order not to feel exhausted by the tasks of caring for your baby.
Suggestion: Give yourself permission to not have it all figured out. Know that social media is a mixed bag, and what you see is not always what is going on all the time. Try not to compare. It is not helpful in any way. Know that you are learning about how to care for your particular little person. It takes time, practice, and trial and error to figure out the dance you are doing with your baby.
Take time each day to do something for yourself so you don’t lose touch with what keeps you going. And most important, reach out and accept help. We are social creatures and need each other to survive. Holing up in your house with your baby day in and day out is not sustainable, or healthy. Find ways to connect with others that can offer support. Not advice, but support.
Myth 9: Cereal in a baby’s bottle will help a baby sleep longer.
Response: Though there are a lot of anecdotal accounts of this working, it is not a wise practice. Your baby’s digestive system is designed to digest only milk for the first 4-6 months, and adding rice cereal slows down and hinders digestion. It can also be a choking hazard as babies may not be able to handle the thicker consistency of the milk.
Suggestion: Rather than add cereal to a bottle make sure your baby is getting enough calories throughout the day and evening by monitoring how well they are transferring milk if breastfeeding and offering regular feeds with either bottle or breast. Remember that babies' tummies are quite small and they digest milk (especially breastmilk) quickly. They need to eat frequently to get enough calories to grow, and to sleep for longer stretches at night. It is not realistic to think all babies will be sleeping through the night at the same time.
Myth 10: Sleep regressions always mean sleep becomes worse.
Response: I think of sleep regressions as sleep development. Babies are growing and changing at a rapid rate in the first 2 years, and there are many changes as the brain matures. Sleep cycles mature, which can sometimes cause restlessness in your baby. What once worked no longer does, and so there is an adjustment period where parent and baby need to find the new normal. Some babies are more sensitive to changes than others. And some babies are better at self-soothing than others.
Suggestion: Before a typical sleep adjustment (regression), usually around 3.5-4 months, 8.5-9 months, and 18 months, try and do less to get your baby to sleep and let them do more to try and settle themselves. This does not mean leaving them to cry intensely on their own, but does mean giving them more time to work on finding ways to settle. If your baby can learn their own way of getting to sleep they have a better chance of moving through a sleep adjustment more smoothly.
If your baby has learned how to get themselves to sleep, but becomes restless through a sleep adjustment/development, know that you may have a few nights of needing to offer more reassurance. However, you want to continue to give your baby time to work on settling themselves. They will get back to sleeping better in a few nights.
I hope you found it helpful to look at these early parenting myths from a different perspective. If you have any to add, please write them in the comments below. And if I can be of support with sleep for your family please let me know!
Disclaimer: Elizabeth Green's Early Parenting Sleep Consultations and written materials are for educational purposes only and are not meant as medical advice. All spoken and written information is to be used at each parent's discretion.