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Mother Knows Best

Not long ago, we heard an interesting story: Susan, a mother of four, was visiting her friend Tracee after the birth of her first baby, Nicholas. As the women chatted, Nicholas began to cry. Tracee continued talking, oblivious to her newborn's wails. Susan, on the other hand, became increasingly agitated. Her heart raced and her breasts even began to tingle. Finally, she couldn't stand it anymore and urged her friend, "Go ahead and take care of your baby. We can talk later." Tracee glanced at her watch, shrugged, and said, "It's not time for his feeding." Taken aback, Susan asked her, "Where did you learn that?" Tracee's surprising response: "In a parenting class."

Finally, when it was "time," Tracee went to pick up her newborn, who desperately began feeding. Susan noticed that the pair seemed to be out of sync, with neither expressing much comfort in their relationship. Susan gently pointed out to her friend that she was missing her baby's cues and, as a result, a distance might be developing between them. "Now that you mention it," Tracee confessed, "I don't feel close to Nicholas. I feel like I'm treating him as a project rather than a person."

Why are we relating this story? Because it's an example of a dangerous trap that many well-meaning parents fall into  -- ignoring their gut instincts and deferring instead to advice intended to help them control their infant's behavior. In reality, we can only control situations, not people  -- and certainly not tiny people whose need for love, affection, nourishment, and security is so great.

Still, it's no surprise that new parents are desperate for guidance. In the days of large families living in small towns, parenting wisdom was passed down firsthand from veterans to novices. In today's society, parents  -- so often distanced from friends and relatives  -- are more vulnerable, and advisers are more eager to offer pat formulas and instant solutions. In the age of managed care, for example, pediatricians are required to see more patients in less time, so some may feel forced to rely on quick fixes instead of individualized advice. The problem with these fixes and formulas  -- letting a baby "cry it out," say, or putting him on a strict feeding schedule  -- is that they're made for the parents' convenience rather than for their babies' development and security.

Although advisers ourselves, we would like to put forward a revolutionary idea: No one knows better than you how best to care for your new baby. It may seem difficult to believe, but hardwired in your body and your brain are instinctual responses that will help you provide for your baby's most immediate needs. In addition to these basic instincts, you have the ability to develop intuition about your baby  -- which, as vague as it sounds, is simply your unique insight into what he requires in order to grow and flourish. So while you already possess maternal instinct, you develop "mother's intuition." And by understanding how this intuition comes about, you can take steps to cultivate it.

In addition to coauthoring nine parenting books, William and Martha Sears are the parents of eight.


When you first hold your newborn in your arms, you may wonder, "How will I know what my baby needs?" Don't worry, you'll learn quickly because she'll tell you. Babies aren't passive players in the parenting game. In fact, an infant actively shapes the care she receives. That's because a baby, too, comes hardwired with behaviors that help ensure her survival: crying, cooing, sucking, and smiling. These are her earliest language, designed to penetrate parents to the core and elicit a response. When your baby cries, for instance, do what comes naturally: Pick her up and comfort her. Don't waste time wondering, "Should I pick her up?" "Is she trying to manipulate me?" "Will I spoil her?" Just do it.

All parents, but especially mothers, have a built-in response system that spurs them to act on their baby's cues. Like a transmitter-receiver network, mother and baby fine-tune their communication until the reception is clear. How long this takes varies  -- some babies give clearer cues, and some mothers are better cue readers. But good connections will happen, sooner and more easily if you remember to be open and responsive.

One intuition-building exercise that we encourage parents to use is to keep a journal of life with Baby. Highlight interactions that have special meaning to you  -- "Today she waved her arms, letting me know that she wanted to play," for instance. Note your development, too. Often, you'll respond to your baby in a way that amazes you. Here's an excerpt from one of our own journals: Although Matthew is our sixth baby, Martha is learning to read him as an individual. While her initial responses to Matthew's cues involved some trial and error, they're quickly becoming more intuitive. Now, when a grimace appears, she knows that a cry is sure to follow, so she responds before the cry has a chance to develop.

When you look back at your journal, you'll realize how quickly your own intuition clicked in, and you'll become much more comfortable following it.


That may sound easy enough, but there are plenty of minefields that mothers and fathers must navigate in their parenting journey. Books and magazines abound with advice for raising children, most communities have dozens of how-to classes aimed at new parents, and friends will swear by techniques that worked for their families. Much of this advice makes sense, of course, and there's no doubt that parents benefit from learning about the range of options they can employ in any given situation. But parenting is far more complicated than grabbing techniques from someone else's rack and trying them on your baby in hopes of a good fit. The way you care for and guide your child must be custom-tailored to his age and unique temperament. Here are some guidelines for utilizing intuition in your quest for a parenting style that works for you and your baby.

  • Listen to your baby. In the first few months of your baby-tending career, it may seem that parenting is one big give-a-thon, that babies are the takers and parents are the givers. This is only partially true. After 25 years as a pediatrician and 31 years as a parent, I've come to realize that not only do parents shape the baby, but the baby shapes the parents. A mother has an inborn desire to pick up, hold, feed, and simply be with her baby. For some mothers, these urges come automatically, while others feel more tentative at first. Here's where the baby does his part: His actions  -- crying, cooing, and the like  -- all have an effect on his mother's body. They set off nervous-system responses and hormone secretions (see "The Chemistry Behind Mother's Intuition,"), giving her a biological boost that, in turn, helps her give her baby the mothering he needs.

  • Listen to your inner voice. In our many years of experience, we have seen over and over again that loving, thoughtful parents will intuitively do what's best for their baby. That's because Mother Nature has given us basic right-and-wrong sensors that direct our actions without our even thinking about it. Doing what comes naturally  -- such as picking up a baby when he cries, feeding him when he's hungry, and keeping him close to you  -- is often the best way to ensure that his needs are met. Why is it that so many experts try to make it more complicated, and in the process derail parents from their natural instincts?

    Before buying into any parenting doctrine, run it through your internal sensors. I once heard Martha counseling a mother who was confused by some advice she'd received. Martha's suggestion: "Ask your gut about that."

  • Beware of baby trainers. Insecure new parents are frequent prey for "trainers," advisers whose prescribed regimens are geared toward getting babies to fit more conveniently into their parents' lives. But the fact is, a baby is the most wonderful inconvenience. Two popular parenting programs that advocate feeding newborns only every three hours, for instance, recently came under fire when pediatricians noticed that some of their patients' weight gains were lagging as a result of this ill-advised practice. The bottom line: No one regimen works for all babies and all parents all the time.

  • Become an expert on your baby. When you allow your intuition to develop, you become the world's foremost authority on your baby. Even when you need to consult a professional, your intuition will help her formulate her advice. Many times in my pediatric practice, I've been motivated to search for a problem in a seemingly healthy infant simply because a wise mother tells me, "Something's just not right."

    The more you practice listening to and caring for your baby, the more intuitive you'll become. The most important piece of advice we can give new parents is this: Get close to your baby. Study your baby. Become an expert on your baby, because no one else ever will. Be willing to make that commitment, never doubting for once (or at least not for long) that you really do know best.



    The following strategies  -- which we call the "Baby B's"  -- will help you learn about your new baby. Of course, they're not a strict formula that must be practiced all the time for every baby. Still, by using some or all of these techniques, you'll develop a sixth sense about your baby that will aid you in your parenting efforts.


    Keep your newborn with you as much as possible, rooming in with her at the hospital if you feel up to it. Familiarity builds confidence.


    Nursing is an exercise in baby-reading that draws the two of you closer together and teaches you to read your infant's cues. A bottle-feeding mother (or father) can also take advantage of these special times by making the feeding relationship as nurturing as a nursing mother does.


    When new parents come to our office, we show them how to "wear" their baby in a sling or carrier. Closeness promotes familiarity, and when you keep your baby in your arms and in contact with your body, the connection between you deepens and you become more sensitive to his needs.


    There's no one right place for a baby to sleep. Still, sharing sleep is valuable, particularly for parents who don't have much daytime contact with their baby, because it allows them to reconnect at night. Extra touch builds extra intuition.


    A baby's cry is designed to ensure his survival. You're programmed to respond, not to restrain yourself. Experiments have shown that when mothers hear a baby cry, their heart rate and the blood flow to their breasts increase, and they have a nearly uncontrollable urge to pick up the baby and comfort him. Answering your baby's cries teaches him to trust you and helps you learn to trust your own intuition. When you go against your instinctive response, you turn a deaf ear on your baby's only form of expression.


    Surround yourself with people who bolster your confidence. If you're close to your mother or mother-in-law, you can glean good advice from her, especially if your parenting philosophy meshes with hers. If her advice clashes with your instincts, however, you're better off depending on like-minded friends and support organizations (mothers' groups, breastfeeding networks, and parenting centers).


    Getting to know your baby will help you decide when to say yes and no down the line. Boundaries are essential, but it's equally important to set them according to your baby's temperament and your own value system and comfort level, not some arbitrary guideline.


    Part of getting to know your new baby is getting to know yourself. What do you need for your well-being? Focusing exclusively on your infant's needs and ignoring your own will only cause resentment and burnout, not to mention put a damper on developing your intuition. So, each day, take time to nurture yourself  -- and your relationship with your spouse  -- in addition to nurturing your baby.

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