"Babies aren't fragile" became the mantra I used when I had to suction out my daughter's little nose, strap her into a car seat, or give her a dose of medicine. It helped me remember that, tiny as she was, doing these things wasn't going to hurt her. Soon I'd added several other sayings to my repertoire and passed them on to others.
In an ideal world, of course, all new parents would be surrounded by wonderful people telling them everything will be fine. Unfortunately, at some point, most of us find ourselves alone. Here, to ease the way, are some simple yet soothing truths about child rearing from other moms, as well as grandmothers and pediatricians. Say them -- out loud if necessary -- as often you need.
The Only Way Out Is ThroughDebra Rienstra, a mom of three in Grand Rapids, Michigan, says she discovered one of the most basic truths about parenting as she gave birth to each of her babies: Once you're in labor, the baby has to come out. Says Rienstra, "You can't hope someone's going to come rescue you." Later she realized that the words that had gotten her through childbirth -- the only way out of this is getting through it -- continued to hold true after she brought each child home. "There would be times when the baby was crying -- and I knew he wasn't hungry or in need of changing -- so I'd just make up a plan for getting over it: I'd walk around the house, then take him on a tour of the yard, then turn on some music. This would give me a direction to follow rather than stressing out. Often the baby would conk out before I'd finished."
Rienstra, who's the author of Great With Child: On Becoming a Mother, found that this kind of take-charge, straight-ahead approach works for many situations. Whether you have an infant throwing food from her high chair or a toddler testing her limits at bedtime, it can seem overwhelming unless you approach it head-on. After all, thinking of a preventive solution to a problem the moment you're trying to tackle it is mostly a waste of energy, says Rienstra, who notes that the high-chair mess still has to be cleaned or the child sent to bed. (Later on, you can figure out whether there's a better alternative.)
Experience Makes You The ExpertRebecca Unger, M.D., a pediatrician with the Northwestern Children's Practice and Children's Memorial Hospital, in Chicago, has seen new moms go from insecurity to competence and confidence many times. But her own experience as a doctor didn't stop her from feeling fearful when her first child was born. "I was sobbing and scared when I came home from the hospital," she says. "It's just overwhelming, no matter how much you know or have read."
Dr. Unger immediately started repeating to herself the words she'd told the parents in her practice: "You know much more about how to care for your baby on day four compared with day one." Especially in the intense, 24-hour environment of new motherhood, your learning curve is steep, she explains, and pretty soon no one will know your baby as well as you. "You'll keep gaining experience. And suddenly you'll find that even if you had trouble breastfeeding, for example, you could probably teach a class on it now."
You Can't Spoil An InfantEvery mother hears it from someone, sometime: You're holding your baby too long, picking him up too much, feeding him too often. The gist of these statements: You're spoiling your child.
For first-time mom Amber Fowler, whose son was born two and a half months early, these comments were particularly confusing. The Livingston, Montana, mom needed to feed her son as often as he would nurse to help him gain weight. And he wanted to be held, particularly during a flu episode, when, Fowler admits, "I probably had him in my arms for twenty-four hours."
Still, with friends and family advising her to put him down more often and place him on a feeding schedule, she began to worry that she really was spoiling him. But gradually she realized that her baby's cries for food and comfort weren't about what he wanted but about what he needed -- and she couldn't spoil him by meeting his needs. Remembering this helped enormously, she says: "Not only did it help me defend my position to others but it also helped me enjoy what I was doing with him right then."
Don't Take It PersonallyFrom about the time she was 6 weeks old, Evelyn Kircher's schedule was as regular as the early evening news -- which was around the time she would start crying every night. From then until the late-night talk shows, her mom, Jessica, would sit on a large exercise ball while holding and gently bouncing her baby. "The minute I stopped, she would start to cry again," remembers Kircher, who lives in Medina, Washington.
Whenever she began to feel anxious about her daughter's colic, Kircher took deep breaths and tried to focus on something else. Sometimes she'd listen to music or sing to herself and Evelyn. "The key is to avoid watching the clock. And you have to keep reminding yourself that it's not your fault if your baby cries," says Kircher.
Evelyn's colic ended about three and a half months later, but Kircher says that by then she had learned two very important lessons: how to stay calm in the face of almost anything and how to recognize that her child's cries were her responsibility, but not her fault. "I don't believe that a tense mother gives a baby colic," says Kircher. "But I do think a mother with a colicky baby does need to learn how to relax in order to survive all that crying herself."
You Don't Have to Like It, You Just Have To Do ItWhen I was pregnant with Anna, a father of twins told me about the wonderful nights he spent dancing with his babies in the moonlight. It seemed so romantic, I almost couldn't wait to be up with my own baby. As it turned out, there were a few moments like this, but a year of sleepless nights was much less alluring.
Parenting a newborn is hard work -- and often not much fun. It only makes it worse if you're embarrassed about feeling this way. So let yourself off the hook and remind yourself that although you have to take care of your baby, you don't have to love the chores that go along with that.
"You're not a bad mom because you don't enjoy many of the repetitive and exhausting aspects of raising kids," says Robert Golenbock, M.D., a pediatrician with the Center for Pediatric Medicine, in Danbury, Connecticut, and a dad of two. "It's okay that you aren't happy about it -- that has nothing to do with how you really feel about your child."
Listen To Others, But Trust What You SeeLike many babies adopted from overseas, Susie Rolander's 7-month-old-daughter, Liza-Rae, originally from Taiwan, had some developmental delays. "So I had all these specialists telling me what to do and what not to do," says Rolander. "Pretty soon I started to worry constantly that I was doing everything wrong."
Finally, when Rolander found herself obsessing over Liza-Rae's weight gain, fueled in part by an offhand comment from a physical therapist, the pediatrician set her straight. "He said, 'Just look at her! She's fine,'" says Rolander. "Now when I panic about something, I remind myself to take a minute to see that she's eating, she's smiling, she's babbling, she's trying to walk -- she's fine!"
Of course, Rolander still takes into account what the experts say. But she makes sure she gives equal weight to what she herself has observed. Another bonus: Taking a moment to look at how well her daughter is doing is a great confirmation about her own abilities as a mother.
Your Baby Can Tell You What She NeedsAlthough Jan Riordan is a mom of 6 and a grandmother of 11, many years ago this professor of nursing at Wichita State University, in Kansas, was just a new mom like any other, with an infant whose cries were difficult to understand. And like many moms, Riordan found herself guessing what they meant.
"When my second baby was born, though, I started to see that he gave actual cues when he wanted to be fed or held. That's when I realized that communication is really a kind of dance between parent and child: One leads the other along until both can recognize what the other is saying."
Understanding your baby is about being aware of the most subtle of signals. "You see a baby wake up and move his arms and legs," says Riordan. "Then he starts moving his mouth, and then he breaks into an intermittent cry -- getting louder until his cries are difficult to ignore." All throughout, the baby was telling you that he was hungry; at the end, he was simply shouting the same message.
"Babies are in charge of a situation; they can show you what they want if you're open to finding out. You just have to be confident that you can learn their language," she says.
Anna is now 7, and her sister, Kate, is 3, so the mantras that got me through babyhood are over. But I still talk to myself. My current favorite, when Kate has a rough day: "She's just being three." I hope it'll work when she's 16.
Contributing editor Barbara Rowley is the author of Baby Days. She is working on her first children's book.