Misconceptions about "normal" baby behaviors
If I have learned anything since becoming a mother, it’s that there is SO much information available to us about what our babies should or shouldn’t be doing, but the majority of it is just not very accurate or realistic. I think this is a major contributor to our maternal mental health issues. When we are misinformed about normal infant development, we develop unrealistic expectations. When our baby does not meet those expectations, we are left thinking there must be something wrong with us or our baby. It’s important to educate mothers about normal infant development patterns, and so I created the following brief list of some common misconceptions. Note: This is NOT a judgement call on anyone for parenting differently, and if your baby doesn’t do some of these things, that can be normal, too! The point is that there is a wide range of “normal” for babies, and it’s important to have accurate information to make informed parenting decisions.
It can be NORMAL for a newborn to cry when not being held.
Babies are comforted by physical touch and warmth, especially by their mother. There are so many benefits to holding your newborn, including bonding, physiological regulation, and prevention of plagiocephaly. Baby-wearing is a great hands-free way to get things done that allows many of the same benefits.
It’s NORMAL for babies to nurse on demand & frequently, not only every 3-4 hours.
Babies have tiny tummies, and breastmilk is digested quickly, both of which result in the need for breastfed babies to be fed often. Frequent nursing also helps to establish milk supply. Formula-fed babies usually eat a larger quantity at a time and less often than breastfed babies.
It’s NORMAL for babies (and mama) to fall asleep while nursing.
Nursing to sleep is not a bad habit that needs to be prevented. It is a physiological, normal response resulting from the hormones that are released during nursing.
It’s NORMAL for babies to nurse for comfort.
You are not being used as a pacifier, mama. You are the original pacifier. Babies nurse for many reasons, including nutrition, comfort, pain relief, and bonding with mom.
It’s NORMAL for babies to breastfeed past 1 year.
Our society’s description of this, “extended breastfeeding”, is not very accurate. The biological normal age of weaning appears to be somewhere between 2.5 and 7 years. Breastmilk does not lose it’s nutritional value after 1 year, and in fact, it continues to be a perfect, nutritious snack into toddlerhood.
It’s NORMAL for babies to not adhere to our modern schedules very well.
Babies are biological creatures. They feed, sleep, and poop when and where they need to. Trying to force them into rigid schedules can create additional stress.
It can be NORMAL for babies & toddlers to wake and nurse during the night.
We expect and understand that babies are totally dependent creatures and rely on us for all of their needs (diaper changes, eating, bathing, getting from place to place etc.), except when it comes to sleep. The expectation of early sleep consolidation and sleeping through the night is a culturally created construct based on our modern, busy schedules. These sleep expectations are much more about what we desire our babies to do than what is realistic and appropriate for them to do. Sleep is a developmental process that babies can be gently & lovingly guided through, much like we would guide them through learning to crawl, walk, eat, ride a bike etc. The ability to sleep independently takes time. Research demonstrates that night waking and nursing actually serve as a protective mechanism for babies under the age of 1. It’s normal, not a problem that needs to be fixed through sleep training. (Go HERE for more great research on the benefits of cosleeping and how to do so safely.)
It’s NORMAL for babies to cry when they need something.
Babies do not have the cognitive ability to manipulate us. We cannot spoil them. Babies make their needs known by crying. By responding to their cries and fulfilling their needs, we are helping them to form secure attachment relationships with us, which are the foundation of their mental and emotional health.
It’s NORMAL for older babies and toddlers to have strong emotional reactions when things don’t go their way.
This is the only way they know how to express themselves at this age. Their communication is limited, and they are just starting to begin to learn how the world works. By validating their emotions and providing alternative ways to express themselves, we can teach them more appropriate ways to cope with big emotions and set them up to be able to successfully navigate challenging situations and relationships. This takes consistency and time (years, even!).
Now, I know that many of the normal behaviors I listed are not ideal. It can definitely be inconvenient and downright HARD when your baby needs to be attached to you 24/7, or won’t sleep without you. That’s why we need to start finding more ways of supporting moms through these tough times, rather than giving really unhelpful advice that is contrary to normal baby behavior. Rather than shaming the mom who is bedsharing, we need to provide safe bedsharing recommendations and let her know that it’s biologically appropriate and beneficial. Rather than casting judgment on the mom who is nursing her cluster-feeding baby in public, we need to offer kind words of encouragement and boost her confidence. Rather than scaring the mom who doesn’t want to sleep train by telling her the child won’t ever sleep alone, we need to let her know that she’s giving her baby what he/she needs right now (research actually shows that cosleeping fosters future independence and self-esteem among many other benefits). Rather than rolling our eyes at the mom who is having a difficult time with her toddler having a meltdown in public, we need to tell her she’s doing an amazing job and tell her this won’t last forever. We need to institute better maternity/paternity leave policies, provide more widespread and comprehensive breastfeeding support, and take better care of mom’s postpartum health. We need to recreate the village.
Check out my online, postpartum recovery course, Prepared Postpartum, for more empowering information about normal infant development, pelvic health, mental health, and postpartum recovery. You can also purchase it as a gift for that special mama in your life HERE!