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25 Things Every Mother Should Know: How you mother your baby does make a difference

by Martha Sears, R.N.

Twenty-eight years ago I (Martha) became a mother for the first time. Even though I had “R.N.” after my name I was pretty frightened. All those babies I’d played “Mommy” with in the hospital were other people’s babies, not my own. I had to learn how to be a mother to my little Jimmy from scratch. It was intense and personal learning, and I have been privileged to experience it intensely and personally seven more times.

RELATED: Download Our Ages & Stages Chart: Birth to 5 Years Old

My husband, Bill, learned along with me all the things we discuss in this book for brand-new mothers. My voice, speaking mother-to-mother, will dominate the book, with Bill’s interjected here and there to give his perspective as a father and pediatrician.

This is not a traditional baby-care book. You won’t find anything in it about diaper rash, cord care, or how to give a bath. You can get that information from a lot of other sources. Instead, this book is a guide to mothering your baby, and it is as much about the process of becoming a mother as it is about babies. It will help you to get to know your baby better, and we hope that it will also help you understand yourself as you take on this new, motherly role.

We believe that babies have a lot to teach mothers. Listening to your baby and responding to his or her cues will lead you into a parenting style that will help both of you thrive. Biology and infant behavior will help you get started and build your confidence as you and your baby develop a two-way trusting relationship. But this is not an ideal world we live in, and there are forces you’ll meet along the way that can make you doubt your mothering intuition. We hope that this book will prepare you for some of those bumps in the road, and will help you meet the challenges and changes ahead.

Mothering and fathering eight children has taught us a lot. We are very different persons from the ones we were before we had children, and most, if not all, of these differences are for the better. Although personal growth is sometimes hard, we’ve had a lot of fun along the way. Fun in your life with your baby is what will convince you and the baby that life is good. Enjoy your baby!

How you mother your baby does make a difference.

Mothering in the twentieth century has become a tricky business. We can take our babies’ survival pretty much for granted, and in this way we differ from all the mothers who have come before us. Instead we worry about whether our babies will grow up to be happy and productive, a more complicated issue.

Nobody yet has scientifically tested and perfected a parenting system that guarantees children will turn out okay. Much of the research focuses on what goes wrong, rather than what goes right, and psychologists from Freud onward have often laid the blame on mothers. This creates a lot of anxiety, as mothers struggle to raise psychologically healthy children. Mothers often feel that the stakes are high on everything they do, and the possibility of making serious mistakes makes the job of parenting seem frightening.

In reaction to Freud, there’s another school of thought that suggests that mothers aren’t all that critical to their children’s psyches. Children need dependable caregivers, yes, but these are more or less interchangeable, and group care not only is satisfactory, it also makes children independent at an earlier age. Babies do prefer their parents, but they really don’t need all that one-on-one attention that goes along with traditional mothering. It’s interesting that these theories have evolved at a time when more and more mothers of young children are in the workforce.

So where do you fit in? How important are you, a responsive, nurturing, trustworthy mother, to your baby’s development? How do you know if you’re making a difference?

In the parenting business, science often fails us. It’s hard to study behavior that is as complicated as mother-and-infant interactions, much less relate these interactions to how children behave and feel years later. “Experts” speculate, spinning advice out of tiny threads of evidence, but who really knows?

I believe that experienced parents–parents of children who are turning out well—have the answers. Bill and I have talked to thousands of wise and seasoned mothers over the years, and while we don’t pretend that this is a scientific sample, we do feel confident about relaying what we’ve learned from all these families. We believe that how you mother your children makes a difference in the kind of people they become.

The mothering advice that we have given in this book reflects a style that we call attachment parenting. For babies, attachment parenting includes closeness right from birth, responding sensitively to cries, baby wearing, sharing sleep, and breastfeeding. The involvement of the father, both directly with the baby and in support of the mother, is also important. These practices together make up a very nurturing style of baby care, one that yields a wonderful sensitivity between mother and child. The mother understands what the baby is thinking, most of the time, and the baby responds well to the mother’s care. Babies who experience attachment parenting rarely need to cry to get their needs met (though they may cry plenty when something hurts or bothers them), because they can communicate in other, more subtle ways. Mothers who nurture in this style feel confident that they are doing the right things for their children, because they feel they can perceive their babies’ needs, and because their babies are happiest when they are most responsive. Even high-need babies can be mellowed by this style of parenting into children who are fun to be with.

There are long-range benefits to attachment parenting. As a baby cared for this way turns into a toddler, he is easy to manage. His mother has a pretty good idea of what he is trying to do or say, so the young explorer is less likely to get terribly frustrated. Since he trusts his mother and wants very much to stay in her good graces, a word of warning or some creative redirection from her is often all that’s needed to head off problem behavior.

As children of attached parents grow older, the benefits continue. These kids internalize their parents’ sensitivity toward them. They have an inner sense of what is right and are bothered when situations violate their values. They know themselves well and can remain true to their own character in the midst of a crowd going in another direction. They are compassionate and understanding with other people. Having learned intimacy from their early closeness with their parents, they go on to establish and maintain healthy relationships with other people. They bring their parents joy and pride.

So, are you important to your baby? Yes, you are. You as his mother know him best and are the person he trusts most and will look to for guidance in the months and years to come. You are his window to the world and his faithful interpreter of what is going on inside him. Your relationship is built on a long history of knowing each other, a history that begins even before birth. Because this relationship is grounded in love and trust and many small interactions, it can tolerate mistakes and misunderstandings. No single moment is critically important. What counts is the harmony that is developing between you.

So relax and enjoy your baby. This is a special time in your life, and while it’s full of worries and adjustments, it is also full of wonder. You have much to look forward to. Being a mother can enrich every corner of your life. Get ready for a marvelous journey.

When you bring home a new baby, remember you are modeling parenting for your older children. Also, you are bringing up someone else’s future husband or wife, father or mother. The parenting styles children learn are the ones they are most likely to follow when they become parents. Here is an example of how modeling affects children: A mother brought her newborn, Erin, and her two-and-a-half-year-old, Tiffany, into my office for checkups. During her examination, Erin began to cry. Tiffany rushed to her mother, pulled at her mother’s skirt, and exclaimed, “Mommy, Erin cry; pick up, rock-rock, nurse!” This little child had just described responsive parenting according to her mother’s model. When Tiffany becomes a mother and her baby cries, what do you imagine she will do? She won’t consult a book or call her doctor. She will intuitively pick up, rock-rock, and nurse.

RELATED: Download Our Ages & Stages Chart: Birth to 5 Years Old