Can we please stop asking about 'good' babies?

It was the most frequently asked question during my daughter’s first few months of life—and the one I liked answering the least. 

Photo: iStockphoto

“Is she a good baby?” 

It was the most frequently asked question during my daughter’s first few months of life—and the one I liked answering the least. 

By “good,” I assume those asking were referring to a baby who sleeps through the night, doesn’t fuss much and does what you want her to do, when you want, all (or at least most of) the time. 

So, in the early months of motherhood, when my baby wasn’t all of these things and I felt way over my head, this question always felt like some kind of test—like if my daughter didn’t meet all of the good criteria, it made her somehow bad (and, by default, it made me as a mom bad, too).

Why “good” shouldn’t only mean “easy”

Of course, what people really mean by a good baby is an easy onea baby whose laid-back temperament allows them to sail contentedly through most situations, days and milestones. Don’t get me wrong, having an easy baby can make life, well, easier. And such babies are, of course, good babies. But it’s the easy-trumps-all mentality that just doesn’t sit well with me.

My nine-month-old daughter is easy in many ways—she sleeps through the night, eats well and has a sunny disposition (for the most part, that is, for all of these). She is also what others amusedly refer to as “very active.” She wakes up ready to take on the world, eyes darting around for her next adventure (while I force a quick cuddle). Changing her diaper takes Herculean strength, creativity and patience (or, better yet, two people). And spoon-feeding was never even an option in our house (not when she could grab the food herself!). These aren’t always her easiest qualities (and they are the ones that have me collapsing into bed at 9 o’clock each night). But when I think about what they embody—her curiosity, determination and independence—I know they’ll be the strengths that will carry her throughout her life, when people no longer care about the number of consecutive hours she sleeps each night.

The pressure is on

I spoke with Eleanor Rushton, a registered midwife in Vancouver, for some insight into why this question makes me cringe. She explains that this question can put undue pressure on new parents.

I’m certainly not immune to this pressure—all the Momstagramming these days can feel like I’ve involuntarily entered into a battle of the best parents. And a large body of research backs Rushton’s sentiment: that is, new moms face intense pressure to be perfect and intense guilt when this unrealistic standard isn’t met. The impact of this is far-reaching, including vulnerability to things like stress, anxiety and postpartum depression. Not surprisingly, a 2018 study published in Frontiers in Psychology reveals that feeling pressure to be the perfect mother is related to parental burnout—defined by the authors as “emotional exhaustion of parents, emotional distancing from their children and reduced feelings of parental accomplishment and efficacy.”

All of these aren’t particularly appealing things to add to the laundry list of new-mom challenges.

So, when we ask a mom if her baby is good and if her baby is easy, it creates the illusion that there are certain benchmarks that our babies could meet if only we mothered a little bit better. Certainly, being a proactive parent can have a positive impact on our children’s lives in many ways. But sometimes babies cry or fight sleep for seemingly no reason. And some babies are more sensitive or vocal and require more attention. “Parents may feel like they’re doing something wrong if their baby is fussy, isn’t sleeping long stretches or needs to be soothed or fed frequently,” explains Rushton. “But most often, these behaviours are normal for a healthy developing baby.”   

I met with Rushton when my daughter was six weeks old, and she assured me that I was doing a great job and showed me a new way to cradle my little girl (clearly, I hadn’t held many newborns before). She never asked me if my daughter was good—it’s as if she simply assumed she was.

What we should be asking new moms

Photo of a new mom breastfeeding her new baby 28 self-care hacks for newbie parentsMoms can get a bit lost in the shuffle during those early months of parenthood, when everyone else has zeroed in on their new bundle of joy. It’s not surprising, then, that when I poll my mom friends about the helpful questions they were asked postpartum, their answers are practically unanimous: anything referring to their adjustment. Rushton suggests asking an open-ended question like “How are you finding being a new parent?” to create space for the new mom to talk about how she is managing.

Rushton says it’s also helpful to ask how you can support new parents. “Being specific with your question may encourage them to actually accept the help,” she says. For example, in addition to asking “How can I support you?” she proposes that offering to drop off a favourite meal or do the dishes while mom takes a nap can make all the difference.

How to respond when this question is (inevitably) asked

I realize that my plight with the “Is your baby good?” question could be seen as overly sensitive. In fact, I’m sure many new parents aren’t even fazed by it.

But for those of us who are left in its wake, feeling a bit annoyed, it can be helpful to consider who is doing the asking when composing a response. Your noisy neighbour? An ambiguous answer like “She’s sleeping like a baby!” might do the trick. The well-meaning retiree making conversation in the Superstore line-up? I typically reply in the upbeat yet self-deprecating manner favoured by Canadian social norms (“Oh yes, she’s really good, but we’ve definitely had our ups and downs!”).

But what about a fellow new mom? In my early months of motherhood, I was certainly guilty of asking The Question. After rushing through the other requisite queries—mom’s birth story, baby’s weight, yadda yadda yadda (these are beautiful things I typically love sharing, but in my postpartum haze, I think my listening capacity was at an all-time low)—I’d zero in on what I really wanted to know: Is the baby good? Of course, what I really meant was, Is my baby doing OK in comparison? Am I doing OK in comparison?

In these situations, if it feels authentic, what about trying a bit of commiseration? A friend of mine tells me that, when chatting with other moms at one of her baby groups, she will follow her response of “Yes, she’s an awesome little girl” with stories of their ongoing sleep battles. “I have no problem being honest, especially since the bags under my eyes give me away anyway!” she says. “And if my honesty makes another mom feel like she’s not alone, all the better.”

The ambiguous nature of good

I’m sure most of us would agree that all babies are inherently good. Sure, they can be frustrating, exasperating and confusing. But bad? I simply can’t wrap my sleep-deprived brain around that one.

After nine months of parenthood (although I’m not an expert), I’ve also learned that good is not a complete or fixed entity. In fact, it’s pretty ambiguous.

When I was four months postpartum, my neighbour trapped me in the mailroom with “Has she been a good baby?” My daughter had recently entered the infamous four-month sleep regression, which meant that both of us were exhausted. It also meant that there was a steady chorus of whining happening throughout the day—from both of us.

“We’re getting by!” I said through gritted teeth, trying frantically to manoeuvre my stroller past her and her damn question. What I really wanted to say was “No, actually, I have the hardest baby, this is the hardest job in the world, and I just want a day off!” (I remember immediately feeling guilty and showering my daughter with apologetic kisses, sure that she had somehow read my mind—or at least my frenetic energy.)

But now, at nine months old, my daughter has hit a sweet spot (it seems my independent little girl becomes happier and more content the more she can do for herself). Or maybe I’ve become more confident as a mom. Or maybe we’ve just found our groove together.

At any rate, if my neighbour asked me this question today, bolstered by a full night’s sleep, I’d probably answer with a proud and resounding “Yes,” while my daughter babbled contentedly beside me.

At the same time, my daughter, like all babies, has (and will continue to have) her sunny periods and her stormier ones, her warm sides and her cloudier ones. These things don’t make her good or bad; they make her, well, human.

And as her mom—who is also just human—I’m here to weather them all.

Read more:
How to get at least 8½ extra hours of sleep the first week with your newborn
To my friends with babies, I’d like to apologize

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