When is a baby ‘good’ or ‘bad’?

8 years ago
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As I sat in a coffee shop recently, I overheard a new mother telling a willing listener that her baby was only sleeping in 45 minute cycles. “Oh” groaned her friend sympathetically “how terrible”. The mother however was very quick to reply “oh but she is a good baby”. Really, when was she behaving as a ‘bad’ baby?

I saw a client last week who told me she had a ‘good’ baby. What is this word ‘good?’ The opposite of good is bad so when are babies bad? I haven’t met a good or a bad baby yet!!

However, I have had the privilege of holding & cuddling some ‘beautiful’ and ‘very cute’ babies who generally are behaving as newborn and older babies do as they grow. Their eat, sleep and play patterns are usually on track for their developmental ability and are all gorgeous in their own way. Regardless of what they are doing they could never be described as ‘good’ or ‘bad’.

The language we use around babies needs to be carefully considered and in most cases not used at all. I know specifically that babies are called ‘lazy’ by some in the hospital setting if, they are not feeding well by day three. No baby should be labelled as lazy! Some take a little longer than others to recover from birth and may need extra support with expressed colostrum for a couple of days until they are ready to breastfeed.

Using words incorrectly starts mums worrying they have a problematic ‘bad’ baby that leaves her feeling insecure and anxious about how to manage what is a essentially a non issue.

Conversely is this where the pressure starts as mothers try to reassure themselves all is well by using the word ‘good’ to describe behaviour they think their baby should be displaying? Throw away word or lines can have an intimidating effect on new mothers if they are not clarified or justified with interventions or strategies that maybe needed to support or change a baby’s behaviour.

The friend who moaned in sympathy to the new mother should have instead said reassuringly “oh that’s normal, I hope you had a snooze or a cup of tea?”
I wonder if by describing their babies as ‘good’ mothers are using this to defend their mothering and this worries me. The sleep trainers and sleep training books have a lot to answer to. Mothers feel pressure if their baby isn’t doing mythical eat play sleep routines. In mothers groups you can almost hear the ‘tut tuts ‘ from mothers as they watch other mothers who can’t ‘settle’ their babies or who have to feed them again, to help them off to sleep.

Our use of language or rather our misuse of language as health professionals, mothers and largely as women when talking to new mothers is a powerful and potentially dangerous tool. An off the cuff comment, a throw away line, the meaningless question – is your baby a good baby? and does your baby sleep through the night? is thoughtless and unhelpful. Naturally new mothers in particular will become defensive and say their baby is ‘good’ so their audience doesn’t judge them as a ‘bad’ mother!

I have never seen a bad mother yet. I see wonderful women who are tired, stressed, happy, disorganised(love them), unwell and often anxious about doing their very best to look after a baby with their own personality trying to adjust to the world around them.

It’s up to us, ‘the sisterhood’, mothers, women and professionals (usually women) to be mindful of the language we use and support mothers regardless of the age of their offspring. A reassuring smile, a hug, an offer of a cup of tea, the question “how are you?” with the time to listen to the answer from a new mother in particular will go a long way in helping her believe she is a mother doing a great job with her own very special baby.