There’s no shortage of advice that new moms receive — and a lot of it is often garbage. “Sleep when your baby sleeps” has never proven to be helpful to me, and “put your baby down to sleep ‘awake but drowsy’” has often resulted in more tears than necessary. However, there’s one piece of advice that moms often whisper to each other — a tidbit that you probably won’t find if you scour the internet looking for baby tips. It’s the kind of secret that truly changes your world, and it’s something that you only understand once you’ve been in the trenches of motherhood yourself:
It’s okay to put your crying baby down and walk away.
It's a piece of advice that often comes from an unexpected source — an aunt, passing through to see the baby, a friend you don't see enough of, or even a particularly trenchant pediatrician. At the time, it can sound cruel, an unwanted piece of advice. As Maggie Gyllenhaal said to great comic effect in Away We Go, "I love my baby, why would I want to push her away?"
It’s a directive that seems counterintuitive to what we imagine as “good parenting.” Leaving a crying baby for even 10 seconds feels cruel, let alone a couple of minutes. But once you’re in the throes of life with a new baby, just having that permission can be life-altering.
I first heard this nugget of wisdom from a friend of mine who has a two-year-old. I was telling her about how my baby was fighting naps all of the time, and how it sometimes took 20, 30, or 40 minutes to get her to sleep. It was frustrating, but also made me feel like I was doing something wrong.
“Do you ever just take a break?” she asked me. “Like, do you just put her down in her crib and step out of the room for a few minutes?”
It hadn’t even occurred to me that I could do that. I suppose I imagined that she needed me constantly, and if I left her for a minute or two, it would make things worse.
But my friend reassured me that it would be better for both of us. “Think of it as a reset button,” she said. “You both get a break, and then you can try again.”
And it turned out that she was right. During those 30+ minute nap battles, I’ve started taking breaks. When I sense that my baby is getting worked up, I lay her in her crib, and slip out of the room for a minute or two. I get a drink of water, go to the bathroom, and then re-enter the nursery. By that time, she’s usually calmed down a little, and I often find her playing with her feet or sucking on her hands. It’s better, as my friend said, for both of us.
Moms who have been there know that it’s not realistic to hold your baby every second of every day, as much as you might plan to do just that.
Moreover, I’ve learned that it’s OK to put my baby down in other circumstances, too. In the first few weeks, I was holding her constantly while she was awake, negating my ability to get anything done around the house. Now, I’ll sometimes lay her in her swing or in her play gym while I make lunch or answer an email. And she’s completely fine — she’s not neglected or bored or mad that I put her down. If anything, she enjoys the freedom to play with her toys and roll around.
New moms already face a ton of pressure, whether it’s from society’s emphasis on exclusive breastfeeding, or the limitations of maternity leave. On top of that, there’s the pressure that we put on ourselves, which is sometimes the worst of all. The truth is that being a new mother is hard work, and it’s never-ending. It’s a 24/7 stream of challenges, worries, and emotional labor. If there’s anything we can do for ourselves to lessen the load, we should do it without question.
And that’s where that “secret society” piece of advice comes in. Moms who have been there know that it’s not realistic to hold your baby every second of every day, as much as you might plan to do just that. And those moms also know that it’s not going to do any harm to your baby to lay them down for a few moments on their own.
The bottom line is that it’s important for new moms to take care of themselves, too. Sustaining and fostering human life is more than a full-time job — it completely consumes your world. It’s essential for us to preserve our own sanity, to take time for self-care, even in the littlest of ways. At the end of the day, our babies will thank us for it, because it means we can be even better moms.
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