The New Moms On TikTok Need To Try Doing Less
Trust me, you’ll enjoy your baby more if you stop focusing on them so much
“Miss Lydia is 2 weeks old and we started taking 30 minutes a day to integrate some activities for her,” intoned a mom, demonstrating baby massage techniques, reflex-testing tickles, and tummy time. Another mom shared her newborn’s routine, segmented into time-stamped, five-minute increments: reading, outdoor time, wiggling on a colorful mat while blinking serenely in the direction of the camera.
I was scrolling through Twitter in a fugue state, soon after giving birth to my second baby, when these videos flashed across my screen. The stitches from my episiotomy were still cushioned by five layers of absorbent undergarments, as I passed my phone from hand to hand and transferred my ravenous baby from one breast to the other. The pregnancy content that had dominated my feed for months had been replaced, with unnervingly synchronistic timing, by videos of squishy, blinking babies and their barely-postpartum mothers. And these mothers, the mothers of TikTok, were ready to show me how to navigate the bleary days and nights ahead.
I was so sleep-deprived — and their insights were so tidy and hypnotic — that they almost convinced me I could impose order on the chaos of the fourth trimester. Was my baby’s well-being, as well as my own, dependent on ordering a set of high-contrast board books, and ensuring he went down for a nap after exactly 90 minutes of awake time? Would everything be perfect if we could only solve the elusive book-jammies-lotion equation?
But as desperate as I was, and as tired as I felt, I had been here before. I knew better. Babies are mercurial, stubborn, and wildly unpredictable. The person whose emotional life most needs tending to in those early days is your own.
The days after birth are raw, and social media is a balm. When I gave birth to my first child in 2019, Instagram was my constant companion during those late-night nursing sessions, but I have since downloaded TikTok. I’m not alone; the number of moms using TikTok has doubled in the last two years, and now a full 50% of us are on TikTok — making it nearly as popular as Instagram.
I was so tired, and everything was so hard. The inside of my brain was as blank and staticky as the hum from the white noise machine. The moms on TikTok were always available, reliably numbing, and optimized for the fragmented attention of the exhausted new parent. It’s like a support group that you can access on the toilet, filled with other new parents swimming upstream against the same currents of exhaustion and anxiety.
It was impossible not to notice how the mom content had evolved from one platform to the next. When my first child was tiny, Instagram teemed with magazine-ready depictions of motherhood. The reigning aesthetic was polished and joyful: eye-wateringly-expensive baby carriers, color-coordinated nurseries, and organic homemade baby food, all arranged in a shoppable tableau of blissful motherhood. This made me feel like shit, obviously.
But TikTok motherhood was less like a catalog and more like a spycam, offering intimate and unvarnished glimpses into the tedious, unglamorous aspects of new parenthood: bouncing the baby on a yoga ball in the middle of the night, the blinking light of the coffee machine at dawn, the neverending loads of laundry. Just as you can find “day in the life” videos by private chefs in the Hamptons or stay-at-home girlfriends, there are endless videos documenting bedtime routines, morning rituals, and “wake windows” with their newborn babies. The content is more relatable than the pristine beige nurseries that once dominated my Instagram feed. Though I can never quite forget that before the mom on TikTok lifts her newborn out of his bassinet, she has to set up the phone to record the moment first.
American culture is obsessed with figuring out the “right” ways to parent, and on TikTok, that fixation begins at birth.
These 4th trimester content creators are just doing their jobs, after all. “Obviously mothers in all jobs have to work way too soon after childbirth, but I think it just highlights the pressures of capitalism,” said Sara Petersen, whose nonfiction book Momfluenced analyzes the performance of motherhood on social media. But Petersen thinks that the content creators posting their 4 a.m. pumping sessions might be doing it for altruistic reasons, too. “Creating this content could be grounding them, and giving them a sense of purpose,” she tells me, when I call her during my baby’s most reliable nap. “The newborn stage can be so monotonous and can feel so empty that having a task, and feeling as though the task is rooted in helping others, could serve a function for these women other than just monetary gain.”
If Instagram was aspirational, TikTok is instructive: even before giving birth, my feed was full of advice, hacks, recipes, how-tos; giving birth just changed the subject from eluding human traffickers in a Target parking lot to optimizing my baby’s routine. This proliferation of educational content reflects the fact that TikTok functions like a search engine — and few people have as many burning questions as a new parent, desperate to know why their baby wakes up as soon as they touch the bassinet. While any search engine will yield articles and blog posts written for parents, TikTok videos are succinct, uncannily personalized, and easy to absorb in a sleep-deprived state. In their echoing repetition and soothing tones, these videos promise answers to the most urgent question of all: How can I be a good parent?
North American culture is obsessed with figuring out the “right” ways to parent — gently, multiculturally, scrunchily — and on TikTok, that fixation begins at birth, where content creators are filming videos while they’re still in the maternity ward. You can compare your 1-week-old baby against those on your feed, and measure how well they’re meeting expectations: abiding by a schedule, striving toward their first milestones, already sleeping through the night thanks to a seven-step routine. “Any tips for tummy time? My 6 week old is really lazy,” one commenter wrote under a video of a time-stamped newborn schedule. The TikTok moms are linking to black-and-white flashcards, promising they’ll help your newborn learn to track objects with their eyes — something, it must be said, that babies since the dawn of time have figured out without our coaching them. The implicit lesson is that whenever our newborns are awake, we should be focused entirely on their enrichment and development, making meaningful eye contact with them like we’re at a job interview that never ends.
If I could give one piece of advice to the parents who are desperately searching for it on TikTok, it would be this: you’ll enjoy your baby a lot more if you think about what you might enjoy for a change.
This parenting hustle culture is partly responsible for the popularity of Emily Oster, who uses her training as an economist to guide parents in the exhausting analysis of every micro-decision, and who receives questions to her massively popular Substack like, “How can I make my 6-month-old baby smarter?” and “What does the data say about the optimal amount of tummy time?” Videos that prey on this anxiety by suggesting you could be parenting better are especially popular — a phenomenon that Vox writer Anna North describes as the “you’re doing it wrong-ification” of TikTok.
“The culture of information, as it pertains to parenting and child development online, can be really claustrophobic,” Petersen says, “Because I think there's this sense that if I'm not going out of my way to become an expert on every facet of childhood, then I am willingly making the choice to not enrich my child's life. Like if you don't opt in, you're taking some sort of a stand against being a good mother, which is of course ridiculous.” And it’s easy, Petersen says, to obsess over how your baby compares to others, and worry that it’s somehow your fault they’re not rolling over yet; TikTok allows you to crank the dial on that anxiety with on-demand fodder for comparison, filtered through their precisely-targeted algorithm that seems to know exactly how old your baby is.
It’s true that some parents find this kind of content genuinely helpful, and filling your days is one of the more challenging aspects of having a tiny baby. “These videos make it look so deceptively simple, just by dint of routine,” says Petersen. “Like, ‘I can quell the panic inside me by simply doing X, Y, and Z, and then everything in between these little tasks will similarly stop feeling so hard and existentially difficult.’ I can see the allure in believing that a routine can sort of shape one's entire existence.” It’s tempting to give in to this fantasy that you are in control, and that you can usher your baby toward a healthy, successful future one carefully-orchestrated wake window at a time. It’s equally tempting to submit to this fantasy’s dark inverse, which is that if your child someday experiences pain or unhappiness, it will be because you didn’t do enough tummy time with them.
If I could give one piece of advice to the parents who are desperately searching for it on TikTok, it would be this: you’ll enjoy your baby a lot more if you stop focusing on them so much, and think about what you might enjoy for a change.
There are years and years ahead to cater to your child’s every whim. The fourth trimester is for you.
Maybe that is scrolling on TikTok, where I’m skipping past the newborn videos in favor of rollerskating techniques and noodle recipes again. My second baby has recently joined me on a rewatch of all six seasons of Girls, and he’s pleased to report that it’s aged pretty well. He’s come on coffee dates with friends and thrift shopping excursions, which often mess up the nap schedule that he was never interested in following to begin with. Sometimes I eat a bag of chips with theatrical gusto, and he seems to enjoy that. Despite our lack of flashcards, he can track the Dorito on its journey from bag to mouth, and that’s something to be proud of.
Everyone tells you that when you have a baby, the time flies by, and this is true. Your baby changes day by day, and so do you, and suddenly you realize all the decisions you agonized over didn’t matter at all. I’ve come to believe that routines aren’t for babies at all, but for parents. The baby, after all, will be fine, as long as you try to love them and not drop them. Most babies learn to roll and sleep and laugh regardless of whether you curate their days and activities. If doing those things brings you comfort in a turbulent time, great! But this time around, I ignored the siren song of intensive parenting and found I had more fun with my baby when we stopped spending so much time on his playmat and went out to do things that I enjoyed.
Listen, when your newborn becomes a toddler and then a child, they will have so many demands and expectations of their own, and you will find yourself complying with an increasingly savvy negotiator: fine, you can listen to “Let It Go” on repeat; you can sleep in your sparkly red shoes; you can paint with your hands instead of a brush; you can watch another episode of Bluey. These are not failures, but acknowledgements of the fact that your child is a person, with their own sophisticated and specific desires that will bump up against yours as they grow. But with a newborn, you don’t have to compromise. There are years and years ahead to cater to your child’s every whim. The fourth trimester is for you.
Michelle Cyca is an award-winning writer and editor who spends too much time online. She lives in Vancouver, Canada, with her family. Find more of her writing at michellecyca.com.