Data Babies

It is not unusual for new mothers to have some anxiety about their babies and about themselves as mothers. Crying, feeding, sleeping may generate worries. Am I able to comfort a crying baby, is the nursing providing enough food, are sleep patterns going as they should? These are typical concerns of inexperienced first-time mothers.

It is also not unusual for new parents to consult books and articles to get answers to some of their questions about the expectable behavior of infants and if what their baby is doing is “normal.” First time mothers are older than in past years and have had experience in the work place. Many mothers have told me how unsettling it is to discover that the feeling of competence they had at work doesn’t carry over to mothering.

One mother said that at work there was always a right way to do something and it was natural to look for that right way in caring for a baby. Also, the fantasy of what it will be like to have a baby is different from the reality. Books that give information and advice about pregnancy are often read by prospective new mothers and it almost seems as if once the baby is born the goal has been accomplished.

But the reality of an actual living dependent being for whom you are responsible, who may cry inconsolably at times, and whose sleep patterns don’t conform to your own, feels quite different from something one reads in a book. There is no way to really prepare anyone for the life change that occurs with the birth of a baby.

There are issues that arise in caring for an infant that can make you question whether you are doing the “right” thing. Mothers sometimes seek advice from others more experienced or from the pediatrician. This is the era of “big data” used to shed light on all kinds of things and recently I came across someone writing about the benefit of statistics in answering various questions about baby care. In other words, to help make a decision about breast feeding or sleep training, for example. The idea is to use the statistical evidence pro or con in deciding what to do.

Statistics are based on research, which in turn is based on numbers as well as other factors, such as the reliability of the method, the use of control groups and the number of subjects. The point is that the findings tell you about the pros or cons of an issue for a group, not for a specific individual. In other words, x number of mothers reported positively about sleep training while y number reported negatively. What does that tell you about your child?

In this particular example of a question that many mothers raise, one has to ask who is the actual mother and who is the actual baby? What is the actual sleep issue that raises the need for training? Is the mother able to tolerate any fussing or crying by the baby? How long does the crying go on? Does it escalate if there is no response from a parent? Is this a fussy or generally easy baby?

These are questions best answered by a parent herself about her baby and herself, not by data extrapolated from a large population. Throughout child rearing most issues involve interactions between parent and child. In this instance, helping an infant become regulated with regard to sleeping and eating may require a parent to tolerate some crying to determine if the baby will self-soothe or if comfort from a parent is truly necessary.

There are no right answers to the questions. A major challenge in being a parent is tolerating uncertainty.