Every new mother has to cope with some unsolicited advice on how to parent from her own parents, from well-meaning friends, even from strangers passing by on the street. Bookstores and libraries stock dozens of books that tell mothers how to keep their children happy, how to avoid spoiling them, how to get them to sleep through the night, how to encourage their intelligence and artistic abilities, and how to keep them healthy. We have heard more than one mother complain that there is too much information, much of it conflicting. With so much information and advice, it is hard to listen to one's instincts without some level of self-doubt.
What it all boils down to, however, is providing a good balance between the needs of the baby and the needs of the mother. If her baby is happy, appropriately stimulated, learning, and calm, a mother feels as though she's doing her job well. If her baby is fussy, bored, developmentally delayed, or prone to fits of screaming, the mother is stressed out and wonders what she is doing wrong.
We are not parenting experts, but we have noticed that women who practice a certain style of parenting, called attachment parenting, tend to have a somewhat easier and smoother time during the first few months postpartum. Attachment parenting involves two major guidelines. Neither guideline works for everyone, but if you find that either or both works for you, go ahead and put it to use. Whatever your approach, keep in mind that you know best how to mother your own children, and no book or theory can change that. Listen to your instincts, and if they tell you that these practices are right for you, great; if not, do what feels best and brings the greatest results and satisfaction.
The first and most important tenet of attachment parenting is that babies, before they are able to move around on their own, should be carried and held whenever possible. Most small babies do not want to be put down for any length of time, not even in a stroller or car seat, and put up a considerable fuss until they are picked up and held. Babies that are carried most of the time are calmer and cry less. As these children grow older, they tend to be less clingy, because their need for physical closeness to their caregivers has been fulfilled; they feel more secure when it comes time to explore the world. Rapport between mother and baby is improved tremendously when the baby is in near-constant physical contact with the mom. Other caregivers, including Dad, can take turns carrying and holding the baby when you need a break or if you must work.
To make this amount of carrying and holding your baby an easier proposition, invest in a few different baby carriers that allow you to tote your little one hands-free. Then you will be able to go about your daily life while baby observes and naps from his comfy perch. Your baby's brain and nervous system development are promoted by constant movement and observation of you at your everyday tasks. Most of the mothers we have talked with like front packs and over-the-shoulder slings. The advantage of the sling is that it is versatile and can be used, with a few minor adjustments, to nurse discreetly in public. If your baby falls asleep in the sling, you can simply take the sling off while she is in it and lay her down on a bed or in her crib. Pediatrician William Sears, M.D., one of the best known proponents of attachment parenting, calls this carrying period babywearing. Generally, it lasts from birth until the baby begins to crawl, walk, and engage in independent play somewhere around nine months.
The second recommendation of attachment parenting is co-sleeping sleeping with your baby. Modern American convention frowns upon this practice, citing the dangers of baby being squashed by sleeping parents or being at increased risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). There are recorded instances of intoxicated or grossly overweight parents harming their children while co-sleeping, but otherwise, it is a perfectly safe practice, and has not been shown to increase SIDS risk.
Many parents who put their babies down in cribs to sleep end up bringing their babies into their beds practically every night because it is easier than continually getting up to feed the baby and soothe her back to a deep enough sleep to slip her back into her crib.
In most cases, mothers who sleep with their infants during those first months sleep better. Such a mother does not have to get up for nighttime feedings, but can simply roll over and offer baby the breast as soon as she starts looking for it. The baby never gets to the point of panicked wailing, and so is more quickly soothed back to sleep. And co-sleeping mothers we know tell us that waking up with their babies is one of the most magical parts of their day. Mothers who have to return to work soon after giving birth benefit most from co-sleeping, which allows them time for bonding that they may miss out on during the day.
If you or your spouse have reservations about sharing your bed with your baby, you can try keeping baby's crib right next to your bed, or you can invest in a co-sleeper a crib designed to attach to the side of the bed, creating a small extension where the baby can sleep within arm's reach. Of course, some parents and children don't sleep well together, and do better with the more typical parents-in-bed, baby-in-crib-in-nursery setup. Again it's all about what works best for your family.
If you would like to know more about babywearing, co-sleeping, or other attachment parenting practices, refer to the excellent books on baby care by William Sears, M.D.