Giving birth is a transformative experience for new parents, especially mothers. They feel gratitude, excitement, and indescribable joy. But they also face some struggles, right alongside the pleasures. Bringing a new child into the family changes its structure and functioning in many ways. Those changes require a ton of adjustment for all, but moms get hit the hardest as they recover mentally and physically from labor. Because of this, there is some shit you just don’t need to say.
It’s important for individuals to be mindful of the way their comments can affect new parents, said Juli Fraga, a psychologist who specializes in maternal mental health in San Francisco. “We never know how a new mother is feeling and harsh comments can perpetuate mommy guilt and shame. If a woman is struggling with depression or anxiety, these types of comments may make her feel worse.”
Friends and loved ones need to be particularly sensitive to the possible consequences of giving advice. “Most people depend on our social networks including elders and family members for advice,” said Joia Crear-Perry, president of National Birth Equity Collaborative and Steering Committee Black Mamas Matter Alliance. “Right after having a baby, that need is even more heightened, especially for baby number one. They don’t come with instructions,” she said.
If you find yourself in a situation where someone has given birth but you’re not sure what to say to them, think to yourself, “Could this be taken as a judgment by an exhausted and potentially so-overwhelmed-they-haven’t-had-time-to-shower-in-three-days person?” If so, just smile and nod. If not sure, read ahead, even if you’ve already had kids. That new mom needs your support more now than ever.
“Enjoy every moment. It goes by so fast.”
New parents wait nine months or possibly even longer if the baby arrived via adoption. Chances are they don’t need to be told to enjoy their child.
“I totally get that there is a simplicity to those early days of parenting that some people might look back on fondly. But I didn’t treasure being exhausted and constantly nursing and changing 9 million diapers a day. Sorry,” said Emily F., mom of one.
Taking care of a newborn can mean never being alone but always feeling lonely. That’s a lot to process.
New motherhood is exhausting and can be downright scary: Research shows women struggle with decreased self-esteem and identity issues after they have their first babies. By telling a struggling new parent to “enjoy every moment,” you’re invalidating their experience and feeding self-doubt.
“When are you thinking about having another?”
Research indicates it’s best for the woman’s body and future birth outcomes to wait at least 18 months before conceiving again. Despite this, many new parents are bombarded with questions about “the next one” before they can get used to the new one.
You don’t have to force small talk to fill the silence. Instead, redirect that energy to clean, babysit, or let her enjoy the quiet time.
“Are you watching your weight?”
Aside from that one-in-a-million mom who had abs while pregnant, it’s normal and healthy to experience weight gain during pregnancy. If you noticed the extra pounds, you can rest assured the person gaining them has. Weight-related comments that focus on achieving a “pre-baby body” can lead to self-esteem issues.
Weight loss doesn’t necessarily reflect healthy diet and lifestyle.
“Weight-related comments are intrusive and judgmental, especially for mothers. It can be harmful when friends make seemingly kind comments, like ‘You don’t even look like you had a baby!’ These statements erase the woman’s newfound identity and can convey that the bodily changes that accompany pregnancy should be erased. If a woman struggles with an eating disorder, these statements can make her feel even worse,” Fraga explains.
Besides, weight loss doesn’t necessarily reflect healthy diet and lifestyle.
“How old are they? Your baby is so tiny.”
Every new parent is aware of their child’s size. It isn’t necessary to remind them on every visit that they have a smaller-than-usual or bigger-than-usual child. Babies, like everything else in the world, come in assorted shapes and sizes, with a healthy range varying from 5 to 11 pounds. Similarly, the range of length depends on the gestation period, the heights of the parents, and so on. Please don’t add the size of their babies to the list of things new parents have to stress over.
*See above option of silence.
“My children breastfed just fine.”
Fraga believes comments on breast- and bottle-feeding can have unintended effects on new moms. “Pressure to breastfeed or the negative comments toward moms who are breastfeeding both negatively impact new moms,” she explains. Most public places lack nursing accommodations, and it can send a breastfeeding mother a discouraging message. But formula moms receive disapproving messages, too—for denying their babies the nutrition from breast milk. Simultaneously being told “breast is best” and “cover up, you can’t do that here,” new moms can feel overwhelmed by the mixed messages. We’re screwed regardless of what we do.
The goal is a healthy baby, not first prize in a contest.
The breastfeeding experience varies from person to person and from baby to baby. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 60 percent of mothers do not breastfeed for as long as they intend to because of many factors, including issues with lactation and latching, unsupportive work policies and lack of parental leave, cultural norms and/or lack of family support, and unsupportive hospital practices and policies.
If someone is struggling with breastfeeding and makes the decision to formula feed or to opt out of breastfeeding altogether, it is not anyone else’s job to judge.
“Oh, you had a C-section? Do you want to experience real labor?”
Babies enter the world many ways: through vaginal delivery or cesarean section, under the assistance of natural birthing hormones or labor-inducing drugs. The goal is a healthy baby, not first prize in a contest, and it is never appropriate to judge a new parent about the way their baby entered the world.
In the United States, 31.9 percent of births are C-sections. They are often seen as an unnecessary medical intervention, but the truth is that they can be a critical part of the birth experience and can save lives of moms and babies.
Dawn, mother of two, says new moms can’t win regardless of what birth method they choose and advises against the comments altogether. “I heard so many comments that I was crazy because I endured 46 hours of labor without drugs. My choice is the same as other women choosing a C-section, and it shouldn’t be OK to comment disparagingly about either,” she says.
“My kids slept through the night.”
The “how does your baby sleep” question annoys everyone. Anyone who said their new baby slept through the night is probably a liar. However, they possibly were in such a sleep-deprived state that their memory was affected, and those less-rosy moments of early parenthood got buried.
76 percent of parents have frequent sleep problems.
According to Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, most babies do not begin sleeping through the night (six to eight hours) until at least 3 months of age, because of their small stomachs and need for constant feedings, and sleep is commonly irregular until age 1 or older.
Rebecca A. believes sleep questions are cruel and unusual punishment. “[Don’t ask,] ‘Is he sleeping through the night?’ say, ‘Sleep when he does,’ or ask, ‘How are you sleeping?’ or anything else about sleep. Because, no. The answer is no. Obviously, no. You know it’s no,” she says.
“Newborn babies eat every two to four hours. There is no sleeping all night for a while,” Crear-Perry says. In other words, that question is ignorant.
“Sleep when they sleep.”
Do not ever fix your lips to say this to a new parent. Ever. Babies, especially newborns, often sleep in randomized patterns and awake in demanding bursts. When they do, it’s often signaled by blood-curdling screams and heartbreaking cries. Maybe the new mother was just starting REM sleep when this siren went off. Either way, sleep becomes a dangling carrot—always in front of you but impossible to hold on to.
Similar to the above comment, the so-called advice of “sleep when they sleep” adds to the stress because sleep to a new parent is the stuff of fairytales—and each sleepless night pushes them closer to their edge. Lack of sleep literally causes symptoms like those from schizophrenia.
Furthermore, a poll by the National Sleep Foundation found that 76 percent of parents have frequent sleep problems. Fragmented patterns have negative consequences on mood, focus, and cognitive functioning.
In a perfect world, you and your baby would look at each other affectionately, yawn, and simultaneously fall asleep in a loving embrace. In the real world, sleep involves tears, exhausted pleading, and dark under-eye circles.
“‘Remember to sleep when the baby sleeps.’ Yeah, OK. Except insomnia. And dishes. And zombie newborns who only snooze in 30-minute increments,” said Rachael G., mom of one.
A. Rochaun Meadows-Fernandez is an award-winning author, speaker, and journalist, specializing in health and diversity. She is a Prism Contributing Fellow, Voting Rights (2019-2020), a Regional Coordinator (Cheyenne) in the Feminist Leaders For Reproductive Justice through Auburn Seminary, and the author of Investigating Institutional Racism.