How can people ask new moms the right questions if they don't know what they are? In order to support these mamas, let's start talking about asking the right questions!
Many new moms are faced with well-meaning family members or even strangers asking about their well-being but in back-handed ways that can make a mother feel inadequate or like she is doing something "wrong."
Questions like the following often spark a bit of resentment and inadequacy in new moms who are already experiencing a variety of emotions, and sleep deprivation, that can make them read into a well-meaning question in a different way than they are intended simply because their emotions are running high. Some of those questions include:
"Is he a good baby?"
"Does she sleep through the night?"
"Does he cry a lot?"
"Are you sleeping when the baby sleeps?"
These questions are common, but they are harmful and we need to do better at supporting new moms. Some people ask these questions because that's what they've heard others ask. Some ask because they've had easy babies or difficult babies, and they want to relate.
But I remember these questions, and they sting. My first baby, for whatever reason, would cry every night starting around 7 pm. I'd nurse him and rock him, bounce and sway with him strapped to my body, change his diaper, give him a bath, put more clothes on him or strip him down. Nothing helped. The nurse I saw told me he wasn't colicky, because he didn't cry 24/7.
Related: Does It Really Work to "Sleep When Baby Sleeps?"
He also didn't sleep. The first couple days of his life, he slept so much I thought something might be wrong. Then, everything changed. I tried everything. I breastfed and wore him in my sling. I tried white noise and blackout shades; I co-slept and napped with him, and eventually tried having him sleep in a crib next to my bed, just to see if it would work. But nothing worked.
It was even worse when he started teething, which started when he was about 4 months old. The teeth didn't pop through right away, of course. They went up and down, twisting and shifting, trying to push their way through his gums. It is an inevitably painful experience which has been compared to having a migraine.
At present, when I think about it, it was such a small bump in the road. Soon enough, my baby grew out of his sleeplessness, and suddenly he's nine years old and has no need for me to help him get to sleep.
But, at the time, it was comparable to torture. The sleeplessness of new motherhood is tragically compounded by the feeling that something is wrong, the feeling that you're missing some sign of illness, or something's wrong and you just can't figure it out.
And then, on top of it all, everyone seems interested in whether or not a new mother lucked out by miraculously having a "good" baby.
A "good" baby apparently means a baby who sleeps through the night (even though night-waking can help prevent SIDS), and doesn't cry much (even though crying is one way that babies communicate their needs).
If a new mom has a baby who wakes frequently or cries a lot, how are they supposed to answer that question? "No, my baby is a bad baby"?
I remember forcing a smile when someone would ask if my child was a good baby. I'd say yes, even though I was suffering. What else could I say? When I took a chance and admitted that my baby didn't sleep much, and it was really tough, and I wasn't sure what was wrong, people got uncomfortable. That's not the answer you're supposed to give, apparently.
We push new moms into a corner by asking them this awkward question. If they're fortunate enough to have an easy baby, they get to be honest about their good fortune. Otherwise, we force them to lie or tell an uncomfortable truth which people aren't really looking for.
With that in mind, here are 10 things to say to a new mom instead of "Is s/he a good baby?"
1. How are you feeling? Simply checking in can be helpful and meaningful. See how mom is doing, and listen without automatically giving unwanted advice.
2. Do you want to tell me your birth story? Not everyone wants to tell their birth story, but it can be a healing option for new moms, especially if their birth was particularly empowering, or less than ideal. Be a non-judgmental listening ear.
3. Do you have any questions? Offering unwanted advice can be problematic, but asking a new mom if she has any questions can open to door to a good conversation, as well as the opportunity to offer thoughtful advice and support.
4. You look amazing! Adjusting to new motherhood can be a challenge in many ways, especially the physical changes that come along with pregnancy and the postpartum period. It's hard to find time to shower, never mind find the energy to invest into looking and feeling amazing. Give a new mom a self-esteem boost.
5. You are a great mom. This is something every mom needs to hear, especially new moms who are full of questions and doubt. Hearing that they are doing a good job can be life-changing.
6. Can I bring you a meal? Food is so important after having a baby. Food that a new mom doesn't have to cook herself is even better. Find out her favorites and stop by to drop some off.
7. Can I take your older kids to the park? If the mom has older children, having someone give them some attention can be helpful. Offer to take her kids to the park, or just come over and play with them for a while.
8. I heard a funny story today... Sometimes moms want to have conversations that don't necessarily revolve around their children. Tell a mom a joke, a funny story, or something about a topic you know they'd enjoy. Engage their intellectual side, or their humorous side. Take the focus off parenting for a minute.
9. I am proud of you. This is another statement every mom needs to hear. Tell her why you're proud: for breastfeeding, for being strong, for continuing on despite sleeplessness, for making it through a tough birth.
10. Can I come clean your house while you take a nap with your baby? Postpartum visitors often want to stop by to hold the baby. While that can be helpful, it's even better to let mom and baby rest while you do some housework.
11. When I was a new mom… This isn't meant to spark a competition between two mothers or to give you the room give unsolicited advice. Rather, this is an opportunity to tell another mom a story of a difficult day, night, or situation you experienced as a new mom in order to relate to her and let her know that she isn't alone in her struggles.
12. Can I hold the baby for you? Sometimes mom just needs a break. Even if that means holding the baby while she switches laundry or drinks her coffee without bouncing and swaying, letting someone else physically hold the baby can be a huge help.
13. Do you want to go for a walk? Light, low-impact physical exercise is so important after having a baby. Being outdoors and getting some exercise can significantly boost a mother's mood and help her feel a little bit better. Sometimes all she needs is someone to ask her to join them in order for her to feel motivated.
14. Go take a nap while I sit with the baby. Sure, sleeping when the baby sleeps is great. But what about letting mom nap while the baby is awake so that when the baby is sleeping she can go take a shower or fold laundry, or even spend time with one of her other children?
15. What can I get you from the store? Although it may not seem like much, offering to grab any necessities from the store for your friend with a new baby can be a huge help. Going to the grocery store with a newborn or infant is difficult, and its even worse when you forget that one thing. Sending her a quick text to offer to pick anything up that she needs when you head to the store can be huge for her.
Related: Newborns Sleeping Through the Night: A Dangerous Myth
Being a new mom is tough. When your friend or family member has a new baby and you aren't sure what you can do to help, just try to remember what you needed when you were in her situation. Chances are that she is needing the same sort of things in terms of help with the baby, help around the house, or emotional support.
What do you want to hear as a new mom, instead of "Is he a good baby?" Add yours below!