You put a lot of time and energy into learning about pregnancy and preparing for birth. Once you cross that finish line and are holding your baby, a whole new adventure begins. Although being a parent is a lifelong journey, you can get started on the right track now. Learn about evidence-based parenting on some of the most important things for the first year. This episode covers topics like attachment, sleep, and play. Plus, some research-based tactics to make sure you are nurturing yourself as a parent and meeting your own needs as you build a relationship with your baby.
Thank you to Jen Lumanlan for sharing her expertise for this episode. Jen is the host of the Your Parenting Mojo podcast. She interviews all the best experts in parenting and child development. Jen is so much more than a podcast host. She focuses on a rigorous research-based approach and has multiple master’s degrees, including psychology and education. Jen is a pro at digging through research and applying principles of respectful parenting to help parents and kids thrive.
Jen Lumanlan is my #1 resource for all things parenting. She teamed up with Hannah and Kelty from Upbringing to create the Right from the Start course. This course walks you through everything you need to navigate the first year of your baby’s life. It covers challenges with sleep, attachment, feeding, siblings, your own sense of self as a person – and so much more! You can click here to grab the free roadmap that walks you through the entire framework of this course. If you decide you need more support, take advantage of 15% off the Right from the Start course with the code PREGNANCYPODCAST. (The first open enrollment is from 6/19 to 6/30/21. It is only offered four times per year.)
Transcript and Resources
Vanessa: Today on the podcast, I have Jen Lumanlan. You may know her as the host of the Your Parenting Mojo podcast. She interviews all the best experts in parenting and child development. Jen is so much more than a podcast host. She focuses on a rigorous research-based approach and has multiple master’s degrees, including psychology and education. Jen is a pro at digging through research and applying principles of respectful parenting to help parents and kids thrive. I truly cannot say enough good things about Jen and the value I have gotten from her podcast and courses I have taken that have helped me navigate my parenting journey. Jen, thank you so much for joining me on the podcast today.
Jen: Thank you. It’s really great to be back.
Vanessa: I know it’s been a while.
Jen: It has been a long time.
Vanessa: I know I shortened your bio quite a bit. Is there anything else that you wanted to add?
Jen: No, I don’t think so. I was just thinking right before we got on the call about how we both had little baby podcasts the last time we talked. Yours was a bit further along than mine, I think.
Preparing for Parenting
Vanessa: Yeah, and now we have podcasts that are grown-up and bigger kids. You are my go-to resource for all of the parenting things. Today on the podcast, we wanted to talk a little bit about preparing for having a baby and everything that goes in that first year. Many parents put a lot of effort, time, and energy into pregnancy and birth plans. That’s kind of the land that I live in, and I like to help parents plan for all of those things. Many parents are not prepared for what the heck you’re supposed to do once you have a baby that you bring home. Do you want to talk a bit about your experience with that and where you found yourself once you were holding your baby and your parenting journey?
Jen: Yeah, I guess my preparation was probably very similar to most of your listeners. I wonder if it’s a cultural thing where we focus on the things that we think we can control. It seems as though when you’re in pregnancy, there’s a lot that you can control. There’s obviously a lot that you can’t, but a lot of it is decisions you have to make. Do I want this procedure or not? Do I want to know this or not? How do I want the birth experience to be like? Of course, there’s some element of not being in control there where some things are going to happen, whether you want them to or not.
To some extent, these are things that you can research and understand and know about. I think I fell into the same pattern, and I think most people fall into it. Which is, oh yeah, I’m going to get a baby at the end of it, and I’ve got 18 years to figure that part out. How much really can I prepare for that? How much can I know about that right now? Probably not very much. I’ll figure it out as I go along. That’s kind of it, you know. I had no idea there was any more to know or to think about. So yeah, my birth plan went through. I mean, it was multiple drafts. There were probably three drafts and very little thought to anything that would come later.
Vanessa: My experience with parenting was thinking a new baby is just diapering and feeding. I didn’t think much ahead about the parenting relationship or look into different styles of parenting or any of those things at all. As you said, I thought we’ll just figure that out as we go.
Vanessa: Can you talk a little bit about respectful parenting and explain what that concept is for someone that’s not familiar with it?
Jen: Yeah. I think respectful parenting is a bit of a difficult term for a lot of parents because when we were young, respect was used in a certain way in our families for a lot of us. It meant that the child would respect the parents. You will respect me because I’m your parent, because I’m older than you because I’m bigger than you, because I can make you do what I say. Respectful parenting really sort of turns that on its head and looks at a respectful relationship between a parent and a child and that being a two-way relationship. If parents are listening to this and thinking, but I’m having a baby who is not capable of speaking, how can I be in a respectful relationship with a baby? This was something I didn’t learn about until about four months after my daughter was born.
I think I mentioned the last time we talked that it actually was complete chance. We had some friends over who were moving cross country. I think they came to say goodbye before they left. My friend’s son ran down the hallway, and he was going towards our bedroom. My friend said, “Jack, please don’t go in the bedroom, that’s private. You can come back into the living room, or you can go and play in the nursery”. He stopped on the threshold of our bedroom, and he looked in, and he ran back the other way. I was just completely amazed. The kid was two years old at the time. They said you have got to read this book by Magda Gerber, Your Self-Confident Baby. It really talks about this mutually respectful relationship between even the very youngest baby and an adult.
What are some of the ways that can come out in a relationship with a baby? Well, it means doing things like telling your baby or even asking your baby before you pick them up. In a verbal way, “I’m going to pick you up now” or “Can I pick you up now”? Or it might just be something that you show through the way that you’re physically non-verbally interacting with them. You’re showing them you’re reaching down with your hands, and you’re making eye contact. What you’ll see when this happens is that your baby will actually stiffen their neck after a very few weeks, as a way of kind of cooperating with you. When we look at respectful interactions through that lens and, and it doesn’t have to be a completely verbal exchange, it can be a very nonverbal exchange. Then we can start to see how respectful parenting can be practiced from the very earliest ages with even a tiny infant.
Vanessa: I know that you are obviously very research-focused; I love that. You are speaking my language. What have you found with research? I know just from following along with your podcast for many years, it seemed like the whole idea of respectful parenting just kind of resonated with you. Then as you were digging more and more into the research, it seems like that backed up a lot of the ideas or principles and respectful parenting.
Jen: Yeah, it really did. I often see questions from parents in respectful parenting forums where they say, is there any evidence that this stuff works? Is there evidence that children who are raised using this approach do any better in life than children who don’t or who aren’t? I would say to answer that question directly; the answer is no. There’s no research study that says that children who are raised with this approach will do better than children who aren’t. I actually covered an entire episode on what I called the science of RIE, which just stands for resources for infant educarers, which is what Magda Gerber used to describe respectful parenting. There is actually a great deal of research on almost all of the aspects of respectful parenting that she describes. I do think that a lot of it has come in and filled in the gaps afterward.
You know, respectful parenting can get dinged a little bit because it’s essentially one woman’s idea of how to raise a baby. It was not really research-based at the time. Her book does not cite multiple sources of evidence to say; this is why you should do this. This is basically a book about her ideas about raising a baby. When I went back and said, okay, what are the components of respectful parenting? Is there evidence to support each of these components? It turns out that actually there is. The only component of it that I could find that is commonly talked about, which is speaking with your babies in a normal voice. Instead of in sort of motherese where you extend your vowels and, and really sort of have this lilting tone in your voice. That’s the only practice that I could find that described in respectful parenting. So not using what is called motherese or parentese which is not backed up by research. Research says that actually helps babies to understand language and to differentiate between sounds. Other than that, pretty much the entirety of the practices that make up respectful parenting are backed by scientific research.
Vanessa: That’s interesting. What was your take on how you spoke to your daughter when she was really young?
Jen: I didn’t come at this from the traditional parenting approach. I never thought I’d be a parent. I never even liked children. So I was never going into this with a cute little baby kind of thing. I’ve talked with experts about child’s speech, Dr. Roberta Golinkoff. I did an interview with her, and she says, even if you don’t come into it from that mindset, the ways that you interact with a baby do shift towards motherese or parentese a little bit. Even if you’re not doing it intentionally, I would say I wasn’t intentionally saying I’m never going to speak to my child in that way. But, there was definitely I’m speaking to her in a much more non-parentese way than a lot of parents.
Vanessa: That is interesting; that is the only principle that’s not evidence-based. Certainly, respectful parenting has really resonated with me, and it’s never going to be perfect. You’re always going to be figuring it out.
Jen: Yeah. One of the profound ideas about it is, even if there isn’t research to describe how effective it is, is interacting with someone with respect ever wrong? If we think about how we want to be treated as adults, we want to be treated with respect. Most of us want to treat other people with respect. If we want that as adults, what does that mean for how we treat children? When do we start treating them with respect? If we don’t start doing it from the very beginning, do they have to do something to earn that respect? In which case can we say we’re truly in an unconditionally loving relationship with our child if they have to earn our respect? If we keep backing it down and say, well, okay, the teenage years, have they earned it by then? No, I think they deserve it before then. The preschool years now, I think they deserve it before. Then it turns out there’s really no point that I can see where I can say, you know when a child was actually not deserving of respect. That’s when we start to get into this mutual, two-way respect from the beginning.
Vanessa: That’s an interesting question to ask. I like how you frame that. Like you said, it may seem strange to ask a two-day-old baby, is it okay if I pick you up? Or I’m going to pick you up now. But, I think that that does feel very natural after a short amount of time.
Jen: There’s a lot of things with parenting that feel strange at first, right? You were told to use scientifically anatomically correct terms for children’s genitals. Children who grow up not knowing the terms for those genitals, for example, thinking that their vulva is called a cookie jar, are more vulnerable to sexual abuse. Were there times when I was not comfortable saying vulva to my daughter’s face? Yes, there were. Now I can say it on a podcast. There are a lot of things that we’re not comfortable with at the beginning of parenting that we become more comfortable with.
I think respectful parenting has this additional layer of difficulty because it goes against the way we were raised. We were raised with this top-down view of respect. You will respect me. Most often, we were probably afraid of our parents. We did not go to them when we had problems. What we ended up doing as we’re going into this, we’re trying to do this very different thing with our own children, is we’re trying to re-parent ourselves. At the same time, for parents who have very young babies, they may find, oh, yeah, everything’s fine. Everything’s trickling along just fine. Then their child gets to the age where the child is starting to get a little bit mobile all of a sudden, and the parent has to start saying no to things. Then they find all of this stuff comes up. Oh yeah, my parents used to say no to me all the time. Oh, I was never allowed to do that. The parent finds that they have this massive emotional response in response to a child doing something that’s very normal, very age-appropriate because it’s bringing up these memories of traumas that we’ve experienced when we were children. It’s very possible that things that we feel as though we have a lid on right now are actually kind of bubbling away under the surface and may tend to come up. We actually need to re-parent ourselves at the same time, as we are kind of trying to fly the plane, raising our children.
Focus on You as the Parent
Vanessa: I love that. Especially in the approach that you take on the podcast and your courses, that there’s a lot of focus on the parent. It’s not that we are going to sacrifice everything to try and raise the healthiest humans. Your needs and how you need to feel are important as well. Not only one hundred percent on the children.
Shifting Your Perception
Jen: No, it’s not. If we are focused only on the child, then we’re also focused on changing the child’s behavior when something isn’t going well. What we can actually find is that very often, it’s the way that we show up in an interaction that makes all the difference. I see so many questions from people in parenting groups saying, my kids doing this thing is driving me nuts. How do I get them to stop doing this thing? What I find when I coach parents is that very often, the reason it’s driving them nuts is because it’s linked to something that they experienced as a child. They weren’t allowed to make a mess. They always had to say, please, and thank you. So they can’t stand it when their child doesn’t do it. When we can shift the parent’s perception of what’s happening in this interaction with their child, then all of a sudden, the child shifts as well.
I worked with one parent who really believed in respectful parenting, was deep into it, and was having such a struggle of getting her child to get dressed in the morning. She thought the child should dress in a certain way. They live in a cold place, and she thought the child needed a lot of clothes. One day after a coaching session, she said to the child, “You know what, it’s up to you. You can wear whatever you like”. These daily struggles to put any clothes on instantly evaporated, and the child went and got dressed. It doesn’t always work like that. But the only thing that changed in that interaction was how the parent decided to approach it. Then the child completely shifted in their response. I think that’s an approach that so often gets missed when we focus only on what’s going on with the child. How do I do the best for my child? How do I get my child to stop doing things that are making me crazy?
Vanessa: That is great. It really is magical when you’re having some recurring frustrating issue with anything parenting, then one person says one thing, or you hear something on a podcast, and then everything just clicks. Problem solved and onto the next thing.
Parenting in the First Year
Obviously the Pregnancy Podcast, we’re talking to a lot of parents who are expecting babies. I want to talk about some things specifically in the first year, beyond diapering and feeding. I think there are some other interesting ideas that I want to touch on.
Attachment Parenting and Attachment Theory
Vanessa: Can we talk about attachment and exactly what that means? I think a lot of people think attachment is you wear the baby all the time; that’s attachment parenting.
Jen: Well, actually, that itself brings up a very important distinction that we need to tease out. It turns out that attachment theory, which is a research-based idea we’ll get more into the research behind that, is not the same as attachment parenting. Attachment parenting was developed by Dr. Jim and Martha Sears. They had already developed their ideas just before this. A researcher in England named Dr. John Bowlby had developed what he called attachment theory. Bowlby had used the word attachment because it was kind of general enough that people could know what it was.
Around the same time, Jim and Martha Sears had developed what they called immersion parenting. So they’re describing it at a conference one day, and you can actually find this anecdote on their website. A grandmother came up to one of them after their presentation said, “oh yeah, I think you’re right on here calling this thing immersion parenting because I think a lot of parents feel completely over their heads. Martha Sears said, “oh my goodness, in that moment, we realized we needed a better name. So we decided to call it attachment parenting because Dr. John Bowlby had done all this research on it”. So they piggybacked on the name attachment parenting. They were able to do this because Bowlby’s research had used the word attachment so nebulously. You sort of end up in this feedback loop where Sears, his work is popularizing the idea of attachment piggybacking on this attachment theory, which is so loosely defined and giving it more publicity, which makes attachment parenting more popular.
The practice of carrying your baby, there’s nothing wrong with that whatsoever. What we tend to find, though, is it’s practiced in cultures where very different forms of child-rearing are more common, where there maybe five, six, seven adults around at any one time and whoever’s closest carries the baby. Whereas when you translate that idea into our culture, where very often the mother is the one who’s alone in an apartment or in a house with a baby and feels as though she has to carry the baby all the time. Otherwise, this strange attachment relationship thing is not going to happen, and you get themselves in a situation where parents just get burned out. Where they’ve been following attachment parenting for six months or a year, they find that they’re just giving their entire selves to their baby; there’s nothing left.
Vanessa: Yeah, that’s something that we talked about the first time that you were on the podcast that really made a lot of things click for me. There are all these ideas with parenting that become popular, and everybody’s doing it. Then because everyone else is doing it, you feel like you have to do it. We’re overlooking where these things came from or how our culture is potentially different.
(See the latest YPM episode on attachment: Most of What You Know About Attachment is Probably Wrong)
The Origins of Attachment Theory
Jen: Yeah. I can go into some more on sort of where attachment theory came from and some of the things to watch out for as well if that’s helpful.
Vanessa: Yes. Could you please?
Jen: So we sort of have this impression that attachment is absolutely critical. Like if my baby is not attached to me, and that can mean physically like they have to be physically on me, but also in this emotionally attached relationship, that bad things are gonna happen. Our impression of this comes out from this early research on attachment by Bowlby, who had studied this. This whole thing came out of this study of 44 thieves. These are children who had been referred to a clinic for stealing. He compared them to 44 children who had been referred to the clinic but who weren’t thieves. He found that the thieves had been through separations from their parents at a much higher rate than the children who weren’t thieves. So it sort of became widely known that these separations were something that were going to cause problems for children.
When you hear this, you think, oh my goodness, I’m never leaving my child alone again. Then it wasn’t until so many years later that he basically clarified two very important things about the results in this paper. Firstly, that the word separation was used to describe everything from sleeping in a separate room, the parent and the child sleeping in a separate room, to being abandoned in an orphanage and everywhere in between those two things. The second part was that separation was not the only challenge that these thieves had undergone. Many of them had also experienced physical and sexual abuse. So it’s just not correct to say that being separated from your baby is going to lead to problems in your attachment relationship. Unless your child is in daycare for more than about 70 hours a week is what the experts say is sort of the cutoff line, which is way more than most children are in daycare. There’s no evidence that separation is harmful to the attachment relationship. So it’s by no means the case that you need to hold your baby every waking hour of your day for you to have this positive attachment relationship with your child, which I think goes counter to one of the core tenants of attachment parenting.
Vanessa: So then, when we’re talking about attachment, from your perspective, are you coming from a place of attachment is an emotional connection more than a physical one?
Jen: Yes. There’s less of a physical component to it. There’s a lot of disagreement because of the way Bowlby defined this, about what exactly even the attachment relationship is. Is the point of it the crying that you’ll see from a child who is what we call securely attached, is that the sort of end condition that we know that a child is attached when they cry to bring their caregiver back. Or do we see the end as being the point where the child actually is able to bring the caregiver back and be comforted? This sort of bringing the caregiver back idea came from Dr. Mary Ainsworth. She sort of followed Bowlby and worked with Bowlby. She had noticed that children who are what she ended up calling securely attached will cry when their parent leaves the room but will be easily comforted when their parent returns.
She developed this procedure called the strange situation. She had actually studied in Uganda for a bit. Her husband was posted there. She ended up doing some work there, some research, and she came back, and she saw the babies in Baltimore where she was now living didn’t react in the same way to separations that babies in Uganda did. So she developed this procedure not to understand American North American babies better but to try to get them to replicate the same behavior that she’d seen in Uganda. She never expected this to be at this procedure to be used in isolation. Basically, what happens is the baby and the mother go into a room, and they interact with a researcher, and the mother leaves the room for a bit and comes back again. There’s this sort of a few of these types of interactions all within this 20-minute procedure. So because it’s 20 minutes and the mother and the baby come to you, it’s fast, and it’s cheap. It turns out that it usually yields statistically significant results when you’re a professor, and you need to publish statistically significant results to get tenure. That’s a good thing. Mary Ainsworth had always seen there’s very little correlation between what are called the results of the strange situation procedure and what actually happens in the home where there may be siblings around, there’s another caregiver around, where the environment is entirely familiar. You’re not just bringing your child into a strange lab with a strange researcher they’ve never met before. So we sort of have this idea that this measure of whether a child cries when their caregiver leaves and whether they can be comforted when they come back is the be-all and end-all of the attachment relationship. When actually, it really sort of goes much broader and deeper.
Vanessa: I love how you look at the research from a kind of a critical perspective and tease out these little things that, if you’re just reading a paper, it’s very easy to overlook all those little details.
Jen: It gets deeper from there. You know, she deliberately looked at 28 white middle-class mothers and children because what she wanted to do was to minimize the amount of hardship that the families had experienced. She thought that, well, if we make them all white and middle-class, then what we’ll have is this true, perfect picture of what attachment should actually look like between mothers and babies. Of course, lots of problems with that, right. Of, of seeing the white middle-class way of interacting between mothers and babies as the gold standard. Of course, social workers are going out and using this concept of attachment to determine whether mothers are behaving appropriately towards their children. They’re making this value judgment on families with structures that look very different based on what are essentially white middle-class standards.
Vanessa: Yeah, that’s very interesting. For somebody who’s pregnant right now, what types of things should they be doing to build a relationship with their baby to build some attachment? Do you have advice for that?
Jen: Yeah, I think it’s kind of about finding a balance between relaxing and responding. There’s been a good deal of back and forth in the literature over the years about what actually constitutes an effective response to your child. Some studies have found that when you go to your child, every time they cry in their first four months of that, they actually cry less by the end of the first year. This was sort of seen as a real validation of the concept of attachment that you can’t over spoil a baby. Cause you know, in the fifties, when all of this research was starting to be done, we were very much in this behavior as a paradigm where you can’t reward a baby. You can’t go to them when they cry, because then they’ll just cry more because they’ll know you’re going to come.
Whereas what attachment theory is saying is no, that’s not the case. When the baby knows that you’re a cry away when they really need something that they will cry less, other studies have failed to replicate that. What it really comes down to is what kinds of cries are you responding to? When you first get your baby, in whatever way you get your baby, what you’ll probably find is all the cries can sound the same. They don’t really seem to convey anything in particular. Very quickly, you’ll start to learn. What does a hungry cry sound like? What does a gassy cry sound like? What is an I’m really, really struggling right now Cry sound like compared to an I wish you were here, but I’m probably going to go to sleep in five minutes kind of cry?
What parents need to do is to respond to those I need you cries; I cannot self-regulate without you being here cries. If you don’t respond to every little whimper and sometimes you learn to distinguish, oh yeah, that one is just kind of his cry that he makes before he’s getting ready to go to sleep. I’m not going to go in and respond to that. That’s the kind of point we want to get to so that you are responding when the child really needs you, but that you’re also relaxing. You’re not necessarily jumping up every time you hear a whimper out of their mouth.
Vanessa: That makes sense. I feel like that’s easy to do with a newborn. Especially if this is your first baby, and you just are trying not to do anything wrong and get them whatever they need. It’s like a baby crying is just a sign that you have to fix something, right? That they need you for something.
Jen: Yeah, sometimes you will be able to fix it. You know, sometimes they are hungry, or they are cold, or they do need a diaper change and, you can do those things. There will be times when the child is sobbing uncontrollably, and you’re holding them, and you just don’t know what it is. You just can’t figure it out. Maybe it’s an itchy tag on clothes or something that you could never anticipate. It’s okay in those moments to just. You can even verbalize to your baby, “oh, I hear you, I hear that. You’re having a hard time. I’m having a hard time too. I wish I knew what it was that’s going on for you. I would help you with it if I could. Right now, I’m just going to be here for you”. That really goes back to respectful parenting, you know, kind of acknowledging I’m a person in this relationship too. I have feelings too, and I’m going to help you to the extent that I can, and there are going to be times when we can’t figure it out, and even then, I’m still going to be here.
Vanessa: That’s definitely something that helped me a lot as a parent. It’s understanding that sometimes it’s okay to not have the fix or to not know what the problem is and just to be there.
Sleep in the First Year
You mentioned that sleep a couple of times, talking about maybe a baby crying before sleep. That’s obviously a huge part of parenting in the first year. Do you want to talk a little bit about what you found when researching and all the interviews and things that you’ve done in regards to sleep in the first year?
Jen: I think many parents will be somewhat disheartened to learn that researchers see sleeping through the night as six hours of sleep continuously. Which may not be how parents define sleeping through the night. Many babies just aren’t physically capable of sleeping even six hours and longer than six hours. Some of them are. Some of you are going to get lucky, and you’re going to have a baby who sleeps maybe eight hours at a stretch. Many others of you are going to have babies who are not capable of doing that.
(See the YPM episode on sleep: Sleep! And how to get more of it)
Adjusting Your Expectations for Sleep
I think two ideas that I found really to be foundational in approaching sleep. The first is that when we tie our ideas about our ability to function to getting a certain number of hours of sleep, we’re really setting ourselves up to have a hard time.
I’m a person who needs a lot of sleep, so when I’m pregnant, I’m thinking, okay, I need to figure out how I’m going to get sleep because I’m not going to function well without sleep. On days when I didn’t get a lot of sleep, I’m kind of grumpy. I’m thinking, this is not right. We need to figure out how to get more sleep. When we do focus on thinking about how hard things are and how tired we are, we’re actually ended up creating more suffering for ourselves. Because we’re kind of getting attached to this idea of if only I can sleep, if only I can get x number of hours in a row, then I’ll be okay. Because our baby is not physically capable of doing that yet, we were getting attached to this thing that just can’t happen right now.
Whereas when we relax into where we are, and you know what this is, this is the face of life that I’m in right now. This is what my baby needs right now. It is hard, and we will get through it. Then what we will probably find is that this mental and emotional relaxing into where we are means that we have an easier time. You know, it kind of goes back to the idea of the parent trying to get her child to get dressed. It’s the way that we show up in this that actually impacts our experience of it. Maybe by relaxing into this, nothing else changes, maybe the baby doesn’t sleep anymore whatsoever, but maybe I am actually able to have a different experience because I have shifted the way that I’m approaching the last night.
Vanessa: My daughter was up from one to four in the morning, which is not typical at all. I have no idea why she was wide awake or what was going on. It’s just kind of accepting that you have to be there, and you know. It is part of parenting.
Cultural and Societal Ideas About Sleep
Vanessa: I feel like there’s a lot of societal focus on your baby sleeping. I think that’s a question new parents get all the time, “is your baby sleeping through the night?” As if it’s this measurement of how good your baby is or how good you are as a parent for getting them to do it.
Vanessa: I feel like that was always very frustrating.
Jen: Yeah, and the strange, weird thing about this is that what constitutes appropriate sleep is entirely culturally dependent. In Italy, babies might be carried around by an adult. Maybe the family is socializing in a restaurant until 10 or 11 o’clock at night. Somebody is just standing next to the table, holding the baby. The baby falls asleep at some point. Nobody really notices. Italian babies who are raised in that kind of environment don’t have these, what scientists called transitional objects or lovies. They don’t have these blankets or these pacifiers or stuffed animals or things like that. Not there’s anything wrong with any of those things, but those children don’t need them because they’re essentially being held to sleep most nights. Guatemalan Mayan parents would tell researchers when a researcher says, “what kind of problems does your child have getting to sleep?” The parents look at the researchers, like, what are you talking about? They report zero incidents of problems with sleep. What we see is when we talk about sleep problems, sleep disturbances, the problem is arising between a mismatch between what the child is capable of doing and the parents or the culture’s expectations.
In cultures where there’s much less of a gap between what a baby is capable of doing and the way parents and other adults are able to provide for that baby, then you don’t see incidences of “sleep problems.” In our culture where children are expected to go to sleep in a quiet room by themselves when they are accustomed to being close to a parent, to being stimulated a little bit in some way, maybe being patted or rocked. We see it as a problem when they won’t go to sleep by themselves. It feels like it’s our role to mold them, to fit our lives. I think to myself, oh, I need to have time by myself in the evening. Otherwise, I’m not functional as a person. Actually, if we can, again, flip this and shift the way that we come into this relationship and see it as the start of a journey where our child has needs too and has ideas about the world. We have ideas and needs about the world, and really our journey as a parent on this respectful parenting journey is about how do those two come together? How do we meet the child’s needs and also meet our needs?
Your Sleep in the First Year
Vanessa: I just love that perspective. I was saying earlier, too, with the putting emphasis on the parent and their needs and not just solely focusing on the child.
Jen: Yeah, also the blame as well. I mean, there’s so much blaming and shaming in parenting, right? If your child is not sleeping through the night, then you must be doing something wrong as a parent. There’s some way in which you are not measuring up. Chances are, there’s a whole bunch of other ways you’re failing at being a parent as well. When you just got a baby who has certain needs, and you can find ways to meet those needs that probably also can meet some of your needs as well.
Vanessa: Absolutely. I was listening to a podcast recently with Andrew Huberman, who’s a neuroscientist, and he has several episodes on sleep. He was talking about, as a new parent, it’s just a fact of life that you are going to be getting less sleep when you have a new baby. He was saying that the duration of sleep, if it was relatively the same, even if you were used to eight hours a night if you shifted to about six hours a night. As long as that was pretty consistent, that that was almost better than getting eight hours one night, then five hours the next night. I know for somebody who really values their sleep, it can be stressful to even think about like existing on five hours of sleep one night, or even less, if it’s a particularly tough night for your baby. Parents truly do adjust.
Jen: Yeah, they do. There’s also so much that you can do to shift your experience of it. Again, you know, maybe it’s possible for you to get sleep at other times in the day. Maybe you can make up the time when your baby’s napping or if it’s possible for you to get some care. We actually had a postpartum doula come in for a couple of weeks, and she would take the 7:00 AM to 10:00 AM shift every other day cause that’s all we could afford. I would know, even on a day when she wasn’t coming, I can get through today, and tomorrow morning I can rest. I would find that those three hours were just as restful to me as several hours that had come before it. When we can shift our approach of thinking, I have to get eight hours, and it has to be within this certain window. We can sort of open up the pie as it were in terms of finding all kinds of other solutions that can potentially meet our needs and also meet our child’s.
Vanessa: Right. It’s not one solution. It’s finding what works for you and your family within the means and the tools that you have.
Jen: Absolutely. Yes. It’s that that is exactly what all of parenting is about. There is no single solution. Not everybody can afford a postpartum doula for any stretch of time. Maybe there’s another family member. Maybe your partner can switch off some hours of the night. You can take a certain shift. They can take a certain shift. You could sleep at other ends of the apartment or the house so that you’re not disturbed when they’re on their shift. So many potential ways that you can approach these things that don’t just involve, I must get eight hours of sleep between x time.
Vanessa: The other topic that I wanted to touch on is play. I think, at least for me, it was, babies don’t really play till they get older. Until they start crawling or walking. Can you talk a little bit about play and what that even looks like with a newborn?
Jen: It is interesting that you say that because I think that that’s actually possibly a little bit different from what I see many parents thinking. I’m thinking that a lot of this is sort of driven by these subscription companies that will try to convince us that there’s some kind of magical, critical period when a child is especially sensitive to learning a specific concept or idea. That we need to provide them with just the right toy in just that right critical window. Otherwise, they’re not going to learn that skill, or they’re going to be behind in some way. It really couldn’t be further from the truth. I mean, if you think about it, we wouldn’t have made it as a species if that was actually the case.
Studies on Play
One study that I think a lot of the research on this looks back to was done many years ago with rats. There were two groups of rats. One group was kept in what were normal wire cages. The others were put in these enriched cages with toys and things to play with. The rats who were put into and raised in the enriched cages had better neurological outcomes than the rats who were raised in the regular cages. That sort of cited as evidence that if you provide an enriched environment for a child, they’re going to have better outcomes than a child who is not provided with those outcomes. At that point, the analogy kind of breaks down because if you think about your life, the people you interact with, the place where you live, you don’t live in a wire cage. Your baby does not exist by themselves in a wire cage, so your home environment is with no regard to how much money you have or what resources you can afford to provide. Your home environment is, I can guarantee, more enriching than the wire cage that the rat is being raised in.
It’s really sort of this false analogy because the simplest home environment has all the enrichment that a child needs. So when we put ourselves in this mindset and this position of, oh, I need to entertain my baby. I need to be doing things with them that are enhancing their growth mindset or their self-esteem. Cause that’s what the websites for these companies say is really important, that their toys promote, where we’re firstly putting a whole bunch of pressure on ourselves to buy just the right thing to play with our child and just the right way.
Entertaining Your Child
We’re also setting ourselves up, down the line, to entertain our child. If we spend all our time doing it when they’re young, guess what? They expect us to keep doing it. If we’re interacting with them the entire time they’re awake, then we’re setting ourselves up to not ever be able to take a break. When actually infants are very capable of entertaining themselves.
There are so many stories and videos that I’ve seen from the respectful parenting world with babies, where they will spend a long time on a blanket in a room, following a pattern of the sun on the wall. Or even outside in a playpen, seeing a leaf fall down. Or looking at their fingers, you know, examining some part of their body. Or a parent leaves a napkin. One of the classic respectful parenting rights toys is a napkin where you grab it in the middle so that it kind of stands up on its on its edges babies can be endlessly entertained by things like that. When we set ourselves up as the entertainer of the child, we are really getting ourselves into a cycle that we do not want to be later in life. By the time the child gets to age one and a half to three, you want that child to be playing by themselves a good chunk of the time. You do not want to be the parent who has a child who is constantly asking you will play with me? We are bringing this on ourselves by seeing ourselves as the person who needs to provide the perfect toy for the perfect phase in their development.
Vanessa: Would your advice be to kind of take a step back?
Let Your Child Entertain Themselves
Jen: Yeah, just because of the way our culture sort of tells parents what you need to do. If you’re a good parent, at least from a middle-class white perspective, you are playing with your baby. You’re doing it a lot if they’re awake; you’re probably doing something with them. If we can take a big step back from that, put them on a blanket on the floor so that they can move around freely. Put a couple of toys within arm’s reach if they find them great. If they don’t find them, that’s fine. Use that time to observe your baby if you want to see what kinds of things they’re drawn to see how they investigate their fingers. What are they learning right now? Use that time to understand more about your baby, but also use some of that time for yourself. Go take a shower, go and do something that interests you and that nourishes you because you are just as much of an important part of this relationship as your baby
Vanessa: Right. I think it’s definitely difficult to do that. We have all this, put your oxygen mask on first, this emphasis on you have to take care of yourself. But if you don’t, it will make parenting so much harder.
Jen: I think that one reason parents feel as though they have to do this, they have to play with their baby, is because they’re going to miss something critical. You know, their baby’s not going to have a certain skill, and then it will be the parent’s fault. Of course, it will be the mother’s fault because the mother didn’t play with them enough. I mean, so many studies have shown that if we just step back, if we just allow children to discover things for themselves.
Research on Toys
Jen: There was one study done in a museum where researchers invented this new toy that no child had ever seen before. One set of children were shown how to, how to use the toy. The researcher would say, oh yeah, it does this, it does this, it does this. Another set of children were not shown anything about it. They just said, go play with the toy. The children who were not shown how to use it end up finding more of these functions that the researchers built into the toy. Then children who were shown, maybe the researcher has shown three functions, there were actually five. The children who were shown assumed that there were only three functions because otherwise, the adult would have told them what the other functions were. Whereas the children that you don’t show will keep exploring. They’ll keep finding new things.
Praise & Rewards
Jen: It kind of linked to this as the idea of praise. We think, oh yeah, I’ve got to praise them for everything because I have to build up their self-esteem and make them feel good about themselves. I’ve done episodes on virtually all of the topics we’ve talked about today, but a really deep one on praise and rewards. (Should we go ahead and heap rewards on our kid?) The research so clearly shows that when you praise somebody for doing something, you undermine their intrinsic motivation for doing it. No problem praising a child for something that you don’t care if they’re intrinsically motivated by. If you want them to do something for the love of doing it, and if for most parents learning comes under that, you want your child to love learning for the sake of learning. When you praise them for doing that, then they start doing it to get the praise. Not because they love learning.
Vanessa: I will definitely link to several of your podcasts that cover that topic. That’s a good one that I feel applies to all kinds of aspects of parenting.
Jen: Oh yes, from chores to pro-social behavior, helping other people. There’s a lot of research on praise, and it’s super interesting to untangle it all and understand where does it really matter? For toilet learning, potty training, maybe it’s not such a big deal. Cause we don’t care if a child is intrinsically motivated to poop, they’re probably going to do it anyway. Right? But for many other things, we really do care whether the child is intrinsically motivated, so then it does matter.
Vanessa: Right? You do such a good job of sifting through that research and breaking it down into actionable tips and how this applies in the real world.
Vanessa: Obviously, I’m such a huge fan of your podcast, and I know that you have several courses, and you are launching a new one that covers everything in the first year. Do you want to talk a little bit about the Right From the Start course?
Jen: Yeah. So I’ve actually partnered with Hannah and Kelty of Upbringing. We’ve developed this core course called Right From the Start. As you can probably imagine, based on what we’ve talked about, it’s not about the one way that we’re going to teach you how to raise your baby. It’s that we’re going to help you discover what is the right way for you and for your family to get things right from the start. We’re going to run it four times a year. It’s an eight-week course, and it’s suitable for people who are expecting.
We’ve had people who have no children in the course, and they’re expecting their first child through pregnancy or through other means, through the end of the child’s first year. So it’s really about helping you get prepared if you’re still in that pregnancy preparation stage or if you’re in the first year. Maybe you even have more children already, and you’re thinking, oh my goodness, I know that this one cannot be like the other ones where I have to do things differently this time, or I’m not going to make it. Or if this is your first child and you’re just thinking, I don’t know what I need to know. How do I even understand the universe of things I need to know, never mind then make decisions about it?
We walk you through one module at a time on topics like sleep and attachment and things like communicating through routine interactions like diapering feeding, getting siblings prepared if you have siblings. Then, of course, underpinning it all is helping you to not lose sight of yourself as a person after you become a parent. You get these eight modules of content and a community as well with other parents who are taking the course on a platform that isn’t on Facebook. And live coaching calls as well with me and with Hannah and Kelty.
Get the Free Roadmap
Jen: We have a free roadmap that’s downloadable. I think you’re going to provide a link to that on the episode page for this show. It walks you through the entire framework that we work through in this course. We actually give you the whole thing for free upfront. Then if you decide, you know what, I actually think I do need some support to figure this out, to work through it. Then the course is there for you. We have that 15% discount available as well for your listeners with a coupon code (code: PREGNANCYPODCAST) that’s going to be on your episode page.
Vanessa: Yes. I will link all of that up. There also be a transcript for this episode. Jen, you are amazing. I cannot thank you enough for how much I have learned from your podcast and conversations with you for my parenting. I’m still learning. I still subscribe and listen. It’s still very helpful for my three-year-old and my six-year-old. I’ll link to your website, YourParentingMojo.com. Is there anywhere else people should go to find you?
Jen: On Instagram and Facebook too. Really the main place is through the website, YourParentingMojo.com, and subscribing there. It gets you access to things like courses when they’re released and new episodes as they’re released every week. Sometimes special things come out with those as well. I don’t love social media, so definitely, the main place is through my website.
Vanessa: Perfect. I will link all of that stuff up.
Jen’s Parenting Advice
Vanessa: I know I didn’t prep you with this, but do you have any parting advice or words of wisdom for our future parents?
Jen: Obviously, parents who are pregnant or expecting are in this phase where there’s a lot of worrying. There’s a lot of making sure things are going right up to the moment of delivery, potentially not so much worrying yet about what comes after that. That worry will come. The concluding idea that I would love to leave you with is don’t stress as much. Whatever is the thing that seems to be a major source of worry, chances are, it’s probably fine. Try not to stress as much and really enjoy your child.
As sort of extra credit, start to think about your values and how you’re going to interact with your child in a way that’s aligned with those values. If respect is important to you, what does that mean for how you’re going to interact with your child? If you’re looking out into the world at all the problems that we’re facing, racism and things like that, how does that impact the way that you’re interacting with your child? Respectful parenting is deeply, deeply connected to that. When we’re raising children in a way that’s aligned with respect, we’re raising children who are going to have the skills to go out into the world and help to solve some of these problems because they will have this basis of mutual respect with which to approach these kinds of interactions.
The last thing would be to try and find a community of parents who approach these ideas in a similar way that you do. It can be a lonely journey when everybody around you is doing it differently from you and when you’re struggling particularly, and you need somebody to hold your hand a little bit. Definitely try and find people who really believe similar things that you do in life more broadly and about children as well. Find or make a community of those people to call home.
Vanessa: That is such fantastic advice. I agree with all of it. Thank you so much, Jen. I really appreciate your time today. Thanks for reaching out. I’m glad you did that we got an episode recorded
Jen: Me too. It was great to speak with you again.
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