Your Baby's Needs Are More Important Than Your 'Happiness'

“A happy mother equals a happy baby.” 

Or so they say.

That phrase used to signify how much care and consideration we had to provide for a mother as well as her newborn. It used to acknowledge the crippling role of postpartum depression and how we need a call to action to help the mothers suffering from this rather debilitating condition. It used to stand for the fact that a mother was critical to her baby’s well-being and only by being in good shape could she tend to the numerous needs of a newborn.

Today it seems to mean something different.


Today "happy mom, happy baby" is a euphemism for parent-centric parenting. (And that applies to dads too.) It represents leaving a young baby to cry-it-out because a mom wants her beauty sleep. It represents schedules that fit the mom’s life while ignoring the natural rhythm (and needs) of the baby. It represents the false idea that our lives should continue as they were before baby and that the onus of adaptation is on the baby and the baby alone.

It’s wrong.

Babies aren’t magically happy because their mothers are. Babies are happy when their needs have been met and they feel safe and secure. (Mothers who are suffering postpartum depression cannot do this. Thus, we need to make sure they have the opportunity to care for themselves so they can care for their babies.) However, moms who try to force their child into their pre-kid lifestyle aren't making their child feel safe and secure. We are parenting in ways that make life easier for us, but at what cost? The science is starting to provide some answers, and it’s not painting a very pretty picture.

Take the cry-it-out method of getting a baby to sleep through the night. Most people feel there's no risk, and that once a baby stops crying to sleep, there's no problem. Yet research is so scarce on this topic that we have no proof of harm or no harm. Researchers examined the effect of crying-it-out  on infant physiology and mother-infant synchrony (being “in tune” with your child, which is associated with secure attachment and later emotion regulation). By day 3 of crying-it-out, infants were no longer crying themselves to sleep and mothers reported feeling better, a fact confirmed by their lowered cortisol levels at night. Happy mother, happy baby, correct?

Sadly, what the researchers found was that the mother-infant synchrony was dampened to the point of being statistically non-significant. As for infant physiology, they may not have been crying, but their cortisol levels were still very high despite this failure to communicate this to their caregiver. (If you’re currently thinking, But wait! There was research showing no long-term problems from crying-it-out! I will correct you now in saying the research that supposedly found that found no such thing. Their methodology was such that really not much of anything could be said about anything.)

And consider this: Parent-centric parenting may not even bring joy to parents. A recent study found just the opposite -- the more child-centric a parent was, the more happiness and joy the parent reported. This is in line with other research that shows that caring for others over ourselves leads to the greatest happiness.

If mom-first parenting has the potential to hurt our children and doesn’t bring us any greater happiness, why do we repeat the mantra ... Happy mom, happy baby? It might have to do with our own upbringings. Just last month, researchers looked at the reasons mothers might respond sensitively or not to their child’s cries. Women who had positive childhood experiences and those who came to terms with any negative experiences were able to respond quickly, consistently, and warmly to their crying children. On the other hand, women who had negative experiences they did not come to terms with reported more mother-centric views of a crying child. These moms believed that the child was manipulating them and that crying was a nuisance. Thus, they failed to respond sensitively or in a timely manner to their children.

Not only is parent-centric parenting not making moms (or dads) happy, it's not making kids happy either. The rates of mentai disorders in children and adolescents are rising. College-age students have become less empathetic. And 40 percent of babies have been categorized as being insecurely attached. (It's hard for your child to develop secure attachment when mom's focused on her own happiness.)

We certainly are reaping what we sow, aren’t we?

It’s time to change. This starts with realizing that our babies need care, consideration, and responsiveness -- even when it doesn’t “suit” us. A happy parent is one thing, but it does not equal a happy baby. Both are happy when they are cared for, supported, and loved, and that requires parents to care for themselves while caring for their babies who cannot do it for themselves. It really is that simple. 


Images via Donnie Ray Jones/Flickr; Diamond Farah/Flickr

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