Recently a student suggested I teach a class for friends and family of new parents. It would teach well meaning loved-ones how to behave around new mothers so that they don’t come marching into the MOMs class I teach weekly, railing about the insensitive and hurtful things they heard all week. But how does one market such a class? “Hey come to this class for people who don’t even know they’re being insensitive clods?”
I think most folks who say these things mean well, they just don’t know how their remarks are heard. So, here are some things not to say to a new mom, and what to say instead.
1. “Is your baby sleeping through the night yet?”
Young babies don’t sleep through the night.
No matter how much the tired new mom wishes she could get a full night’s sleep, even if she is asking herself, “why hasn’t it happened yet?” putting her on the spot like this may make her feel like you’re saying “why isn’t your baby sleeping through the night yet, and what’s wrong with her or with you?” Which can make her feel defensive, lousy, behind schedule and inadequate. Don’t put her in the position of teaching you about infant sleep behavior. If you’re really interested in the topic, pick up a book.
Try also to avoid saying things like, “they sleep through the night when they are X weeks or Y pounds or if you eat pineapple or when Jupiter aligns with Mars.” Babies do not all do the same thing at the same moment; “advice” like this is fiction. If you like fiction, entertain her with a more interesting story.
If you’re trying to give her the opportunity to commiserate or vent about how tired she is, ask, instead, “How are you doing?” or offer to hang out and hold her baby one afternoon so that she can take a nap.
If the answer is yes, by the way, and her baby is sleeping through the night? Don’t take the wind out of her sails by asking about it; let her tell you herself!
2. ”Wow, she’s nursing again?!”
Honestly, what do you hope to get out of this question? Obviously the answer is yes. The implication here is that there’s something wrong with frequent nursing. And that you’re a good judge as to what “frequent” means.
Babies nurse a lot. Lots of totally normal newborns nurse twelve times a day. Even if she knows that, though, a mom who hears this question can feel criticized and worried – that her baby is too needy or hungry or that she’s been responding incorrectly to the baby’s signals. Or she may just feel self-conscious that you’re thinking about and talking about her breasts.
If you’re trying to give her the opportunity to vent that it is tiring to nurse frequently, then, ask, instead, “How are you doing?” and offer to hold the baby when he’s done nursing so she can go pee. And bring her a glass of water and offer to get her a snack.
3. ”Is he on a schedule yet?”
The answer is no, okay?
Newborns follow no schedule. Older babies develop patterns of eating, sleeping and awake time, and some of them can be reasonably predictable after a while. When this all happens depends on the baby and the parents. Some babies settle into more predictable routines earlier than others. Some (I say lucky) parents are able to imagine they see patterns where other parents still only see random chaos. Anyone relying in any serious way on the patterns of a person whose age is still measured in months, however, is asking to be disappointed.
The question suggests an “ought” – that her day ought to be organized into a formal schedule. And “yet” makes it seem very time urgent. This is why new moms often feel criticized by it.
If you’re trying to give the new mom an opportunity to complain about how difficult it is to get through the day with an even occasionally unpredictable baby, ask, instead “How are you doing?” And offer to hang out with her one afternoon and help her get a bunch of errands done with a baby in tow.
In short – try to avoid asking questions that sound like you think motherhood is a checklist of baby-accomplishments she ought to stay on top of. (Baby accomplishments aren’t irrelevant, they’re just not all of what motherhood is about! For more on that, come to my First Year Development class in two weeks!)
Instead, focus on your friend, the mom, and how she’s doing in this new arrangement.
Coming soon: How To Talk To New Moms, Part II – Don’t say “Just…”