New mum Anne Stephens was shocked to discover that sometimes the people closest to you can be the least supportive. She received a letter from her sister when her baby Katie was just 8 weeks old that still upsets her now.
‘Katie had been crying from the day she was born and I was at my wits’ end,’ she says. ‘I’d had pre-eclampsia at 34 weeks and she had been delivered by Caesarean at 37 weeks. From the start she wanted to be breastfed constantly or she’d scream. Neither of us was sleeping and we were both miserable.’
Instinctively, Anne suspected Katie wasn’t getting enough food. However, her sister had different ideas. ‘She said there was no such thing as a mother not providing enough milk and gave me a really hard time. When she heard I was thinking about using formula, she wrote me a letter saying I was a terrible mother. I was so angry I went out and bought some formula milk.’
The world is an expert
Usually, people avoid discussing personal issues with strangers, but put a baby into the equation and suddenly you’ll find everyone has an opinion.
And, as Anne found, this can be very distressing. Her baby was still only 8lb after eight weeks of constant breastfeeding. She was exhausted and the
unrelenting advice and criticism from her sister made her feel like a total failure.
‘I was on the brink of a major post-natal breakdown’, she reflects, ‘I knew that something was wrong and that Katie was hungry. Once she started getting food, she became a happy baby overnight. I’ve since found out that the pre-eclampsia and the drugs I’d had could have all interfered with my milk supply. So my instinct had been right, but because I thought my sister knew more than me, I ignored it.’
You know best
Research led by Dr Elizabeth Meins from the University of Durham suggests that mothers are right to trust their gut feeling. Through watching a group of 200 mothers interact with their babies, researchers found a link between mothers who could read their baby’s emotions – labelled as ‘mind-minded’ mothers – and the development of children by the age of 2. Children whose mothers fell into this category had higher test scores in language and play. These results were regardless of background, support, or maternal depression.
‘This study shows how important it is to see the mother as the best expert for her own child,’ says Dr Meins. ‘People mean well when they give advice, but it can be overpowering not empowering. Mums know their babies best because they spend the most time with them and they need to learn to trust their instincts more.’
Advice on how to bring up babies also changes from generation to generation. One mother recalls how she was told by her grandmother to give her baby Tabasco sauce if he woke up at night because ‘It’ll teach him to sleep through.’
Listen and you will hear
It seems that your mothering instinct is honed long before your bundle
of joy even arrives. One study conducted by psychologist Dr Victor Shamas and
his team at the University of Arizona, showed that 70% of the time pregnant women seemed to be able to predict the gender of their babies on the basis of their intuition alone.
According to Dr Shamas, most children are aware of the intuitive connection that their mothers have with them. Nearly 75% of college students he surveyed said their mothers are able to read their thoughts and feelings in a way nobody else can.
‘People recognise the closeness of the bond that can form between a mother and her child, but we may not realise the extent to which the power of intuition makes this bond possible,’ he says. ‘The accuracy and scope of a mother’s intuition are some-thing we’re just starting to understand.’
Being connected to your baby by watching him or her closely and trusting your instinct should give you the confidence to tap into an instinctive
maternal intelligence, which science is only just beginning to discover. Going against your gut feeling and listening to others – often conflicting, advice – can simply muddy the instinctive understanding between you and your child.
Next time someone is giving you well-meaning advice, take a step back and think about it in relation to your baby. Chances are you will know quickly whether their suggestions are useful or not, and you won’t need that Tabasco sauce after all.
What real mums say…
‘I did want advice, but often found it irritating. The phrase "rod for your own back" was used a lot. But if you weren’t creating a rod, then you were missing a "window", be it for your baby to have solids, or learn to sleep through the night. People should allow you space to make your own choice.’
Nathalie Morgan, 35, has one son, Thomas, 19 months
‘My mum was with obsessed barrier cream and I still use it on my daughter even though she never gets nappy rash. My mother-in-law insisted that I left my baby to cry, but it was so hard my partner had to do it. I’m glad we did it as she will sleep anywhere now, but the constant advice is irritating.’
Jackie Clune, comedienne and writer, has four children
‘It was advice from older generations that confused me. Grandmas and aunts would declare that it was important to feed the baby only every four hours. If I told them that regular feeding was the new order, there would be lots of tutting. But I stuck with feeding on demand as it worked best for me.’
Joanne Freeman, 37, has two children, George, 5, and Bella, 7
‘A mother’s intuition does tell you if something is wrong with your child. My son Ben had pneumonia at 2 weeks old and I didn’t do anything because I thought the GP would label me as overanxious. Three days later he was rushed to paediatric A&E and it was touch and go whether he survived. Now I always trust my instincts.’
Kris Murrin, presenter of BBC 3’s Honey We’re Killing The Kids, has three children