Creating bad habits for baby: The myths that are harming new mums

It’s infuriating and heartbreaking how many new mothers hear the words ‘You’re creating bad habits for baby’ when it comes to their parenting choices.

The words seem innocent enough, but saying them to someone who is adjusting to their new role as mum, navigating sleep deprivation, hormones, a roller-coaster of emotions, and healing from the birth, whilst doing the best they can to care for and nurture a tiny person, is entirely irresponsible, harmful, and incorrect.

The ‘creating bad habits’ advice can come from family, friends, or professionals, and it needs to stop.

It needs to stop because this misinformation is causing mums to stop listening to and trusting their gut instincts.

When a baby cries, every fibre of their being and evolution tells a parent to soothe them. They’re hard-wired to respond to their infant with love and empathy.

So, telling a new mum that their hard wiring is ‘wrong’, that responding to their infant’s needs with love and compassion can damage their development in some way is beyond harmful.

Creating bad habits for baby: The myths that are harming new mums

Here are just a handful of ‘bad habits’ new mums are told to stop doing, followed by the evidence to bust this ridiculous myth once and for all.

Myth: ‘You’re creating a bad habit by rocking/bouncing them to sleep’

Truth: Babies are calmed by movement, and neuroscience backs this up. Bouncing stimulates the vestibular system, which is the first sensory system to fully develop in infants. It’s a complex path of chambers that make up the inner ear, and controls the sense of movement and balance. Research has even suggested that stimulating the vestibular system as a method to soothe babies is more effective than other techniques.

Myth: ‘You’re creating a bad habit by feeding them to sleep’

Truth: Breast milk and formula contain many properties designed to induce sleep. During breastfeeding, a hormone is released in mum and bub called cholecystokinin (CCK), which has a sedating effect, among other sleepy hormones. Being snuggled up with their caregivers for a breast or bottle feed stimulates the release of oxytocin, the ‘love hormone’, which promotes sleep and bonding. It doesn’t make sense to go against this naturally sleep-inducing process by trying to settle the baby another way.

Myth: ‘You’re creating a bad habit by holding them while they nap’.

Truth: Human babies need to be in close proximity to their caregivers from an evolutionary perspective. We are ‘carry mammals’, which means babies are born completely dependent on their mother for food, warmth, and safety. Their survival depends on it. If infants had their say, the majority would feel calmer, cry less, and feel safest in their parents’ arms for contact naps or in a baby carrier for sleep.

Myth: ‘You’re creating a bad habit by bedsharing’

Truth: Humans have been sharing sleep spaces since the beginning of time. It’s biologically normal, healthy, and instinctive. Today, the practice of sharing a room or bed with a baby is still highly prevalent around the world. However, it’s frowned upon in many Western societies even though sleeping a baby independently is a modern concept. This article goes into more detail about the benefits of co-sleeping, as well as reducing the potential risks: Sharing a bed with baby: Risk reduction and benefits

Myth: ‘You’re creating a bad habit by responding to your baby every time they cry’

FACT: Babies can’t self-soothe. It’s as simple as that. A baby’s brain is immature, and the part responsible for reasoning and higher thinking is underdeveloped and doesn’t work. They don’t have the brain power to shut off stress, so they require co-regulation to calm down. In other words, they need a responsive caregiver to take on the role of their prefrontal cortex until theirs develops to help regulate them with cuddles and reassurance.

The real reason mothers are told these myths (hint: it’s another untruth)

It’s very clear that the area of parenting this outdated advice is most commonly heard is in reference to baby sleep.

The premise behind these ‘bad habit’ statements is that supporting a baby to sleep will mean they won’t learn to sleep without parental input, or in other words, ‘self-settle’.

Here’s the thing about self-settling.

Babies can’t be taught or trained to fall asleep independently. When it happens depends on a unique baby’s development and temperament.

A baby will fall asleep without adult input when they’re biologically and developmentally ready to. This could be well into toddlerhood and even beyond for some little ones.

What babies will learn by these so-called bad habits is that they’re loved, seen, cared for, and that they can trust and rely on the adults in their life.

These early experiences and relationships wire a baby’s brain, so a parent trusting their instincts is the most important part of parenting. They’re not only nurturing their baby the way nature intended, but they’re helping to shape the adult their baby will become.

It’s time to stop telling new parents they’re creating bad habits. The future generations depend on it.

Pinky McKay

Eliot, E (2001), ‘Early IntelligenceHow the Brain and Mind Develop in the First Five Years of Life’, Penguin. 

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