“Good Enough” Parenting Works, at Least for Babies, Researcher Says


Guess what, moms: You don’t have to be perfect!

In fact, it’s good enough to get it right about half the time, at least when it comes to establishing a bond with your infant, says a Lehigh University researcher in a paper released this week.

Making a baby feel secure is important for his emotional and social development, but Susan S. Woodhouse, an associate professor of counseling psychology at Lehigh, says that doesn’t mean you have to immediately jump up to comfort him at his first whimper. What the baby wants is to know somebody is there for him and will soothe him when he needed, even if it takes a couple minutes.

"What we found was that what really matters is not really so much that moment-to-moment matching between what the baby's cue is and how the parent responds,” Woodhouse says. “What really matters is in the end, does the parent get the job done — both when a baby needs to connect, and when a baby needs to explore?"

Don't frighten or overprotect them either

For calming, that means being willing to hold your baby, chest-to-chest, until she is soothed. And if other kids, work or everyday household distractions prevent you from rushing to your crying infant every single time, Woodhouse found that getting it right at least half of the time is enough to establish a pattern to help the baby understand she is in good hands.

That’s not to say you can’t screw up. Don’t turn the baby away before she’s calm, don’t handle or speak to her roughly, and don’t suddenly get in her face when she’s crying.

"If the mother did frightening things when the baby cried, like hard yelling or growling at the baby, or suddenly looming toward the baby's face while the baby was upset, even if it only happened one time, the baby would be insecure," Woodhouse said. "Similarly, if the mother did anything really frightening even when the baby wasn't in distress, like saying 'bye-bye' and pretending to leave, throwing the baby in the air to the point they would cry, failure to protect the baby, like walking away from the changing table or not protecting them from an aggressive sibling, or even what we call 'relentless play' — insisting on play and getting the baby worked up when it is too much — that also leads to insecurity."

However, going too far in the other direction can be damaging as well. Moms who never let their babies explore or constantly interrupt their play can result in the baby feeling less secure, she notes.

"Some moms really had trouble allowing the baby to explore and were very insistent on the baby doing certain things or turning the baby's head to look at the mom," Woodhouse says. "In really intrusive parenting, if we saw that, the baby was insecure."

Hope for the less than perfect

Woodhouse hopes her research will relieve moms from the burden of believing they need to respond immediately as soon as the baby gets on the struggle bus and instead focus on eventually picking her up and calming her down.

"Such a message could help parents increase positive caregiving without raising anxiety regarding 'perfect parenting' or setting the bar so high as to make change unattainable in families that face multiple stressors," she says. “Babies are very forgiving and it's never too late. Keep trying. You don't have to be perfect, you just have to be good enough."

So, Happy Mother’s Day, moms. Don't stress about having to be perfect. Nobody is (well, except maybe your baby).


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