Parents and questions about what’s ‘normal’ for babies go together like a bad night’s sleep and a cup of coffee. I certainly found it hard to go from a fully functioning working adult to a person whose whole day was held ransom by a small baby; I wasn’t quite sure what she was supposed to be doing, and when she was supposed to do it.
Professor Kim Oates, from the University of Sydney, recently released a book titled 20 Tips for Parents: Helpful Advice on Common Concerns with Children. Speaking to him about his 35 years as a pediatrician took me back to those early days as he stressed the importance of knowing normal behaviour at different ages.
“It’s important for people to know about child development, understand play, understand why toddlers struggle with sharing; accept that children are doing what they are supposed to be doing,” he says.
So how can learning more about children’s developmental capabilities change the way we approach parenting? Could it take the pressure off parents who just want a little more sleep, want their toddlers to a eat a little more painstakingly prepared food, and all those other wondrous tasks we take on when a child comes into our family?
Erica, 39, found that embracing the idea of what her child was ‘meant’ to be doing decreased the angst of wanting things to get easier. “Before I had Cameron I envisaged what sort of mum I’d be. Strict but fair, easy-going but with a routine of sorts … I even thought I would start my masters while on maternity leave, because looking after a baby couldn’t be that hard, right?” she laughs. “But Cameron didn’t sleep – he woke every hour or so for each night for almost two years.”
Erica’s first thought was that she was doing something wrong, or that she wasn’t listening closely enough to the advice of others who had ‘sleepers’. But once she accepted what Cameron was doing and let herself be led by her child, she realised that trying to push him into a sleep routine was just distressing for them both. After his first birthday she also discovered he had obstructive sleep apnea, which meant that no matter how much she might have wanted things to be different, the outcomes would have been the same.
So how should babies be developing? Professor Oates recommends accessing quality parenting websites so parents can prepare themselves about what to expect. And sure, sites like Raising Children Network emphasise that ‘there is no such thing as normal’, but when you don’t have a gauge to compare against, what do you do?
Rachel, 35, found she was in this position with her second son, Ethan. “Sleep was never on his agenda,” she explains. “I had so many ideas about what Ethan ‘should’ be doing, based on what my first son did and the kind of baby he was – I was desperate for him to sleep, spending days and weeks worrying about how I could make it happen.”
At her lowest, Rachel stayed home for 10 days in a row, hoping that establishing a new routine would help. It didn’t. “Eventually I just stopped and rolled with it. I was so stressed out by what he was doing I had forgotten to enjoy both my boys,” she says.
Now a vibrant 14-month-old, Ethan still struggles with sleep, and Rachel has to remind herself how to deal with her thoughts of ‘he should be different’. “He is curious and engaged – this is normal,” she says. “If I’m frustrated, that’s about me and what I want to be doing. It’s not about him and his development.”
We often find that by living by ‘shoulds’ we set ourselves up to fail by constantly seeking ways to solve the challenges that face and exhaust us. Having a grasp of the developmental stages our children move through allows us to know, with space for movement, what we might expect, and what they’re capable of. More importantly, it provides us with some ideas about when we might need to reach out for help.
Raising our children with an expectation that we may not always be perfect at the task means that we get the chance to grow alongside the little ones we are raising.
Erica agrees wholeheartedly that going with it gave her room for less angst as she and her son, now four, learnt to march to the beat of their own drum.
“He’s a bright, active, curious and healthy little boy who knows when I’m there for him,” she says. “Yes, he still falls asleep with his mummy – but who doesn’t love seeing their child fall asleep smiling?”
Sarah Wayland is Sydney-based counsellor, a mum of two and a step-mum of two more. You can chat with her on Twitter.