When it comes to parenting, good enough is better than perfect

You don't have to be perfect, just good enough.
You don't have to be perfect, just good enough. Photo: SHUTTERSTOCK

Striving to be a "good enough" parent, rather than a perfect parent is advice experts often give to new mums and dads. And, according to new research, being good enough is, in fact, good enough.

The term "good enough parent" was first coined by Dr Donald Winnicott, a pediatrician and psychoanalyst, back in 1953, At the time, Dr Winnicott wrote: "The good-enough mother ... starts off with an almost complete adaptation to her infant's needs, and as time proceeds she adapts less and less completely, gradually, according to the infant's growing ability to deal with her failure. Her failure to adapt to every need of the child helps them adapt to external realities."

In other words, not being a perfect parent helps our children realise that the world isn't perfect, either.

It's advice backed up by the new study published in Child Development, which found that far from being perfect, caregivers only have to "get it right" about half of the time when responding to their baby's need for attachment, in order for it to have a positive impact.

Lead author Professor Susan Woodhouse of Lehigh University, assessed 83 mothers of low socioeconomic-status, and their babies, at ages four and a half months, seven months, nine months and 12 months, during home visits. Professor Woodhouse wanted to look at the factors leading to secure attachment, which is associated with a range of developmental outcomes.

During the decades of research conducted on attachment, researchers have typically looked at caregiver "sensitivity" -  the ability to accurately interpret infant needs and to respond promptly and appropriately. But findings have consistently shown that sensitivity isn't the whole picture,

"If we want to give advice to parents about what they can do to give their baby the best start in life, it would be really good to know what helps a baby to be secure," Professor Woodhouse said.

To explore this, mums were observed as they responded to their infants. The researchers were interested in examining whether participants were providing their babies with what psychologists term a "secure base" - soothing them when they cry and giving them a present and safe place from which they can explore.

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So what exactly does providing a bub with a secure base look like? 

According to the researchers, "secure base provision" is less about providing prompt responses to crying and more about being able to resolve their baby's crying.

"It is at the end of each crying episode that the infant learns about whether, on average, the caregiver can be counted on to be available as the infant achieves a calm state or whether the infant typically must stop crying alone," they note.

But it's not simply about a caregiver's ability to soothe their distressed baby, either. Part of providing a secure base is also allowing bub to explore - without interrupting -  while communicating that they are there if needed.

The researchers found that mums who had higher scores on "secure base provision" were more likely to have securely attached infants, even when typical measures of sensitivity were taken into account.

​"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. 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?"

The team also identified a number of other dos and don'ts from the observations of parents when trying to soothe their babies.

"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," Professor 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."

Helicopter parenting was also a no-no.

"Some mums 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 mum," Professor Woodhouse said. "In really intrusive parenting, if we saw that, the baby was insecure."

With all this in mind, what's the takeaway?

"The first message gets at the core of getting the job done - supporting the baby in exploration and not interrupting it and welcoming babies in when they need us for comfort or protection," Professor Woodhouse said. "The other part is that you don't have to do it 100 percent -- you have to get it right about half of the time, and 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."

Now that's a message we can get behind.