Everyone knows that new moms get a ton of unsolicited advice; it comes with the territory. So what’s the big deal, and why shouldn’t you impart some well-intentioned wisdom without waiting for them to ask?
The reason is asymmetric information. Asymmetric information simply means that in a given scenario, one party holds more complete information than the other. In other words, parents hold more information about their own child and family situation than anyone else does. When you give someone your opinion on a topic related to their child rearing, you often do not have the whole picture, leading to frustration on the parents’ part. This is true regardless of how well you know the mom — friends, sisters, grandparents are all included in this list.
Here are a few common ways that your lack of information affects the mother when you give her unsolicited advice:
1. Medical and baby advice is constantly changing.
This one is the biggest and, therefore, first. When my daughter was born, my husband and I carefully picked out a pediatrician we love and feel we can trust to give us the best information regarding our baby’s health. She is great, and we still use her. However, our baby had terrible witching hours/maybe mild colic. She screamed every night from around 8 p.m. to 12 a.m. It was horrible. My husband was a champ and took that shift every night so I could sleep and have enough strength to get up and feed her the rest of the night. Our doctor gave some advice on how we could help, but, ultimately, it’s just something a lot of newborns do and she was honest with us about that.
Enter: Anyone who had a child in the ‘80s or ‘90s. According to them we were basically starving our baby by not putting rice cereal in her bottle. “She is obviously hungry,” they said. Nevermind the fact that standard medical care has changed drastically and parents are advised not to start any solids until at least four months (six months is preferred), but babies have aspirated on adding rice cereal to their bottles. The well-meaning advisors were not up to date with standard medical care, and simply didn’t have all the information we did.
2. Mom is likely hormonal/exhausted/just needs to hear she is doing a great job.
Pregnancy, childbirth, and the postpartum period are exhausting and full of raging hormones for the new mama. It’s great because those hormones help bond you to your sweet new baby, but they also wreak havoc on your emotional stability.
Constantly hearing about what you should do, why you should do it, or having the passive aggressive questioning thrown your way (i.e., “Are you sure you want to do that?”) is debilitating for someone who is already worried about keeping this new human alive. Everytime my daughter cried, I felt like my heart was tearing in two. People whispering what I should do, or why they think she is crying in my ear was enough to make me scream and tell my husband to lock the doors. I would rather have no help from anyone than deal with that. No one can possibly understand what a new mom is going through, even if you have done it because every mom and every baby is different.
3. Everything about having a baby/child involves trade-offs.
There is no one way to raise a baby. Every parent has to make decisions on what is right for their family. For example, I have two different couple friends. One adheres to a pretty strict schedule. Playdates revolve around naps, and she and her husband rarely go out after 7 p.m. because they know that this structure helps with their two-year-old son. The other couple is the exact opposite. Their son is around the same age, but isn’t really on any schedule. They take him everywhere, he sleeps when he is tired, and is a good-natured kid. Neither of them is right or wrong. Both their sons are healthy and happy two-year- olds. We generally fall somewhere in between because it is what works for us. You do not know why a parent has their child out late, or why they seem to “rigid” in their schedule. You are not privy to their private parenting decisions, and so you should not give advice on whether or not their baby should be in bed earlier or how they could relax their schedule a bit.
4. Everyone is giving different advice to the parents ALL THE TIME.
To you, your advice or opinion is well-intentioned, and you do not understand why some moms are so sensitive to a bit of advice here or there. What you do not know is that five other people have all given their opinion on that particular subject this week, and usually all five opinions are different. So to the mom, it is a constant onslaught of what you should change, do better, or think of more quickly. Add in the fact that there is often no clear right answer and the hormones we have already talked about, and it is enough to send anyone through the roof. Again, you don’t have all the necessary information. Seeing the theme yet?
5. It’s selfish.
I know, this is probably where I will lose a lot of people, but if you have the patience to hear me out, then I think you will agree with why I say this.
A gift is not a gift if it is a burden. Unwanted advice is a burden to new (and even experienced) mothers. Even if they ignore it and move on, there is the burden of wondering if the person giving it will be offended. I know the catalyst for giving lots of continual advice is a desire to help, which stems from the desire to be involved in the new mom or baby’s life. That intention can be good, but needs to be harnessed into something more effective. It needs to be a gift of what the mom needs, and you cannot assume you know what she needs. If advice is wanted I promise the mom will ask. If she doesn’t ask, she doesn’t want it.
So, how can you do something actually helpful for a new mama?
Ask! I promise, she will tell you. By taking a step back and letting her know you want to help in a way that is actually helpful, you will make her feel loved and comfortable enough to ask your advice once in a while. I have one friend who gave me a book on baby sleep when I had my baby with a note that said, “This really helped us, but I know every baby is different. Feel free to pass it back if it isn’t helpful for you, and let me know if I can do anything. I know how hard the postpartum phase is.”
That friend is the first person I go to (other than our pediatrician) if I need advice. She cared enough to help, without making me feel like she knew my daughter better than I did. She did not assume to have all the information necessary to fix my problems.