Worried about not being able to care for your baby?
Here’s how to bring out your inner mother
One frustrating thing about motherhood: Everyone wants to give you advice. But then, when you really want explicit instructions for how to end non-stop crying or get baby to sleep for more than two hours straight, you’re likely to hear this gem: “Trust your instincts.”
Admittedly, it’s tough to believe that once there’s a baby in your arms, you’re suddenly an expert. But maternal instinct is real—Mother Nature does all she can to make you feel like a pro.
Scientific evidence confirms that the hormones involved in pregnancy, childbirth, and nursing play a starring role in stimulating feelings of intimacy between mothers and infants.
“During pregnancy, there’s a big build-up of estrogen, which is associated with intuitiveness,” notes Mona Lisa Schulz, M.D., a neuropsychiatrist and author of The New Feminine Brain: Developing Your Intuitive Genius. “Then, after birth, there’s a surge of oxytocin, which is supposed to facilitate attachment.”
Assuming new mothers don’t suffer from depression, this hormonal cocktail jump-starts bonding, the basis of instinct, Schulz notes. The hormones trigger “a dance of love when you hold, gaze at, coo, and giggle with your baby,” explains Michele Borba, Ed.D., an educational psychologist and author of 12 Simple Secrets Real Moms Know. In fact, this closeness with your baby goes a long way toward cementing your intuition.
“The closer you get to your baby, the more you discover what works for your baby,” Borba says. That’s how parents develop what seems like a magical ability to deduce what’s wrong and fix it—that a gentle tummy rub can soothe a cry, for instance. These forms of inner knowledge develop even when you’re not a mom.
Time well spent
Spending time with and focusing attention on your baby are all-important. “You can induce more maternal behavior with a lack of demands and the chance to concentrate on your infant,” notes C. Sue Carter, Ph.D., co-director of the Brain-Body Center at University of Illinois at Chicago.
When she gave birth to her first child two years ago, Marilee Jaquith of Wilson, WY, remembers luxuriating in maternal feelings as she rocked and nursed her daughter.
However, when she gave birth to her son—prematurely, following an emergency appendectomy—Jaquith could only hold him during visits to the neo-natal nursery. Once she brought him home, Jaquith hardly had time to sit down because there was a toddler to watch. “I didn’t have the freedom to bond,” she recalls.
But even though she didn’t get the start she wanted, Jaquith says she’s developed abundant instinct now that her son is 6 months old. “I feel like it’s getting to know a new friend. When I just hold him in front of my face and laugh, he laughs back. And I can tell what he wants now if he’s fidgety.”
In essence, instinct means “no one knows your child better than you,” Borba explains. Still, the problem for many nervous parents is that they don’t trust their own judgment. “Find a source to validate how well you’re doing,” she suggests.
First-time mom Brooke Skretny Toomey of New York City says, “I didn’t have an ‘ah-ha’ moment when my instinct told me exactly what to do with a newborn. But, over the course of time, with the validation and support of family, I learned. My confidence was built on experience and encouragement and love.”
It can be startling—and gratifying—to feel your growing confidence in your instinct. “I remember telling my pediatrician that I had no idea how to care for an infant, and I wouldn’t know how much to feed her,” shares Colleen Bansley, Chicago mother of 1-year-old Nell. “When she told me ‘the baby will let you know,’ I didn’t believe her. But it was true, my daughter would pull back when she wasn’t hungry. And I knew a tired cry from a hungry cry.”
For your baby, your developing instinct is like a security blanket. You’re the watchful eye who knows when she’s comfortable…and when something is amiss. Your baby’s doctor should value this innate knowledge, notes West Lake Village, CA, pediatrician Tanya Altmann, M.D. “When you sense something wrong, bring it up,” she says.
Doctors rely on your input to spot problems that may not be evident in a quick visit. Indeed, when you choose your child’s doctor, consider how comfortable you feel expressing yourself with her, Altmann suggests. And if you ever think your pediatrician isn’t listening or she says there’s no valid reason for your concerns, but you still believe something’s wrong, consult another expert, she counsels.
Marilyn Kennedy Melia wishes she had trusted her instinct more with her first baby. Fortunately, she found her confidence by the time her second child was born. Melia is a freelance writer based in Northbrook, IL.