It is not unusual for new mothers to have some anxiety about their babies and about themselves as mothers. Crying, feeding and sleeping may generate worries. Am I able to comfort a crying baby, is nursing providing enough food, are sleep patterns going as they should? These are typical concerns of inexperienced first-time mothers.

It is also not unusual for new parents to consult books and articles to get answers to their questions about the expectable behavior of infants and if what their baby is doing is “normal.” First time mothers are older than in past years and have had experience in the work place. Mothers have told me how unsettling it is to discover that the feeling of competence they had at work doesn’t carry over to mothering.

One mother said that at work there was always a right way to do something and she looks for that right way in caring for a baby. But the fantasy of what it will be like to have a baby is different from the reality. Books that give information and advice about pregnancy are often read by prospective new mothers and it almost seems as if once the baby is born the goal has been accomplished.

But the reality of an actual living dependent being for whom you are responsible, who may cry inconsolably at times, and whose sleep patterns don’t conform to your own, feels quite different from something one reads in a book. There is no way to really prepare anyone for the life change that occurs with the birth of a baby.

There are issues that arise in caring for an infant that can make you question whether you are doing the “right” thing. This is the era of “big data” used to shed light on all kinds of things and recently I came across someone writing about the benefit of statistics in answering various questions about baby care. For example, to help make a decision about breastfeeding or sleep training. The idea is to use the statistical evidence pro or con in deciding what to do.

Statistics are based on research, which in turn is based on numbers as well as other factors, such as the reliability of the method, the use of control groups and the number of subjects. The point is that the findings tell you about the pros or cons of an issue for a group, not for a specific individual. In other words, “x” number of mothers reported positively about sleep training while “y” number reported negatively. What does that tell you about your child?

In this particular example of a question that many mothers raise, one has to ask who is the actual mother and who is the actual baby? What is the actual sleep issue that raises the need for training? Is the mother able to tolerate any fussing or crying by the baby? How long does the crying go on? Does it escalate if there is no response from a parent? Is this a fussy or generally easy baby?

These are questions best answered by a parent herself about her baby and herself, not by data extrapolated from a large population. Throughout child rearing most issues involve interactions between parent and child. In this instance, helping an infant become regulated with regard to sleeping and eating may require a parent to tolerate some crying to determine if the baby will self-soothe, or if comfort from a parent is truly necessary.

There are no right answers to the questions. A major challenge in being a parent is tolerating uncertainty.
Elaine Heffner, LCSW, Ed.D., has written for Parents Magazine, Fox.com, Redbook, Disney online and PBS Parents, as well as other publications. She has appeared on PBS, ABC, Fox TV and other networks. Dr. Heffner is the author of “Goodenoughmothering: The Best of the Blog,” as well as “Mothering: The Emotional Experience of Motherhood after Freud and Feminism.” She is a psychotherapist and parent educator in private practice, as well as a senior lecturer of education in psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College. Dr. Heffner was a co-founder and served as director of the Nursery School Treatment Center at Payne Whitney Clinic, New York Hospital. And she blogs at goodenoughmothering.com.