The Myth of the “Good Baby,” And Other Questions People Just Shouldn’t Ask

Please enjoy this fantastic blog article, written by talented my sister-in-law, Kim Bourne!

When I’m out and about with the little ones, I’m often the recipient of well-meaning yet extremely annoying comments and questions - “Are they all yours?” “Um, no. This one’s mine. The other two are random street urchins who just started following me around”. “Three girls? Your husband must want to try for a boy!” “We’re actually OK with the ones we have - who can hear and understand you by the way...” “Wow, you really have your hands full!” At which point, since I usually have the baby in a wrap, I do my jazz hands and say, “My hands are free, actually!” Sometimes I have a witty response, other times it’s more like “The jerk store called...” , but in general, I’ve learned that these questions and comments come from people who want to say something and so they revert to the tried and true, even if the tried and true is actually quite obnoxious. 

But there are two questions that really make me angry, and I’m hoping that drawing attention to them might stop someone somewhere from subjecting an unsuspecting new mom to them - or worse asking me and having me unleash my mama fury on them. And these questions are “Is she a good baby?” and her evil stepsister “Is she sleeping through the night?” 

Is she a good baby?! Seriously?! Well, she hasn’t knocked over a liquor store in the three months she’s been alive, so I guess she’s a good baby... But seriously, what happens when some sweet looking old lady at the Target squeezes baby’s foot, smiles at her, and asks New Mom, “Is she a good baby?” At first, New Mom is confused. How does she determine if her baby is a good baby? Perhaps New Mom senses what her role is supposed to be, so she replies, “Oh yes, she’s a good baby! She barely ever cries! Just when she’s hungry or needs a new diaper. She’s a little angel.” Yes, yes, New Mom. That’s exactly what the Old Lady at the Target wants to hear! Old lady at the Target gives New Mom an approving smile. Hooray for New Mom! She passed the test! 

What gets me so angry is that all this does is train a poor new mom to equate “easy for me” as “good.” Some babies are very easy-going, adaptable, and generally happy. Some babies are not. Is it easier to take care of a baby who hardly ever cries and spends her day quietly eating, sleeping, and cooing? Obviously! But that doesn’t make a baby “good.” When I think of the qualities that make a person “good,” I think of a kind heart, a giving spirit. Babies can’t fit into that equation yet. What if the baby does cry for considerable amounts of time and doesn’t like being put down? Is the baby a bad baby? Even though the lady at the Target was just making conversation, what she has really done is create a definition in New Mom’s head that isn’t fair to her or the baby. We have babies for many different reasons, but making our lives easier certainly isn’t one of them. They are here to be loved, respected, and accepted as they learn how to adapt to a world that is challenging and new. There are no good babies or bad babies - just babies who have different needs and different ways of dealing with those needs. [Also, it turns out that many “bad babies” make pretty kick-ass adults. Check out Raising Your Spirited Child by Mary Sheedy Kurcinka to learn more.]

The other question, sometimes asked in conjunction with “Is she a good baby” is “Is she sleeping through the night?” Now, this is a fair question I suppose. Those of us who haven’t had four consecutive hours of sleep since we saw two pink lines on the pregnancy test and who nod off on the toilet are relatively easy to spot. Perhaps this question is a kinder way of saying, “Wow, you look like hell.” What really bothers me is the frequency with which this question is posed. I would venture to estimate that 70% of people ask me if my baby sleeps through the night when I first meet them. As a new mom, one can’t help but get the message: this is very important and you are being judged by your response here! Much like having a “good baby,” having a child who sleeps through the night has become an important metric in determining whether or not you are succeeding or failing as a parent. Have you ever talked to a mom who beams with pride as she tells you her child started sleeping through the night at 6 weeks? Now, some of that beaming is probably just the good skin that comes with a full night’s rest, but a lot of it comes from feeling like she passed the test. And if your child doesn’t sleep through the night? Well, better get on that quick or you’ll be stuck in MommyFail land forever. 

This pressure to be able to provide the right answer to the question leads parents to approach sleep in a totally unnatural way. Some may feel the need to start “sleep training” before they or their child are ready. Or they may turn to methods that don’t feel right, but they do them anyway because they are told they’ll get the quickest results. The issue here is that sleep training is often a response to a manufactured problem. If there is truly a problem with the amount of sleep everyone is getting, then by all means parents should try to address the sleep situation and use whatever method they think will work best for them. However, “everyone says she should be doing it by now” or “it must be a big deal because everyone keeps asking me about it” is not the same as a legitimate problem. I’m not sure what mythical land most people are living in, where all tiny-bellied infants are supposed to make it through the night without eating at just a month or two old, thus defying biology. But beckoning new parents into this dream world is not useful or helpful. My kid wakes up once or twice a night. I wish she didn’t, but she does. Now stop asking me about it because I’ve got 99 problems and this ain’t one (right now). 

I’m pretty sure that when most people ask these questions, they aren’t meaning to give a new mom some crazy complex, but still, if we could change the tried and true to something more empowering and positive, NewMommyLand would be a much more beautiful place. My inspiration for comments when I see a new mom come from a short encounter I had with a man out on the street one day. As I’m getting my oldest daughter out of the car, an older man looks over at us and smiles. When he sees my second daughter also get out, he says, “Oh, two of them!” Now, at this point, I’m anticipating all the annoying “you must have your hands full”-type comments. But instead he says, “You are so lucky! You are doubly blessed!” I remember it to this day, how happy I felt to hear him say that. So that’s what I go with. Instead of judging or pressuring, I go with loving, supporting, and admiring.