BabiesHealthPregnancy & Childbirth

Can We Please Stop Scaring the Crap Out of New Parents?

I breastfed my son behind a curtain in the step down nursery, where babies rested in open cribs for a day to a week of monitoring. It was a huge difference from the intensive care nursery where my sons spent months.

From the other side of the curtain, I heard a mother yell at the nurse who could not let her breastfeed her newborn until he was cleared by the doctors: “If he doesn’t latch on immediately, he’ll never breastfeed!” she worried. I wanted sweep aside the curtain and introduce her to my son, who had waited weeks to breastfeed but was already a champ at it, but I didn’t.

Getting to the step down nursery was a triumph, but also rabbit-hole strange because it was the same NICU floor, but completely different. These babies had short stays and their conditions were not life-or-death, but their parents’ fear and worry was overwhelming.

Some families held the staff’s unwillingness to allow them to breastfeed immediately as proof that hospitals were shills for formula companies. Others seemed simply confused about whose advice to take.

I listened to families worry about bonding if their baby could not lie skin-to-skin immediately after birth, as if they’d missed the only window during which a bond could be formed (apparently adoptive parents are screwed in this world view).

I heard parents worry about the consequences of emergency C-sections on their babies. The list was appalling: poor immune system, poor circulation, poor coordination, developmental delays, bad lungs, no chance at breastfeeding, drug addiction, diabetes, asthma, lactose intolerance, learning disabilities, autism (of course), and more.

Parents’ voices held fear and anger at having their careful plans for the labor and birth process ripped away. There was sorrow at missing out on key moments that they believed would ensure their child started out life healthier, smarter and stronger. To me, it seemed like all of this got in the way of their self-care and the care of their babies.

There is a simple way those of us outside of the hospital can make things better for them: we can stop scaring the crap out of expectant parents.

I’m not talking about your horror story about 72 hours of active labor (though seriously, if you’re telling that one to pregnant women, just stop).

I’m talking about the importance we put on how people labor, birth and behave in the moments after birth. Websites, articles and message group posts encourage distrust of hospitals, and insist that choices made in the moments during and after birth determine how healthy, smart and capable a child will be for eternity. That’s a whole lot of pressure to put on brand new parents (I’m assuming veteran parents know that it’s a bunch of hooey by then).

mother holds newborn
(by wikipedia)

Article titles mislead while piling on the pressure.  The article “Mothers who cuddle their baby immediately after birth are more likely to breastfeed successfully,” reported on a study whose author said in the article “While skin-to-skin contact is associated positively with exclusive breastfeeding, the statistically significant factor is intention.” But, this important detail is given only a single sentence that anxious parents who assume that headlines reflect the main point of the article can easily miss.

Then there are sites emphasizing the importance of skin to skin contact immediately after birth. While this may be important, the simple addition of text explaining that kangaroo care is helpful whenever it occurs (even if long after the birth itself) would be kinder to parents who cannot have immediate skin-to-skin care.

Some sites imply that only one type of birth allows for successful breastfeeding (and it ain’t the kind families with infants in distress have):

. . .[with] a natural breastfeeding birth plan, without a lot of medications and interruptions your baby will be more likely to breastfeed immediately after birth. . .Moms who breastfeed shortly after birth have been found to breastfeed their babies longer and more successfully“ (Breastfeeding Problems).

In the same article, epidurals, medication, and cesarean sections are all blamed for poor breastfeeding, leading to the conclusion that the “wrong” choice made during a single day will mean permanent failure.

Websites often paint natural birth as the only responsible option. For example, one site lists some benefits of natural birth: avoiding prematurity, avoid respiratory problems, better circulation (and coordination), stronger immune system, better bonding, more comfortable transition into the world (for baby of course), successful breastfeeding, lower risk of diabetes, “optimal brain development,” and the warning that c-sections can “set up a child to always over-respond to stress.” Choose a c-section and your child will be doomed for eternity.

Never mind the fact that prematurity isn’t caused by how you give birth (it’s sorta the reverse), these sites rarely provide caveats for parents who cannot have natural births or mention that the benefit of a c-section in many cases is that an infant or parent who would otherwise die gets to live.

stack of money with a stethoscope on it
made from pics by wikicommons, Hujistat

And then there are books, such as “The Business of Baby,” by Jennifer Margulis, which is a long argument against hospitals, C-sections and other aspects of modern medical care. Despite negative reviews like those at Science Based Medicine and The New York Times, and the author’s unethical behavior regarding Amazon reviews (as noticed over at the Skeptical OB), people frequently refer to this book when planning their delivery.

This book and similar texts feed the distrust of hospitals, medicine, and vaccinations. They portray medical professionals as poorly educated, insensitive and dangerously greedy, convincing readers that many aspects of prenatal care are only provided to make a profit. As someone whose pregnancy was made safe and whose babies are alive today because of those supposedly money-hungry procedures, I find these sources judgmental at best and dangerous at worst (because people make decisions that affect their health and that of their baby based on writers with an axe to grind).

Blogs describe horrific experiences with hospital labor and birth and uncaring OBs. Articles encourage parents to believe that any change in their birth plan is for the worst possible reason; that babies are taken from their mother on the whim of the hospital, or out of convenience for the doctor; that babies are exposed to cold machines and prodding hands, to pinpricks, and poison forced into their eyes. No wonder first time parents can be suspicious when hospital staff explain that their baby has been taken for necessary care.

I am not trying to minimize the fact that hospitals profit from birth and labor. However, implying that hospitals do not take seriously the care of their patients is insulting and seems counter-intuitive since people who have the luxury of choosing their hospital would rarely go to one that had a high maternal or infant mortality rate. It also ignores the fact that non-hospital births are a business as well, with midwives pulling in a median annual wage of more than $92,000 (BLS).

Further, these books and articles create an environment in which new parents are suspicious of the same professionals who work to keep them and their babies healthy, and put immense pressure on parents to do certain things the “right” way.

It’s so simple, all we have to do is give new parents more information about what happens at hospitals when things go wrong, and stop glorifying natural birth in ways that make new parents believe that anything else is bad for them or their child.

Basically, we need to stop acting like there is one perfect way to have a baby.

At the very least, we need to tell new parents not to sweat it, and that a childhood in a loving home with encouragement and stability is going to matter a whole heck of a lot more than whether the parent had an epidural, breastfed immediately, or held a child within seconds of birth. So, how about we stop making new parents worry so much about that stuff?


Deek lives with her husband, twin sons and two cats in the northwest. She teaches and writes about parenting in the NICU, her experiences as a parent of micro-preemies and skeptical parenting.

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  1. Excellent article! I wanted to add that maybe some of the fears are amplified by the sleep deprivation/hormones/all the stuff that happens after you have a new baby. Some of the best advice I got on how to be a parent was from the booklet that the hospital gave me. It had a lot of good information without any of the scare tactics.

  2. But…but…isn’t it a right of parenting passage that every New Parent is supposed to be terrified of the task of parenting? I’ve attended many a baby shower where the gauntlet run (emotionally, if not actually) for the parents-to-be included every possible horror story about Things Gone Bad. I’ve seen more than a few moms-to-be leave their own showers in tears (and awful guests complaining that “she’s so EMOTIONAL!”). UGH.

    Gruncle talks sometimes about Magical Thinking: rehearsing every bad thing that can happen in any given scenario, and obsessing about the All Bad Things, seems magically to keep them at bay. Because (statistically thinking) All Bad Things don’t happen to everyone. So for most, that obsession with thinking the worst could be reinforced by a non-awful outcome – “I thought it would be horrible, and it wasn’t, therefore my thinking and planning made it alllllll better…so I’ll ALWAYS THINK ABOUT THE WORST THING EVER!!!”

    And thus the magical cycle – we talk about the worst outcome, we scare the crap out of new parents, because doing so appeals to our sense of control, and desire to keep the awful away from the babies. It doesn’t work all the time (statistics!) but it (apparently) works enough that people will still do it.

    Damn logic and critical thinking, destroying all the magic in the world…

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