Parenting ideals vs. reality: A guide for new moms and dads

UnderwoodTripp-32_Like many parents-to-be, my wife and I are an optimistic lot. We’re full of great ideas (“We’ll read to the baby 5 hours a day!”), occasionally talk in absolutes (“Our daughter will NEVER have fast food!”) and recognize the importance of the long game (“The road to Harvard starts with the right pre-school!”).

But we’re also realistic. We fully understand that six months from now, when we’re in the thick of it as new, clueless parents, there’s a good chance that a lot of our pre-birth idealism will get thrown out like yesterday’s disposable diapers. (Which I just learned we’re avoiding for environmental reasons. No promises there.)

But just because keeping the goals you set as new parents can be tough doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try; you just need to be reasonable in your expectations. With that in mind, I went to a few different experts from Boston Children’s Hospital for advice on how my wife and I can stick to our guns on some of our core parenting ideals and which ones we can feel less guilty about compromising on.

The ideal: We’ll baby-proof the whole house before the baby even gets here.

The reality: You’ve got a little time before safety becomes an issue.

Keeping your baby safe is your number one priority as a new parent, but don’t feel like you need to have the house ensconced in bubble wrap right away. It’ll be months before your bundle of joy will be able to freely move around your home, so if you haven’t installed locks on all your cabinets or bought an untippable TV stand yet, don’t feel too bad about it. However, there are two key safety issues you NEED to take care of before the birth: Getting an appropriately sized and installed car seat and creating a safe sleeping environment. colvin_car seat

“It’s very important to make sure you have the appropriate car seat for a newborn and that it is installed properly in your car before the child’s due date, because many hospitals won’t allow you to leave without one,” says Lois Lee, MD, attending physician in Boston Children’s Emergency Department. “If you’re not sure about how to install it, ask your pediatrician for local fitting stations where certified child passenger safety technicians (CPST) can install your newborn’s car seat in your car for you to ensure it’s properly fitted and safe.”

Many local police and fire departments, as well some stores that sell car seats, can also provide the service. Or like me, you can make an appointment with Boston Children’s car seat clinic, held every Wednesday from 10 a.m. to noon.

And once you bring your bundle of joy home, the first thing she’s likely to do is take a nap. (Don’t judge—trying to process hundreds of new sights, sounds and experiences every minute is exhausting.) The ideal bassinet or crib has no bumpers, blankets, pillows or stuffed animals in it, because they could present a smothering hazard. These things might look cute but are not worth the risk. Hold off on using them until your infant is older.

“Infants lack head control and have weak neck muscles, so any items in the crib could potentially lead to suffocation,” Lee says. “If you are concerned your infant will be cold, you can dress her in onesie and footie pajamas, and then put her into a sleep sack, which is basically a blanket that zips up around them and has arm holes. That will keep her both warm and free of any potential breathing obstructions. Using a safe space heater is another option to keep the baby warm without a blanket.” (The recommended room temperature for a baby is around 72 degrees Fahrenheit.)

Must dos:

  • Have an appropriately sized and installed car seat.
  • Create a safe, secure sleeping area.

Things NOT to worry too much about:

  • Baby proofing everything, right away

The ideal: Our baby will live exclusively on breast milk and organic vegetables.

The reality: Kids can be fussy eaters; learn to roll with it.

According to The American Academy of Pediatrics: “For nearly all infants, breastfeeding is the best source of nutrition and immunologic protection and provides remarkable health benefits to mothers as well.”

tripp baby readingNow, as a dad, I can’t help out in this department too much. But that’s not to say I don’t have a job to do; I need to be there for my wife anytime breastfeeding becomes difficult and remind her that if our child won’t latch, it’s NOT her fault, nor does it mean she’ll be malnourished. Essentially, for those first few weeks, my feeding responsibilities are to be as supportive as a nursing bra.

Once the baby is ready to move beyond milk or formula, it’s important to introduce a variety of fruits and vegetables, but don’t be discouraged if your baby is a natural-born broccoli lover.

“It may take 8 to 10 times before a new food is accepted,” says Susanna Huh, MD, MPH, associate director of Boston Children’s Nutrition Center. “Just because she doesn’t like a particular food at first doesn’t mean it’s off limits forever. Try reintroducing it again, possibly prepared or seasoned differently. In time, the baby is likely to come around to it.”

But if after several attempts, the baby is still resistant to a particular food, let it go. Forcing an unwelcome food on a picky eater can make her despise it even more, because she starts to associate it with stress. “In general, parents should respect a child’s food preferences as long as a child eats a variety of healthy foods,” Huh says.  “Remember that you probably have some foods you simply don’t like; imagine how you would feel if you were being forced to eat those foods on a regular basis?”

Should dos:

  • Breastfeed if possible.
  • Have the child try foods multiple times.
  • When snacks/meals are offered, parents should offer both preferred and non-preferred foods.  
  • If a child won’t eat a non-preferred food, a parent can encourage her to hold, smell and lick the food to foster acceptance.  

Don’t:

  • Force a food if it’s been rejected more than a dozen times.

The ideal: We’ll rock and sing our daughter to sleep every night.colvin

The reality: Some sleep independence is good for you both.

Soothing and cooing your baby to sleep every night may seem like the nurturing thing to do, but you could be inadvertently making her too dependent on you to help her drift off.

“I think it is really helpful for babies to learn to make the final transition from wake to sleep on their own, as opposed to always being rocked to sleep, or allowed to fall asleep on the breast, the bottle, or while having their backs rubbed,” says Dennis Rosen, MD, associate medical director of The Center for Pediatric Sleep Disorders at Boston Children’s. “This way, the child will be able to self-soothe herself back to sleep on her own if and when she awakens at night without the parents having to be physically present.”

Once your baby is capable of drifting off on her own, your job as a parent is to help her maintain a regular sleep schedule. Try to put her down for naps and at night at relatively consistent times—even if you know she will be awake again in a few hours. In time, both you and the baby will grow to depend on that consistency.

Should dos:

  • Let the baby make the final transition from wake to sleep on her own.
  • Try to maintain a regular sleep schedule.

Don’t worry too much about:

  • The occasional whimper or cry from the crib. Children who learn to self-soothe early tend to learn how to sleep through the night earlier as well.