The ‘good baby’ syndrome

“Is she a good baby?” they asked. They were, of course, referring to nothing more than how often she slept or cried. Hopefully, she was a baby who slept a lot and cried a little. The mark of a “good baby”, apparently, although I’m not sure what it would make her if she didn’t do those things. 

There’s no denying how many people proudly wear their so-called “good babies” like a badge of honour. As if it’s a reflection of any sort of personal achievement…. because baby who sleeps a lot and cries a little must surely have skilled parents? Ones who are calm and collected, and clearly have it all figured out. As if a baby’s temperament is anything within our control.

I felt it, alright. The pressure to have a good baby, once I, you know, had one. Because if my baby cried at every family gathering and woke up every hour of every night, well then, there must be something that I was doing wrong, right?

This couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, I truly believe it might just be the opposite. 

Calm parents do not beget calm babies, for the simple reason that those babies feel safe and secure expressing themselves. They don’t have to worry about their needs making mom uncomfortable, because they know mom can handle it! They know mom is comfortable with loud, sometimes long, displays of emotion. The baby feels this. Internalizes this. The result is often babies who express their needs and emotions unabashedly, secure in the knowledge that they will be loved and cared for regardless. 

Many parents who resort to cry-it-out report that, after a week or two, their babies are happier and more pleasant to be around. This is a coping strategy. They have learnt that the only way to get the love and care from their caregivers that they depend on in order to survive, is to be pleasant. Crying, screaming and otherwise begging mom and dad to come and help them in their time of need didn’t work out well for them, so they quickly learn they better be sweet and happy to get the attention they need (deserve). We are well on our way to raising people-pleasers when we adopt this approach, teaching our infants right from the get-go that any sign of unpleasantness, or strong emotions, lead to discomfort, stress, and/or isolation from us.

Of course, no child (or adult!) is happy and smile-y all the time. But we socialize our babies very early on to adopt the good-baby syndrome. We reward their smiles, their giggles, their easy-goingness, and either ignore, or show grave discomfort at, their cries.

Many parents aren’t doing this intentionally. Society has led us to believe that an “easy baby” is the result of good, relaxed parenting. That a baby who sleeps through the night is the mark of well-adjusted child. That a child is who is quiet and obedient is the ultimate goal. Again, none of these could be further from the truth. We don’t need to feel insecure about ourselves when our babies (or children) don’t act this way.

Collectively, we need to stop asking parents “Is she sleeping through the night?” and start asking, “How can I support you through your night-time parenting responsibilities?”

We need to stop remarking to parents what a “good” baby they have, and start congratulating them on how comfortable their child feels expressing all their emotions, ESPECIALLY the angry/frustrated/upset ones.

We need to stop expecting children to be more mature then they are developmentally capable of being and start looking on admiringly at parents who chose to support, rather than belittle, their child’s growth and learning process.

Responsive parenting allows children to  express all their emotions, so that they can process them and move on. As parents, this is exhausting work. But it is important work. The most important. Responsive parenting produces securely attached children who feel safe being exactly who they are. These are the children who will grow up to be the world’s most empathetic change-makers. There are no good babies, there are just mothers (and fathers!) trying their best to meet their baby’s needs. This is not a post advocating for permissive parenting, or children who ‘rule the roost’. We can, and should, set loving limits. But this does not mean training our children’s normal, and healthy, need for closeness and expression out of them. Please, join me in ending this “good baby” talk. Smile encouragingly at that mother reacting to her screaming baby/toddler/child with love and respect. Let’s work together to end the societal pressure to raise anything other than whole-hearted, connected children.