Go easy on yourself, Mom! A new study outlines what it takes to make your crying baby feel more secure—and it turns out it's less work than you think.

By Anna Halkidis
antoniodiaz/Shutterstock

May 30, 2019

New moms, don’t be so hard on yourselves. Even if you don’t “get it right” 100 percent of the time, your baby will turn out just fine. Don’t believe it? A new study confirms being a good enough parent is, well, enough.

Susan Woodhouse, Ph.D., an expert on infant attachment, found the way we’ve traditionally been looking at parenting might not be telling the full story. Typically, she says, we view parenting in terms of “moment-by-moment matching.” That means when Baby “gives a signal of needing something, the parent will respond appropriately and promptly,” explains the associate professor of counseling psychology at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.

But what happens when a parent isn’t able to react every single time their newborn lets out a cry? “If you do it at least half of the time, that seems to be enough for the baby to still be secure,” says Dr. Woodhouse, who co-authored the study with Julie R. Scott of Pennsylvania State University, Allison D. Hepworth, Ph.D., of the University of Maryland School of Social Work, and Jude Cassidy, Ph.D., of the University of Maryland. And having a secure baby is the goal. Research shows security in infancy can positively affect a child's physical, motor, and cognitive development.

The observational study, which appears in the journal Child Development, followed 83 first-time moms from low-socioeconomic status households and their babies from 4.5 to 12 months old. The infants had “high levels of temperamental irritability” and were of different races and ethnicities, as were their moms. Dr. Woodhouse and the team focused on how these moms responded to their babies when they cried and were calm to determine “secure base provision,” or a parent’s ability to be a secure base and meet their little one's needs.

The results showed if a mom soothed their crying baby with chest-to-chest contact (very important!) 50 percent of the time, it was enough for the baby to feel secure with their caregiver. However it's necessary for parents to protect their infant anytime real hazards arise.

And sometimes leaving babies alone is actually a good thing. Secure base provision also looks at the mother's ability to allow their child to explore their surroundings when not crying. During these moments, it's important to let your little one be and try not to frighten them or make them cry. So as hard as it is to resist their cuteness and the desire to pick them up, it's important to give them the independence to safely explore their surroundings. This doesn't mean, Dr. Woodhouse points out, that parents should avoid setting appropriate limits. For example, if there's a tool box on the floor that you don't want your infant to touch, it's OK to keep them out of reach, even if it leads to crying.

Through her study, Dr. Woodhouse hopes parents—especially ones who get very anxious trying to be perfect—will see being a "good enough" parent and "getting it right half the time" is all they really need. While some moms are coming to terms with the fact that perfectionism in parenting is impossible (a recent poll conducted by OnePoll of 2,000 moms with children 0-18 years old found 8 in 10 of them feel they are “good enough"), others haven't quite accepted that yet.

"Babies are actually very forgiving and there’s certain things that they really need," says Dr. Woodhouse. "If we focus on those things, it just makes the job a lot easier and it can make parenting be more rewarding."

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