Welcome to my blog, which speaks to parents, professionals who work with children, and policy makers. I aim to show how contemporary developmental science points us on a path to effective prevention, intervention, and treatment, with the aim of promoting healthy development and wellbeing of all children and families.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

When Birth Plans Go Awry: Wisdom from Dr. Spock

Self- efficacy, or the belief in one's ability to be a good parent, plays a central role in healthy child development.  Many things can come along and derail that sense of confidence. Often the first of these is a delivery that does not go as planned.

In a recent conversation a colleague wondered if the abundance of books about the importance of the first months of life might serve to heighten parents' anxiety. I slept on her wise words and woke thinking of the famous opening line of Dr. Spock's Baby and Child Care, "Trust yourself: You know more than you think you do."

I went straight to my bookshelf that morning, and was surprised and pleased to find that he addresses what is today referred to as "birth trauma" in the opening pages:
If your labor and delivery experience is not what you expected, its normal to feel bad, even guilty. If you go in hoping for a natural birth and end up with a cesarean, its natural that you might feel that you were somehow to blame (you weren't) or that your baby will be somehow permanently harmed by the experience (almost never the case.) Many parents fear that if they are away from their baby in the first hours or days bonding will be permanently undermined. This is also not true. Bonding-the process of parent and baby falling in love with each other- develops over months, not hours.
The equating of bonding, a word that itself creates anxiety in parents, with falling in love, along with acknowledgment that this process is different for every family, holds great value. He brilliantly goes on, in words that echo pediatrician turned psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott and anticipate research of psychologist Ed Tronick on the value of mismatch and repair, to dispel anxiety around a birth plan that goes awry:
Parenthood is an ideal guilt-generating business, and labor often delivers the first volley. I think this situation has come about in part because of the fantasy that everything has to be perfect in order for the child to do well. Of course nothing could be further from the truth. First off, the "perfect" parent has yet to see the light of day. Secondly there is no need to be perfect or to follow any one script. The process of human development is powerful. There is plenty of room for variation and even for making mistakes. Infants are incredibly resilient. As long as the infant is healthy, the type of childbirth is unlikely to have long-term consequences, unless there is so much guilt attached to the memory that it has a negative impact on parental self-confidence or starts the process with a strong but misguided sense of guilt. So my advice is to have your baby however seems right for you and your family. Then don't worry if what happens doesn't follow the script. Being a parent is tough enough without creating problems where there really aren't any.
Parents today are more likely to think of Spock as a Vulcan than a pediatrician.  With anxiety, stress, and uncertainty on the rise in our day-to-day lives, a healthy dose of Dr. Spock may be just what the doctor ordered.

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