WORDS: Madhavi Nawana Parker, Director, Positive Minds Australia
First, know this. You are doing a truly noble and amazing thing by raising babies and toddlers, who will one day go out into the big wide world and make their mark, loaded up with all the wonderful things you taught them along the way.
Each child in your family will teach you something new and call upon skills you may already have, or will develop over time. If you have more than one child, you may find that each child needs something different altogether. Respond to the child you have, not the one you read about in a parenting book. Trust yourself to think for yourself, to get to know your baby and toddler, and to learn and grow with them.
Here are some tips for those early years of parenting, from someone who has been there, done that and knows how many mixed emotions those early days can bring.
1. Be okay with not knowing all the answers.
Feeling confident with parenting comes in time and varies according to what season of parenting you are in. Those early days of parenting come with so much information, at a time when you are barely getting enough sleep and everything can feel like a blur. Each stage of a baby and toddler’s life comes with new questions and expectations. Just when you feel like you’re on top of everything, your little person might reach a new milestone or face a new challenge and it feels like you’re back at square one!
Be okay with following your gut too as a lot of parenting advice can be conflicting, or goes against your personal values. Social media, which is largely a social comparison platform, makes everyone else’s highlight reel feel like proof that you’re getting it wrong. In those moments, the joy of this precious privilege of raising a family can be lost. Allow yourself plenty of time to feel confident. Your confidence will grow, with your experience.
2. Keep it real.
Forget Instagram parenting. These snapshots fail to show the messy moments and EVERY parent has those. You are way better off taking a snooze, going for a walk, listening to music, watching some Netflix or hanging out with a friend or partner than getting lost in the comparison scroll. There are plenty of studies emerging that show the more time we spend on social media, the more anxious and overwhelmed we can become. Your baby and toddler needs you to be okay. Don’t let comparison rob you of that confidence.
Be kind to your mind. Our thoughts come with such automaticity, filling our heads with so many messages, many of them negative. Notice what you think about your parenting and your baby and toddler. Are you focusing on what you’re doing right enough, or is your mind always on what you wish you had done differently? Are you thinking about what you love about your baby and toddler, or are you drifting back to that long list of things that are genuinely hard about raising a toddler? When the self critical thoughts come, acknowledge them, accept their presence and then try to think of something that opposes that. This helps create more balanced thoughts, which can be tricky to achieve in those early years of parenting.
Our brain’s negativity bias means we pay far too much attention to our problems and not enough attention to what’s going well. Take a moment to write down or talk to someone about all the things you are nailing in parenting – all the aspects you feel confident about. Name how you’re a good parent and what you’ve been getting right. Then do the same for your child. It’s easy to get caught up in all the developmentally challenging behaviours and how we are going to resolve them. This will naturally undermine our confidence in ourselves and in our children. (This doesn’t mean you don’t debrief about what’s hard or seek counsel from others). This simply means you don’t stay stuck in thinking about what’s wrong and intentionally create space for noticing and savouring what’s right.
4. Let go of unrealistic expectations.
I think a lot of the time it is not the parenting itself that’s exhausting, it’s the constant juggle of competing demands. Try to let go of unrealistic expectations of yourself. These might include keeping things tidy, keeping up with perfectly nutritious meals all the time, going to all the social events you are invited to, attending classes and activities you think your child needs to be happy. There is something to be said about JOMO (the joy of missing out). Learn to say ‘no’ if you’re tired of saying ‘yes,’ and cut yourself some serious slack. Parenting is a full-time job that consumes most of your mental load. You need your rest.
5. Parent according to your values.
There are many valid ways to raise a family. One of the most important parts of doing this is knowing your values and passing them down to your children. This is best done by example, where they learn from you being a living example of how to be in this world. Get to know your baby and toddler and meet them where they are at, exactly for the person they are. I remember when I was pregnant with our first of three children. I had studied and worked with so many children and felt completely prepared – until the real live baby came into my life. I had to throw out so much of what I thought I knew about parenting, and tune in with our beautiful baby girl and learn how to parent her, our way according to our personal values. (I also had to learn that making mistakes and feeling completely clueless on some days was very normal and common).
6. Understand temperament and personality.
Children are born with unique temperaments, personality and genetic compositions. Knowing what to do when your first born has an emotional meltdown, does not necessarily mean you will find it so easy with a second born and vice versa. Do not expect too much from yourself. When it comes to little people, no matter how skilled you are and how carefully planned your routine might be, babies and toddlers often just do their own thing, seeing the world mostly, from their own perspective, responding to it according to their personality, temperament and genetic makeup. They cannot help it. Inconsistent outcomes to your efforts, are to be expected for a while. Hang in there.
7. Accept help.
No one can do this gig alone, without risking burn out. Babies and toddlers are so reliant on their parents – for everything! You are one person, there is no weakness in seeking help. Humans are a lovely, empathetic species (generally speaking), so people are wired to feel uplifted when they help others. Many of us don’t have family or friends to help so make sure you are connecting with your community, local council and libraries for baby and toddler events where you can connect with other parents and your baby and toddler can be amused for a while. If your child is neurodivergent, this can be much harder. Connect with parent and professional groups that focus on neurodivergence. In my many years working in this space, these connections have been a lifeline for families who can otherwise feel isolated and overwhelmed.
8. Learn how to cope with challenging emotions.
You have heard it before, I know, but emotions really are contagious. You catch them from your children and they catch them from you, too. It’s only natural to feel emotional when you have an emotional child in front of you. During baby and toddlerhood, the upsets are often more frequent so parents can feel burnt out, making it even harder to use coping skills and stay calm. Just keep learning and trying. Babies and toddlers are much happier when the adults in their life know how to stay calm in the storm. Babies, toddlers (and children and teenagers too) use our state of calm, to help calm themselves. This is called co-regulation. This is hard for most of us, right? Don’t worry, most people I see about parenting struggle with this. Just remember, one day, one new thought and one new behaviour at a time, we are a step closer to developing this skill.
9. Apply compassion towards your baby and toddler.
They are genuinely doing the best they can with what their bodies and minds are capable of, so far. They don’t mean to interrupt your sleep, or coffee with a friend. I know you know that. We all know that, but it can sure be frustrating when you find yourself taking the walk of shame out of a café when your toddler has had a meltdown because the waiter served the wrong smiley face biscuit (who knew that the smiley face biscuit on the left had an extra freckle on it).
These moments can be overwhelming and embarrassing for parents. Try and remember, babies and toddlers would not deliberately embarrass their most favourite person in the world (you). Their tiny, developing brain has just shut down the thinking part, leaving the feeling part on the front line. They need love, time, and support to get back on course.
10. Apply self-compassion.
You have only been parenting for a short amount of time. This is all new to you, don’t expect to know the answers every time. Expect inconsistencies and uncertainty. This is family life, not a perfectly orchestrated performance for public amusement. When you struggle, don’t be hard on yourself. We all struggle. If you have moments, you wish you hadn’t, forgive yourself and if you got upset with your child, apologise and be accountable.
Last, but by no means least, set limits and boundaries with your toddler and older children. Toddlers and children need our leadership about what is and isn’t acceptable at home and out in the community. They need to know there are social rules to keep the social thread cohesive. Children need to develop accountability through our kind but firm boundaries. They will naturally make plenty of mistakes along the way when their emotions and ego are big. It is our job to show compassion for this developmental phase, empathise with them about their feelings and then, set the limit. Kindly let them know when their behaviour is hurtful to you or others. Help them learn from it and make things better. Prepare them next time they are in a similar situation to be more regulated and kinder. If they mess up, do not lecture, just support them to do better next time and move on. Toddlers and children feel shame too, so always show them your unconditional love, forgiveness and absolute delight in them, even on the trickiest of days.
As always, thank you for reading. Have a beautiful day.