There are so many parenting myths in circulation in society. I'm sure you've come across many yourself.
Many are obviously myths and therefore easy to ignore. Others however seem far more ingrained and sound far more plausible. The plausibility and popularity of some of the top parenting myths cause a great deal of misunderstanding, and often stress, for vulnerable new parents.
These are my top common parenting myths:
1. Three or four-month-old babies are teething
Drooling - tick, everything in mouth - tick, disrupted sleep - tick, unhappy baby - tick. Must be teething!
Think again. Every single one of these is normal behaviour for three and four-month-old babies, teething or no teething. Almost all babies of this age: 1. drool a lot, 2. put everything in their mouths, 3. wake frequently at night and 4. cry a lot/become a bit of a grouch. For the vast majority, this is due to one thing and one thing only. Normal infant development.
At around this age babies begin to produce more salivary amylase in preparation for weaning (note, they are not yet ready for solids), hence 'dribble central'. They also like to put everything into their mouths. The mouth is a very sensory place and this age is a very sensory one. It doesn't necessarily indicate pain, even if they chomp away on whatever is put in their mouth (gums are sensory too!). Waking frequently at night is ridiculously normal for a baby this age and a grouchy, whingy demeanour seems to be commonplace too (albeit temporarily thankfully!).
One of the most concerning issues surrounding the false diagnosis of teething is the overuse of medication by many parents. Aside from the cocktail of chemicals (artificial sweeteners, flavourings and colourings) contained in paediatric pain medications (which incidentally can cause issues with sleep!), research has found that usage of paracetamol in infancy increases the child's risk of eczema and asthma in later life. Infant analgesics may be available easily 'off the shelf', however they are still pharmaceutical medicines and to that end they carry risks like any other. Infant analgesics should be used with caution, like any other medication, and only when the benefits outweigh the risk. I don't believe they are used in this cautious manner by the vast majority of parents of 'teething' young babies.
On average teething begins at around six months of age. A small minority of babies will teethe earlier than this however and some are even born with teeth!
2. Three or four-month-old babies are ready to wean on to solids
Perhaps your baby is small for her age, on a low centile, and you have been advised to add solids to her diet in order to 'up her weight a bit'. Perhaps your son is big for his age, born over 10lbs, high up on the centiles and you've been told that 'milk alone isn't enough for him as he's such a big boy'. Perhaps you've been told that "you need to give her a bit of baby rice to help get her through the night" or perhaps you've been told "Your milk isn't enough for him, he needs more vitamins and calories".
If your baby is not around six months old already then none of these are true. If your baby puts everything in his or her mouth, watches you eating and wakes regularly at night then he or she is a normal three or four-month-old baby, a good few weeks away from weaning readiness. During their first three or four months of life, a baby's easy to digest milk diet doesn't require salivary amylase (the enzyme that enables their body to convert starch to sugar in order to convert food to energy). Babies do not produce any salivary amylase at birth, the production begins and slowly increases over the first six months. A baby's salivary amylase levels only reach comparable levels with an adult's by around five to six months of age. It is only at this point that babies can convert the nutrients found in starchy foods (e.g: rice, grains, fruit and vegetables) into energy. If babies are weaned before this age, their nutrient absorption will be significantly poorer and can lead to digestive disturbances such as diarrhoea, constipation and stomach cramps - all of which interrupt sleep.
There are other physical developments needed for a baby to be ready for solids too, such as the ability to sit upright (supported if necessary), the loss of the tongue thrust reflex and the ability pick up and drop objects (the latter develops last). These reasons all make up the rationale presented by The World Health Organisation that weaning onto solids should begin "around 6 months".
3. Supplementing a breastfed baby with a bottle of formula will improve sleep
In theory this works. The contents of formula milk are much harder for a baby to digest than breastmilk, therefore one could presume that as the baby's body will need more time to digest the milk, that the baby will remain 'fuller' for longer. In addition, the design of the bottle teat and the way the baby feeds is different to the mechanism that they use to feed from the breast. This means therefore that the baby may take more milk from a bottle than from the breast, thereby 'filling them up' more again.
This theory falls flat however when you consider that the baby is most likely not just waking from hunger. Babies predominantly wake at night for one reason: the need for human contact. This is the same whether they have had a breast or bottle feed before bed. Of course they wake because of hunger, but the need for human contact is as much of a real need for them as the need for milk.
This is one of the reasons why research has found that breastfeeding mothers actually get more sleep at night than those who formula feed. Part of the reason for this may be the intricate workings of breastfeeding. A nightime breastfeed will not only provide a baby with nutrition, it will also provide them with sleep hormones, including melatonin, which is not present in formula, and improves nocturnal sleep, as this research discusses.
4. Babies need to attend groups to socialise
Let's get one thing straight. You are all your baby needs to develop amazing social skills. Everything he or she needs to know about social interaction happens naturally in your everyday exchanges. A shared smile, an instinctive game of peekabo, cuddling, conversations, copying each other's facial expressions and the like. Something that scientists term 'reciprocity' or 'reciprocal socialisation'.
Babies are tremendously aware and social little beings, they absolutely don't need to attend classes or groups to develop a skill that is already innate. You on the other hand, might benefit immensely from these groups. Sharing your journey with other new parents, making new friends and providing support. If this is the case then go for it!
If the idea of going to a baby group or class fills you with terror rest assured in the knowledge that the benefit of these groups is almost entirely for you (if you enjoy them) and not your baby (however educational the class may sound).
5. Babies need to be taught independence
Independence. The word itself indicates that to become INdependent you must first have become dependent. The best way to make babies independent? Allow them to be as dependent on you as they need in their first few years of life. Then, when they are ready to begin to branch out away from you they will do so self assured, confident and happily. Any independence that is forced on a child is likely to backfire, resulting in a clingy, unconfident, shy child who needs you far more for far longer.
I'm not going to go into any more depth here, other than to highly recommend you read this article 'The Growth of Independence in The Young Child' by John Bowlby.
6. Babies can be taught to self soothe
Babies are as capable of being taught to self soothe as they are capable of being taught to ride a bicycle.
Self soothing is not something you can teach, through any amount of sleep training or techniques. Through sleep training you can condition a baby not to cry out for attention and go to sleep without parental input fairly easily, however this behaviour is not indicative of a baby who is calm, soothed or settled. Self soothing is a developmental stage, a skill that infants gain as they grow older. Just as they become more physically mobile, develop the ability to eat solids and develop the ability to talk. In essence you can't teach something that their brains are not yet equipped for.
For a much more in depth discussing on the self soothing myth read my previous article on self soothing in the HuffPost.
7. Tough love is necessary
Tough love is never necessary. Compassion and understanding is always far more powerful than control, training and force. We could achieve so much more in life if we understood this.
Do you want your child to feel able to speak to you about their problems when they are in their teens? Do you want your child to feel loved by you unconditionally? If so you need to accept them for who they are, listen to their needs and nurture them as they need.
If more parents did this there would be no need for increasingly 'tough' behavioural control techniques such as time out, naughty steps, grounding, smacking and the like. 'Tough love' is the beginning of a slippery path into the land of 'Fear of God' parenting, it relies on your child fearing you and of you exerting control over them. At some point however they will rebel and you will lose control. Forget toughening your child up, nurture their compassion and empathy, keep channels of communication open and love them unconditionally. If you do these things you will have a great relationship with them in their tweens and teens and they will be more likely to do the things you ask of them for no reason other than they love and respect you. This will then hopefully perpetuate into any relationships they have in adulthood, be that friends, work mates, romantic partners and in time - their own children. The world doesn't need more 'tough' people, it needs more compassion.
8. Babies gagging on finger food means they are choking
Babies have a strong gag reflex. This reflex helps to keep them safe and prevents them from choking. For many parents however, unaware of the reflex, it can come as alarming shock. Many parents think that their baby is choking and can panic, often believing that their baby is not yet ready for finger foods.
The gag reflex is a contraction of the back of the throat triggered by an object touching the roof of the mouth or back of the tongue. This triggered reflex allows the baby to gag and cough up any food that may otherwise cause them to choke. I can't highlight enough how normal this reflex it is. The gag reflex begins to lessen around seven months onwards.
A quick note on real choking; I highly recommend that ALL parents take a paediatric first aid course to learn how to deal with a real choking emergency. You may one day save your baby's life. I took my training with The British Red Cross and thoroughly recommend it. As it happens I had to put what I learned to use one day when my daughter was genuinely choking. I believe my training saved her life.