The single best advice I can give other parents is this: don’t forget to study your child. I spend a lot of time giving parents advice about their children as a pediatrician. Sure, there are tried and true answers to many concerns. I also have a list of books and techniques I often recommend. But parenting my own children has taught me the value of learning everything possible about your specific child. So go ahead read all the parenting advice you want. But don’t forget to study your own child closely as well.
Each age and stage of childhood comes with its own common worries. Each time parents think they have things sorted out, their child hits some new phase or developmental milestone, and everything switches up again!
Becoming a parent gave me a deeper empathy for what my patients and their parents go through and why these common issues cause so much concern. When you are responsible for the wellbeing of a tiny human, the stakes are high. Suddenly my hard-won professional confidence turned to self-doubt and second-guessing my own advice.
I found myself reading countless books and blogs for ideas on how to handle each challenge. With the internet at my fingertips, there was a seemingly endless supply of advice – much of it conflicting. There were dozens of opinions and ideas for every topic, especially the hot button ones like sleep, feeding, and discipline. Eventually, I felt overwhelmed. I would consider one approach, then worry whether it was right. I felt like I was going in circles.
Then one day, my mother suggested I follow some advice she learned long ago: study your child. She reminded me about the differences in sleep between my middle sister and me. I was the firstborn – my mom read every resource she could find about infant sleep and routines. I happened to be formula-fed, which everyone told her would help me sleep longer. But no matter what she tried, I refused to adopt any sort of schedule as a baby. My sleep times were erratic. I only napped for short periods. I would not soothe myself to sleep to save my life. I required rocking, gentle placing into the crib, then an adult laying on the floor patting my back, all to end with the adult silently crawling from the room once my eyes closed. All to wake up again in 20-30 minutes most of the time.
People would ask my mom when it was good to come over to make sure they worked around my sleep schedule. My mom would laugh. What schedule?!? She couldn’t figure out what she was doing wrong.
Then almost two years later, my first sister was born. She was fully breastfed, so according to conventional wisdom, my mom prepared for even worse sleep than she experienced with me. And yet my sister walked out of the womb sleeping like a champ. She required minimal soothing. She took long naps several times a day and slept a good stretch overnight. She basically scheduled her own sleep routine as a newborn and stuck to it from then on. My mom was flabbergasted – she didn’t even have to try the techniques she’d learned. It just clicked.
Suddenly my mom realized an essential parenting truth: each child is different. She needed to step back from all the advice and study her children. She could do nothing to make me a ‘good sleeper,’ whereas my sister was born sleeping well. As grownups, these same patterns persisted – I like to sleep but can function on less than many people. My ability to handle erratic sleep schedules and still function helped me survive years of medical residency with frequent 30-hour awake work shifts to become a primary care physician. On the other hand, my middle sister still gets as much sleep as possible and prefers to take a couple of naps on her days off if possible.
Not all kids are on the extreme spectrum on a given behavior. Many fall somewhere in between. And, of course, you can learn the best techniques to shape your child’s routines and behaviors. There is room to influence them quite a bit. But ultimately, they are their own person.
Once I learned to settle in and study my own child closely, I relaxed quite a bit into parenting. I paid close attention to how my child responded to techniques and found this helped guide my research into parenting tips and learn which ones would work best in our situation. Suddenly all the articles and books seemed much less overwhelming because I had a filter to decide which techniques to try.
So don’t hesitate to get parenting advice from various sources: ask your friends, study some books, read blog articles, get to know normal childhood development patterns, and learn about different techniques and approaches. I love getting new ideas and have incorporated tips from many sources in my own home and my advice to families in my office.
But don’t overlook one crucial step in learning how to parent: study your child closely and get to know them. Try a new technique and closely watch to see how they react. Not all children will respond the same to a given approach. As a seasoned pediatrician, I still learned the hard way as a parent to learn all the techniques. Try all the things. But as it turns out, in how to parent a child, the best approach isn’t always up to us.