Advice for new parents can be found everywhere, from how to conquer sleep deprivation to taking quick showers, keeping a clean house to choosing the right baby formula.
A lack-of-sleep first-time parent may find it overwhelming with so much how-to advice. When you are busy taking care of a newborn baby, it is easy to forget to cherish these precious moments and to spend quality time with them.
Parenting is hard, but it doesn’t have to be exhausting. Part of the reason why child rearing is so draining is because we constantly receive conflicting advice from baby expert books, child psychologist, well-meaning family, friends, neighbors and even strangers on the street.
Everyone tells you what to do, but you don’t know who to listen to.
From sifting through thousands of scientific studies in psychology, we’ve gathered the following advice for new parents.
Science-Based Advice For New Parents
1. Be responsive to your baby’s needs. That’s not spoiling.
Babies whose mothers are responsive to their signals during the first year of life cry less during the second half of that year than the babies of less responsive mothers, and they are more likely to follow their parents’ instructions1.
Infants who have a responsive parent who attends to their needs develop a sense of security. Their parent is a safe place for them to retreat to. These children can turn to their parents for protection, comfort, and emotional regulation when they do not yet have the skills to do these things for themselves.
Not only are these children not spoiled, but they actually show less behavioral issues than those with unresponsive mothers.
So, “don’t pick up a baby every time it cries or you’ll spoil them” is a fear-based advice not supported by science.
Attachment is an infant’s tendency to stay close to caregivers for protection. In early interactions with the primary caregiver, a baby forms internal working models that represent how the child sees the world and interprets the behavior of others. The attachment style formed during these early experiences has a profound impact on the child’s development and outcomes.
Parents who are sensitive to their babies’ needs can build secure attachments, which decades of studies show are beneficial. Securely attached children have fewer behavioral problems2, more social skills3, better emotional regulation4, and a higher academic performance5.
On the other hand, insecure attachment, such as ambivalent, avoidant or disorganized attachment, leads to less desirable outcomes.
Secure attachment is not the same as attachment parenting, a term coined by Sears in his 1993 book. Attachment parenting, allegedly based on the Attachment Theory, comprises a set of extreme practices aimed at creating secure attachments. It is controversial because it places a heavy demand on the availability of the parents, especially the mother.
Children need good enough parents who are sensitive to their needs to develop secure attachments and grow up healthy, happy and successful. They don’t need extreme parenting.
2. Whether you have a difficult or an easy-going baby, your parenting is what matters.
There is no doubt that every child has a different temperament, and each needs to be parented differently. However, how to parent differently is where conventional wisdom and science disagree.
Children who have a higher disposition to be frustrated, lower inhibitory control, and more activity level are generally regarded as difficult.
Research shows the opposite to be true.
Studies have found that fussy babies respond more to the quality of parenting than easy babies. That is, difficult babies react more negatively to insensitive parenting and more positively to sensitive, nurturing parenting, when compared to easy babies6.
Temperamentally difficult kids are more sensitive but they also thrive more when they are given gentle guidance rather than forceful control. So instead of tough love, give your kid, especially the difficult ones, responsive and nurturing parenting so they can thrive7.
3. Adopt authoritative parenting, the best parenting style.
In psychology, parenting styles are categorized in terms of responsiveness and demandingness (expectations). The parenting style that demands high standards and is highly responsive consistently wins in studies in different countries8. This parenting style is called the authoritative parenting style.
Different children may require different parenting practices, that is, the actual methods used, but authoritative parenting style can benefit your child for life.
The other three parenting styles are:
- authoritarian – low responsiveness, high demandingness
- permissive – high responsiveness, low demandingness
- uninvolved – low responsiveness, low demandingness
These three styles of parenting tend to produce worse child outcomes compared to authoritative parenting
4. Discipline to teach, not to punish.
It is common for discipline to be used as a synonym for punishment, but that is not its original meaning.
Discipline is not punishment. Discipline means to guide or teach someone. Parents don’t need to punish to teach their children. Not using punishment can actually help them teach better.
Learning occurs in the prefrontal cortex (the thinking brain), but punishment impacts the amygdala (the emotional brain)9. These are two different types of “teaching” generate very different outcomes.
Effective parenting practices, such as explaining, reasoning, discussing, empathizing, and modeling, help children develop critical thinking, self-regulation, and empathy.
Punishment, on the other hand, damages parent-child relationships, models callousness, and results in maladaptive coping mechanisms.
By teaching your child to behave without punishment, you will avoid a lot of unnecessary power struggles.
5. Get into the habit of explaining things.
Start teaching your baby things by explaining and reasoning. It is a type of inductive discipline, which researchers have found to produce more empathy and prosocial behavior in children than power assertion. These children learn to consider how their behavior can affect others before acting10.
When you teach them young, you also get into the habit of explaining things.
Many new parents do not know how to explain things to young children. As their babies grow into toddlers, these parents only know how to say “No” to everything, causing their toddlers to become confused and frustrated.
Practice explaining simple, logical concepts to little kids now. Teach them and explain the correct course of action to follow so they never have to guess, “what does Mommy want when she says ‘no’?”
6. Be patient, as thinking and behaving takes a lot more time and practice than walking.
Most parents are very patient with their children when they are learning to roll over, hold the spoon, feed themselves, stand up, and walk. The difficulty is evident in these physical activities.
Yet they are much less patient with teaching their kids good behavior.
The brain is much more complex than legs or finger muscles. We, however, expect much more of it and believe that children could follow our instructions with little practice.
It takes a lot of time, effort and practice for the developing brain to get things right11.
So if your child doesn’t seem to listen the first time, the second time… or even the tenth time, don’t get upset. Your child is not being stubborn. They just need more time and space to learn and practice.
7. When in doubt, think kindly.
Whenever there is no obvious answer, some of us tend to assume the worst. That usually results in us responding aggressively and aggravating the situation12.
For example, if your toddler throws a tantrum when you do not give her candy, instead of taking her tantrum as a fit because she doesn’t get her way, think about how hard it is for a baby to learn to regulate their emotions.
When your child angrily yells, “I hate you,” instead of taking it personally, try to imagine how much he is hurting inside and how much pain he is feeling to utter such words. Think about how to help him express his anger properly instead of how to punish. When others offer you unsolicited advice, instead of taking it as a criticism of your parenting, consider how they are just trying to share their thoughts.
Being kind instead of getting upset over nothing makes life more enjoyable.
Good parenting requires kindness. It’s one thing to teach your kid to be kind; but another entirely to show them how it is done.
- 1.Ainsworth MD, Blehar M, Waters E, Wall S. Patterns of Attachment: Assessed in the Strange Situations. Erlbaum; 1978.
- 2.Erickson MF, Sroufe LA, Egeland B. The Relationship between Quality of Attachment and Behavior Problems in Preschool in a High-Risk Sample. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development. Published online 1985:147. doi:10.2307/3333831
- 3.Lieberman AF. Preschoolers’ Competence with a Peer: Relations with Attachment and Peer Experience. Child Development. Published online December 1977:1277. doi:10.2307/1128485
- 4.Haley DW, Stansbury K. Infant Stress and Parent Responsiveness: Regulation of Physiology and Behavior During Still-Face and Reunion. Child Development. Published online October 2003:1534-1546. doi:10.1111/1467-8624.00621
- 5.Moss E, St-Laurent D. Attachment at school age and academic performance. Developmental Psychology. Published online 2001:863-874. doi:10.1037/0012-16188.8.131.523
- 6.Pluess M, Belsky J. Differential susceptibility to parenting and quality child care. Developmental Psychology. Published online 2010:379-390. doi:10.1037/a0015203
- 7.Klein Velderman M, Bakermans-Kranenburg MJ, Juffer F, van IJzendoorn MH. Effects of attachment-based interventions on maternal sensitivity and infant attachment: Differential susceptibility of highly reactive infants. Journal of Family Psychology. Published online June 2006:266-274. doi:10.1037/0893-3184.108.40.2066
- 8.Steinberg L, Lamborn SD, Dornbusch SM, Darling N. Impact of Parenting Practices on Adolescent Achievement: Authoritative Parenting, School Involvement, and Encouragement to Succeed. Child Development. Published online October 1992:1266. doi:10.2307/1131532
- 9.Murty VP, LaBar KS, Adcock RA. Threat of Punishment Motivates Memory Encoding via Amygdala, Not Midbrain, Interactions with the Medial Temporal Lobe. Journal of Neuroscience. Published online June 27, 2012:8969-8976. doi:10.1523/jneurosci.0094-12.2012
- 10.Krevans J, Gibbs JC. Parents’ Use of Inductive Discipline: Relations to Children’s Empathy and Prosocial Behavior. Child Development. Published online December 1996:3263. doi:10.2307/1131778
- 11.Grill-Spector K, Henson R, Martin A. Repetition and the brain: neural models of stimulus-specific effects. Trends in Cognitive Sciences. Published online January 2006:14-23. doi:10.1016/j.tics.2005.11.006
- 12.Lorber MF. The role of maternal emotion regulation in overreactive and lax discipline. Journal of Family Psychology. Published online August 2012:642-647. doi:10.1037/a0029109