Parenting is confusing. Please tell me I am not alone in this…
“Trust your instinct” is a phrase we are told over and over by our health providers, our family, our well meaning friends and neighbours. But how exactly do you trust your instinct as a parent? What are those instincts? How do you listen to them if you have never experienced these thoughts and feelings before?
And where do those instincts come from? Are they within us, or are they cultured over time based on our surroundings and experiences?
Ah the age old ‘nature vs nurture’ debate. Not one I am going to weigh into here. But I am interested in the different influences and experiences we all have, based on the different countries we grow up in. Babies survive and thrive all over the world. So how can this be so, when we each feel we have the ‘expert’ advice in our own country?
For example here in the UK we are advised to be with our babies at all times. Never leave them unattended. Where as in many Scandinavian countries – Finland for example – they bundle them up in their prams and pop them outside for a nap in the cold air. Often the parents are inside enjoying a few minutes of respite or catching up with friends in a café.
Or in China, babies are toilet trained from a very young age – well before they get to toddlerdom. They wear open crotch pants (it’s a thing, really! Check it out!) to help them move on with that next phase more swiftly.
Baby wearing is another trend that seems to vary by country. It used to be common practice across the globe in bygone years but had fallen out of fashion in western cultures until very recently. And while it is having a resurgence, a lot more focus and attention is needed to alert new parents to the benefits of this age old practice. You can read more about one mum’s experiences of baby wearing here.
For my family, we are split across two countries – the UK and New Zealand
I am born and bred in the UK and my husband is a gorgeous kiwi. But more than that, I come from Northern Ireland, so there are elements of the Irish culture permeating my ‘instincts’. My husband’s mother is Australian, and we lived there together for several years, so we have that influence too.
So across the 4 nations there are a few differences and nuances in advice that we picked up. Here are my top 5 in the confusing stakes:
(Note, this is most definitely only my opinion! I am in no way qualified to talk science or health. I am just highlighting the differences we experienced and how we found it hard to trust our instinct as parents.
In New Zealand babies are recommended to wear little new born hats from the day they are born. Even inside. I remember when my best friend had her second baby and my first was about 8 months old. (Clearly I considered myself very experienced by this stage…) Of course I asked her why her little newborn photos she sent me all contained woolly hats and it wasn’t even winter there yet. I was quite shocked that was the practice there, when the NHS was adamant you whip that hat off the babies head the minute you head indoors.
This may be a controversial one. One of my husband’s favourite pieces of ‘advice’ or wisdom that he has gained from parenting is this. “The best thing for a new baby is to let them lick the floor of the subway. Gets their immune system going…” What?!
This may be a little tongue in cheek and clearly extreme, but it is rooted in truth. We need to expose our babies to ‘good dirt’. Here in the UK we are obsessed with cleaning everything our babies come into contact with. Sterilising everything til it is practically dust. Keeping 6 dummies at hand in case one falls to the floor and can no longer be used or using those dummy sterilisation wipes. And all this is done for a minimum of 6 months as per the NHS guidelines, but often up to 12 months.
In Australia the guidance is no need to sterilize after 3 months. We chose this route (while maintaining good hygiene of course) and it certainly made our lives easier and happy to say we had no nasty surprises because of it.
This may be a controversial one and I am sure it is changing across both countries. But with my husband being a New Zealander, he definitely has more of the “she’ll be right” attitude. We try and find a balance between letting our children have the freedom to explore and create, unhampered by a parental shadow and making sure that they are protected from foreseen and unforeseen dangers. It can be a tricky one to navigate sometimes and I know it has raised eyebrows from various visiting families when we have left our small children in our (gated) garden to play in the dirt without us.
But the New Zealand influence has left a strong mark on us to let our children explore. Safety is very much at the forefront in child rearing in NZ, don’t get me wrong. But it doesn’t feel like the helicopter parenting is as much in force. Playgrounds are not usually gated as they are here; they are often in the middle of open parks. Schools have playground equipment which local children can access at the weekends.
Many schools encourage biking or scootering to school to encourage the safety skills early on and a lot more schools have on site swimming pools to teach water safety from a young age. The battle of instincts on what is safe is definitely a hard one. We have implemented a decision making process saying – is there a positive that can come from taking the risk (e.g. sense of freedom, learning, exploration) then we are more likely to take it.
We are a very pale skinned family, like many of our Northern Irish counterparts. When we lived in Sydney, Australia, we had to learn very quickly that heat did not equate to sunburn. Otherwise I would have been slathered in suncream from 6am til midnight!
In Australia they talk a lot about the UV. And rightly so. The hole in the ozone layer sits right over AU and NZ and thus the UV rays given off by the sun are much stronger. This isn’t because it is hotter there, as in some parts of New Zealand it is not warmer than the UK. The UV can reach heights of 13 and 14 even on a cloudy day, whereas in the UK we would be lucky if we topped 8, even on a scorcher of a summers day. So the likelihood of getting burnt and developing a cancerous melanoma is a real and every present threat.
Instead of watching the weather for temperatures, they watch it for the UV. And they cream up and don hats accordingly. In many schools hats are a compulsory part of the uniform. I know they are encouraged here, and that most parents do their best to get children to wear them, but the culture of checking the UV to avoid getting burnt even on a cloudy day doesn’t seem to be common practice and isn’t conveyed in the weather reports. We use an app on our phones and we don’t venture out without suncream if it is higher than 3.
OK so this one isn't strictly about instincts but I thought it was interesting. And highlights another point of reference or area to learn instinct that is different in each country.
In our family we have always favoured wooden and natural products - Long before we had children, we would try to buy natural materials over man-made where possible. It just felt better, and we were fortunate enough to have the disposable income to choose what we wanted.
But we did find it harder to maintain this ideal when we were having our babies. Everywhere we looked, toys were made out of plastic and synthetics.
Even baby clothes were full of man made fibres and wooden toys were kind of seen as keepsakes rather than play things.
We have had 3 trips back to NZ since we had our babies and each time, friends lent us toys for them to play with while we were there. This made me realise that while NZ is heavily influenced by the western culture and fast fashion mindset in toys and clothes, it definitely has a more natural slant.
We were given a lot of wooden toys, items made from cotton and bamboo (granted it grows like a weed there) and products made from local materials to try out. Every market we went to was heavily populated with home made, hand made toys which our boys just couldn't resist (I'm looking at you Mangawhai!), and talking to friends there made me realise they don't think twice about it. Natural is normal.
I think the UK is moving really well in that direction, but our high consumption culture makes it difficult for small hand crafted businesses to survive. It's one reason I collaborated with my friend Lynsey to set up our business for plastic free products (www.loolyn.com), to give small, independent business striving to make better, more natural products a chance. So they are not lost in the sea of plastic around them. And I am happy to say we are seeing a big trend in moving that way here in the UK.
So thats a round up of some of the differences that we have implemented and many would probably have gone against instinct, especially if others around us were not doing the same. So I guess this means that when it comes to how to trust your instinct we are a bit pickled!
Mary-Louise is co-founder of LOOLYN, an ecommerce marketplace for plastic free products and sustainable living. LOOLYN provides shoppers a way to buy everything they need in life, safe in the knowledge it is free from plastic and has been made in a sustainable way. Makers of sustainable and plastic free products can get a wider reach for their products, away from global giants like Amazon and eBay where they are swamped by a sea of plastic competition.