“Your child should always sleep on the back, by themselves, in their crib, bassinet, or pack and play with no stuffed toys or loose blankets.”
These words are ringing in my ears as I put my newborn baby in the bassinet for the millionth time, only to get a shrill cry in return. She screams and screams as tears roll down my exhausted face, just hoping to get an hour of sleep. This is the speech that I have given almost a thousand times in my training as a pediatrician and in practice after. Whenever I saw newborns, I would go into every room with a straight face and repeatedly say the same thing. The parents were often too exhausted and nodded in return, and I assumed they understood. I then left the room to see new patients. As those very words echoed in my head a few weeks after the birth of my first baby, I felt pretty much a failure. My child would not do the one thing I preached to all, which was the safest choice for her.
At that moment, I wish I had told all those parents that yes, this is the safest choice for your newborn but also acknowledged that it was challenging. I wish I would have shown some empathy so that they did not feel like they were failing like I did today. But did I really know better myself? Did I really know what it felt like to be a parent until today? I do not really think so.
My years of training had taught me everything that is correct and by the book but nothing much about the reality of parenting. I learned the physiology and benefits of breastfeeding and how demand-supply worked; I learned a few techniques as well. But I did not learn how tough it would be to sit for hours alone in a chair, pumping and feeding away to make sure the baby was well fed. I did not learn how many tears of disappointment I would cry when I could not produce enough milk to feed my baby despite all my effort.
I learned about newborn reflux and colic and soothing techniques. I also learned about purple crying and how hard it can be. But I never learned or felt the frustration that a parent would experience to see their baby in pain and discomfort all night. I had absolutely no idea how disabling it was to see your baby crying for hours and not being able to figure out what they needed or how to help them.
I learned about safe sleep and swaddling techniques. I learned how babies lose their lives due to suffocation. But I never knew the amount of extreme exhaustion I would experience in the first few weeks of parenting due to lack of sleep. I learned about postpartum depression and anxiety; I learned how common it is. But I did not learn how terrifying it felt to not feel affection towards your own child. I never learned how much pain your body goes through while recovering from labor.
Every time something would happen to the baby, my husband would look at me with questioning eyes. “You are supposed to have all these answers; this is what you do.” And I looked at him, thinking in my head, “No, I don’t,” too embarrassed to say it out loud. I felt so lost as a new parent, but at the same time, I had to pretend that I was not.
Being a pediatrician did not prepare me for parenting. But I hope being a parent will now equip me to be a better pediatrician. I hope I can teach them whatever I know about safe sleeping, breastfeeding, and newborn care, but I also hope to acknowledge the reality and struggles of parenting. I hope my statements and recommendations do not sound generic and rehearsed. I hope I can tell them every child is different and will not follow the book. I hope I can be more understanding and empathetic towards the angry and worried parents and applaud them all for what an amazing job they are doing. I hope they can remember me as a friendly face who understands their struggles and not just their doctor who tells them what to do.
Saba Fatima is a pediatric hospitalist.
Image credit: Shutterstock.com