Words by Samantha (she/her), 28 ACT
Working in Early Childhood Education, I thought I had a solid understanding of child development and what to expect when it came to caring for young children. I felt prepared, and almost cocky, when I discovered I was pregnant with my first child in 2020.
I have never been so wrong in my entire life.
The cliché is as accurate as it gets. You don’t know what it is like until you ARE actually a parent. Sure, I was prepared in the sense that I knew a variety of settling techniques for fussy babies, I knew the Red Nose guidelines for safe sleep like the back of my hand, and I understood developmental milestones and the impact they had on children’s behaviour. What I wasn’t prepared for was the fact that when I went to work, I was well rested, had some down time to follow my own interests, and had the option to take sick days. None of this carried over when I became a parent.
Becoming a parent in the middle of a global pandemic was frightening and isolating. Given that I returned to work only four months post-partum, I hadn’t had an opportunity to meet with other new parents who could share in the uncertainty of this journey. The only way I could make these valuable connections with other new parents was through online parenting groups on social media networks.
New parents’ groups are often run with the Maternal and Child Health Nurses in your local area. TV shows like Working Mums and The Letdown on Netflix even show how these groups can create long standing friendships with people who you may have not interacted with prior to having a child. The age old saying, ‘It takes a village to raise a child,’ becomes the mantra of these support networks as they claim to be the modern-day solution to the isolation that often comes with becoming a new parent. (Yamashita, Isumi, & Fujiwara, 2022)
Due to the pandemic however, everything had to be online. The goal of online parenting groups was to substitute these face-to-face new parents’ groups. Surely it wouldn’t make much of a difference though, right?
A study recently conducted tested the cortisol levels in parents’ saliva whilst they engaged in these online parenting groups. The study showed the more time one spent in these online parenting communities, the higher the cortisol levels. (Joseph, De los Santos, & Amaro, 2022) “…As the body’s primary stress hormone, cortisol surges when we perceive danger, and causes all the symptoms we associate with “fight or flight”—increased blood pressure and heart rate, muscle tension, and the digestive system slamming to a halt, resulting in nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.” (Lyons, 2022) So, on top of sleep deprivation, the constant anxiety of looking after a newborn, and the physical recovery of giving birth, new parents could also be dealing with gastric symptoms like vomiting diarrhea and nausea, depression, fatigue, weight gain, low libido… (Mawri, 2022)
Just what you need as a new parent.
Online parenting groups are a hotbed for misinformation, fake news, strong opinions, and judgement. But why is this the case?
Often within these online communities’ opinions and firsthand experiences blend into something more, something potentially dangerous. Take infant sleep for example. Parents write to these online forums asking for help and guidance on their child who is not sleeping, asking for recommendations on sleep training, melatonin, routines or any other advice they can get as they are at breaking point.
Comment after comment streams in about the Red Nose guidelines on sleep. Many chime in with how sleep training is damaging to a child and will cause psychological damage to them later in life, even as going as far to call it ‘child abuse’, which just makes the poster feel ashamed and judged for even broaching the question. A sleep consultant pipes in to advertise their business, and a few parents add that although they may not have any suggestions, they feel their pain and are right there alongside them.
When we think of how harmful sleep deprivation can be, these types of posts can quickly become damaging on a stressed and exhausted parent. Parenting is tough for everyone, and the thoughts and experiences shared in this space can be particularly vulnerable, especially when the responses that are received can be so judgmental. When reviewing these responses in hindsight, it is easy to see that they are framed as ‘fact’ but are mostly founded in individual experiences or anecdotal evidence (it worked for me, so that makes it right).
While these can certainly be beneficial, the danger comes when new parents act on these in a moment of desperation. For example, some advice given recently in an online parenting group on Facebook was to put a 6-month-old child to bed with a warm heat pack over them as it would imitate the feeling of a caregiver being close, however this poses a very real danger of suffocation to a young baby and is not recommended by Red Nose.
Ultimately, parenting comes down to a series of choices and personal priorities. Everyone will be slightly different, and when you are in the post-partum bubble of survival, sometimes you may not have the cognitive capacity to really think about those decisions. Perhaps, to be safe, we should take other thoughts, opinions and experiences with a grain of salt, and to rely on our Maternal and Child Health Nurses, GP’s or paediatricians.
So instead of being judgemental on how another family is fighting to survive, offer a listening ear, be compassionate to other experiences and try to rebuild our village that has been lost to the digital age. Or if you can’t do that, just shut your mouth, and make them a nice home cooked meal, okay?
Illustration by Aileen. You can find more of her work on Instagram @aileenngstudio