Let’s start with the obvious: Parenting can be hard, and there’s no playbook. It’s a lot of trial and error, with what often feels like a lot more error. Well-meaning observers try to tell you how you’re doing it all wrong—from your mother-in-law to your neighbor to mommy blogs with contradictory instructions on how to cook kale and help, or not, with homework. It’s likely that you’re one of the six in every 10 moms of kids between the ages of 0 to 5 who have been criticized about your parenting style.
All that noise might make you think that you’re screwing up your kids. But science tells us that, from the moment a child is born, moms do a lot to help their babies grow up strong, confident and happy—often without even realizing it. Consider the following:
- In the hours after you gave birth, your doctors probably placed your kid on your chest, covered by a light blanket. That immediate, uninterrupted, skin-to-skin contact between you and your newborn reduced both your stress and theirs, promoted attachment between the two of you, and helped your newborn transition into the next phase: life. It seems that, at least for an hour after birth, all a baby really needs is you.
- Eighty-three percent of American babies start out breastfeeding. If you’re one of the moms who breastfed your child, you should knowthat the cells, antibodies, and nutrients contained in your breast milk reduced their risk of asthma, childhood leukemia, childhood obesity, eczema, respiratory infections, sudden infant death syndrome, and type 2 diabetes, among others. And it was good for you too, reducing your risk of type 2 diabetes, certain types of breast cancer, and ovarian cancer. (If you didn’t breastfeed your child, it might be comforting for you to know that several recentstudies have shown that, while breast milk is better for newborns, its benefits might be more modest than scientists once thought.)
- You talked! Decades of research have shown that children prefer their mother’s voices above all other voices, from the third trimester of pregnancy onwards. Speaking to young kids is something that you do all the time, and without even realizing it, you’re helping them develop social, emotional, and language skills: A Stanford Medical School report found that hearing a mother’s voice helps build neural connections in five different regions of the baby’s brain, and that “children whose brains showed a stronger degree of connection between all these regions when hearing their mom’s voice also had the strongest social communication ability.”
- Don’t stress if, like many moms, you feel as if you don’t spend enough time with your children. A 2015 study in the Journal of Marriage and Family showed that, outside of adolescence (where, presumably, your child needs you more, even if only to show you how much they hate being around you), the quality of the time you spend with your child matters most. Meanwhile, studies have shown that quality time between parents and kids—like playing together, reading a storybook, or eating a meal together—is good for your bond and for your children. “I could literally show you 20 charts, and 19 of them would show no relationship between the amount of parents’ time and children’s outcomes,” Melissa Milkie, a sociologist and one of the report’s authors, told The Washington Post.
- You quite literally built your babies’ brains, just by loving them. Studies of Romanian children who grew up in orphanages in the 1990s have shown us the importance of caregivers for babies’ brain development. The love and affection you show your baby in a myriad of tiny ways helps them grow the right neural connections for emotional and cognitive development. Animal studies have suggested that a mother’s affectionate touch actually help develop a baby’s social brain, and that for babies, a parent’s love may be as important as food.
So let’s celebrate the beautifully messy, impossible-to-optimize thing we call parenting. Just by being there for your kids, loving them, caring for them, playing with them, touching them, speaking to them, and feeding them, you give them so many of the tools they need to make their way in the world. And even if your kids don’t realize how much you do for them now—if and when they have children of their own, they will.
This reporting is part of a series supported by a grant from the Bernard van Leer Foundation.