Should You Trust Your Instincts?

Mothers are not miraculously born the same day that babies are. Yet many women believe they are supposed to become overnight experts in getting their baby to eat and sleep, and to judge whether his cry means he’s hungry, drowsy, uncomfortable or deathly ill. And just where is this expertise supposed to derive from? “Trust your instincts” say many baby-care experts. But a lot of baby care doesn’t have anything to do with instinct! Take, for example, the notion that you should be able to recognize the difference between your baby’s cries. The venerable baby expert Penelope Leach even offered up a spectrograph chart that showed the difference in pitch between a baby’s pain cry, basic sobbing and mild, whiny wail. “Maybe you could not describe all these different cries in words. But you will know them apart when you hear them,” she wrote. Well, my natural mothering instinct failed me completely here. Was it my heart or my ears that were tone deaf? I wondered. Each time my first baby cried it sounded the same to me. I never knew what was wrong, so I comforted him by trial and error. If holding him didn’t work, I offered milk. If he wasn’t hungry I tried to burp him, or check his diaper, even take his temperature, or, finally, hand him to his father. I did finally figure out the differences between my son’s cries-but no thanks to me. It was thanks to my son who, after some months passed, began to issue distinctive cries depending on the problem. It didn’t take any natural instinct to tell that when he screeched he was in pain and when he whimpered he was bored. But until then I suffered miserably, believing that there was something “missing” in me because the language of cries didn’t come naturally.

I now know that mommy magic doesn’t get sprinkled on you the first time your baby lies curled up in your arms. Motherhood is natural, but that doesn’t make it simple. Just ask any new nursing mother whose baby doesn’t seem to know how to latch on.  Breastfeeding is a natural food-delivery system with so many design flaws that it has spawned a whole industry of leagues and lactation consultants to help new mothers. Eventually, most women (and babies) do make it work.. But the way you learn is by trial and error and by tapping into the knowledge of more experienced hands- whether your mother, in-law, friend, neighbor, lactation expert etc. You don’t learn just by staring deeply at your baby and going with how you feel.

Even if you buy the notion that parenthood is very much a trust-your-gut sort of enterprise, it doesn’t necessarily follow that your particular instincts are trustworthy. We all know people whose instincts routinely fail them. There are women who always end up with the wrong man, bad haircut, lousy job. Stocks tank as soon as they buy them. We’ve all had days when we would have benefited from listening closely to our instinct and then proceeding to do the exact opposite. Instinct may tell you that your child is fine even though she’s spiking a 107 fever. She’s better off if you call the doctor. Instinct may tell you that he’ll be too scared if you let him ride the carousel. But if all of the other kids are going and he’s crying because you won’t let him, forget your instincts and let him go.

Mothers are often counseled to trust their intuitions because parenthood does go more smoothly if you have a modicum of self-confidence and a belief in yourself. But knowledge figures into the equation, too, and that only comes with time and experience. What almost always does come naturally to new mothers and fathers is a profound, protective, everlasting love for the child. But it can take time and education for that natural force to be channeled the right way.