During pregnancy, many mothers-to-be imagine peaceful, happy times with their new babies. Months later, they find themselves confronting the harsh reality that motherhood can be stressful, even frightening at times. Babies won’t sleep, nursing is problematic, and family members keep giving well-meaning but critical advice. The result? Anxiety and stress.
Calm Mama, Happy Baby, written by Derek O’Neill and Jennifer Waldburger, provides anxious moms with strategies to get back in tune with themselves so they can focus on the joys of motherhood — and roll with the bumps that happen along the way.
Waldburger, a social worker, and O’Neill, a psychotherapist, draw directly from their own experiences with clients. Throughout the book they refer to babies as “little bright lights,” and emphasize that babies are very sensitive to the so-called invisible umbilical, or the connection between mother and new baby.
Stressed-out mothers pass their stressful reactions to their babies, the authors write. Likewise, calm mothers who are in touch with their own needs pass along their calm manner of handling problems. Readers can use the image of the invisible umbilical as a reminder that whatever they experience emotionally their babies will experience as well.
As someone who needed help with anxiety with my second child, I immediately recognized the book’s strategies as similar to the time-tested methods I was taught: stop negative thoughts and focus on deep breathing; tune in to your own physical sensations as you experience anxiety; acknowledge thoughts without giving them power over you; and provide reassurance to your baby. Still, the text offered some activities that were new to me and that I continue to find helpful as I deal with a challenging toddler.
After they introduce these helpful strategies — in what I considered the triage section of the book — the authors write more in-depth about common negative thought processes that new moms feel. Thoughts like, “I’m doing it wrong,” “Everyone else is doing it wrong,” and “Things went wrong in the past and will go wrong in the future.”
Although I’ve passed the new-mom stage with my children, I still found it helpful to read about negative thought patterns — and I recognized many of my own in the book. Using the image of an “internal movie theater,” the authors remind us that ultimately we can choose how much of our past we want to bring into the relationship with our baby.
One of my favorite quotes was from the foreword: “Great Danes give birth to Great Danes, and Chihuahuas give birth to Chihuahuas.”
The book also includes a few useful appendix sections with quick tips for sleep and feeding issues and fun suggestions for using color and music to calm your baby. The last appendix is a message for “Papa,” in case a male partner feels left out.
If you’re a mom or mom-to-be who’s anxiety prone, chances are you’ll benefit from reading Waldburger and O’Neill. Their book will help you manage your own anxiety as you parent, and also help you teach your little one to manage it, too, by creating positive behaviors for her to mirror.
If, however, you’ve already spent a lot of time reading about anxiety strategies, attachment parenting, or child development, this book likely contains information that’s already familiar. It also can get a little repetitive.
I found the structure of the book to be somewhat scattered, although I understand why it was written that way: An anxious mother isn’t going to be in the mood to read through half a book to get to some helpful calming strategies.
Many of the pages also contain large bubbles with quotes from the page, which I found distracting. But again, those bubbles may be helpful to a frazzled reader who’s flipping through the book for quick guidance.
Overall, Calm Mama, Happy Baby is a quick read with useful tips — ones I would have liked to have nearby when I was a new mom. Despite its structural flaws, it would make a great handout in childbirth classes or “new mommy” groups. The more mothers who’re in tune with the effects of their stress levels on their babies, the better off those “little bright lights” — the youngest members of our society — will be.
Calm Mama, Happy Baby: The Simple, Intuitive Way to Tame Tears, Improve Sleep, and Help Your Family Thrive
HCI, October 2013
Paperback, 264 pages