A Love Letter to Parents of Babies (TLDR short version for bleary eyes)

(Me, back when I was You)

Dear You,

Hello. You appear to have made a baby. Whether or not this was the plan, well done. I’m a psychotherapist psychiatrist in Australia and recently wrote what follows for a video for some parents many time zones away, who are probably awake now anyway.

As it seems are you. At least partially.

So. Your tiny human is going through something now that you definitely went through yourself once, but you can’t remember. Most of us can remember back to maybe age 3 or 4. Everything before that is a bit of a mystery to us. How can we best help our brand-new tiny fellow humans, when what they are going through is a bit of a mystery?


Well, neuroscience of recent decades backs up what we kind of already knew, which is that the early years of life really really matter.

Babies’ brains grow more in the first three months of life than at any other time after that, by a staggeringly huge percentage in weight. But that weight is not new nerve cells – we are actually born with way more nerve cells than you or I have on board now, but while there are oodles more of them at birth, they haven’t grown yet, and crucially most of them are not yet connected.

A new human brain is like a big block of marble, waiting to be sculpted by experience. Nerves need stimulation from lived experience to form connections that keep them alive. Otherwise in these crucial early years it’s use-it-or-lose-it: unused, unconnected nerve cells die off, like the chips off that block of marble that fall to the floor, leaving the developing nervous system as the marble statue.

You’re a statue, that’s pretty cool.

The first big point here is that because we can’t grow new nerve cells after birth, we grow our nervous systems by connection.

The second big point – and this still blows my mind – is that every nerve cell that makes you who you are today was there on the day you were born. Ready to connect. Ready to learn. Ready to begin becoming who you are now. Yep – the early years really really matter.

No wonder parenting little ones is such a tough job. Might feel on some days like the toughest job in the world.

I think if you’re the parent of a baby, you’ve actually got the second toughest job in the world. Your baby has the toughest job, because they’re on the steepest learning curve of their lives.

There is a kind of a brain-stretching bothness here: Babies are BOTH way more capable than we tend to give them credit for AND way more dependent on us than we might wish was the case at times.

Here’s the good news though – the better we recognise BOTH our babies’ abilities AND needs now, the better they will grow their abilities, and get their needs met well, in life, out there, in the world.

If you have a baby in your life, you may not be sleeping well right now or anytime soon. But if your kid is set up well on the inside, you will surely sleep better when they are out at a party…in what will strangely wind up feeling like about 5 minutes’ time. In early parenthood, they say, the nights are long, but the years are short.

Now you are needed more than you have ever been needed before, please know that relationship is your key to helping your baby. The biggest thing they have to learn after how to breathe, is how to be with someone.

What your baby learns to expect from you now will create their range of expectations of life, all of it, the good bad and messy-as-hell, as long as they live.

So you know, no pressure.

Well actually, lots of pressure, really.

So how do we take some of that pressure off? Enough to think, rest, play, fix things up, get a day or night with your baby back on track? 

The clue is in the pronoun, we. You don’t do it alone. We connect. We make a mess of it, we clean it up, we try again.

We have to introduce this baby to a world full to the brim with mess, such a complex imperfect place.

New parents can feel so much pressure to be perfect, some of it from the world, a lot of it from within – if you are your own toughest critic you know what I am talking about.

The thing is, your baby doesn’t need you to be perfect, in fact they need you to be imperfect, to show them how the imperfect world works.

Because in its messy-as-hell way the world does work, or we wouldn’t be here.

It’s a kindness to you to allow yourself to be imperfect, but it’s also a kindness to your baby. This world needs kindness now more than ever, with all the pressures it’s under.

Cut yourselves some slack – you, your baby, the other important people around you both. Breathe, do some free yoga on YouTube, eat well, exercise, binge watch comfort TV, zone out, then get back to connecting as best you can with your baby and your important people.

Just think, inside that small yet enormous little brain, squillions of connections have already happened thanks to you. Babies can’t say thank you, not with words anyway, but I can.

Thank you, and good luck with the next squillion connections.

With affection,

Matthew.

PS. If you liked this, there is a super-sized extended director’s cut version on the previous post, like this one only…more!

Written on Wurundjeri Country, with the love and support of family and friends, and the kind, robust feedback of trusted workmates and mentors. You all know who you are – I only hope this work does you the credit I feel you deserve.

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