What Not To Say To A New Mother: Eleven Ways To Get It Right

Recently, I wrote about undermining things I’d heard hospital staff say to new mothers, and I have been overwhelmed by the feedback. I have read over a thousand responses and comments, too many of which confirm the themes of my original post:  that moms can feel seriously undermined by even small thoughtless remarks by their caregivers, mixed messages, or misinformation, and they hold on to the pain of that for years to come.  This comment struck me particularly:

when my daughter was placed in my arms, I had an overwhelming feeling of confidence that I could take care of this child, no problem; this was slowly eroded over 4 days in hospital, getting contradictory advice and information — so confusing!


Seasoned moms know that once the adrenaline of childbirth wears off – be it 24 hours or four months - taking care of a child is rarely a “no problem” thing.  We all doubt ourselves sometimes; no one has perfect confidence.  But in those first few days, moms need encouragement.  They need to be taught what to do when they feel doubt, and confusion; they don’t need more doubt and confusion heaped upon them.  

But!  Several people wrote in positive comments about their time in the hospital, too, and those stories are so moving – not just as a reminder that there are great, great hospital staff members out there, but as a reminder for all who encounter new moms: small positive comments and acts are surprisingly helpful, just as the small negative comments were surprisingly destructive. Years later, moms still remembered: 

  • how good it felt when a nurse congratulated her on how much she’d pumped, and 
  • when a L&D nurse brought a newborn who needed immediate pediatric care to mom’s belly for a kiss and hug before being rushed away, and 
  • the doctor who said “I can see you’re going to be great,” at a moment when the mom could not see it herself, and 
  • Nurses who knocked before entering, asked, “is this a good time?” or “do you need to pee before we do this?”

And there were several comments about caregivers who slowed down, sat on the edge of the bed and simply smiled.    

I don’t mean you should tell a new mom everything is spectacular if it isn’t. But if you’re a friend or loved one visiting a new mother, or if your work requires you to care for new parents – small things make a huge difference and are remembered for years to come. 

Helpers, loved ones, and all who interact with new moms can be memorable for the good they do with these eleven basics:

  • Put yourself on a five-second delay.  Helpers often “hit the ball back” with a response as soon as they hear a new mom’s question.  Whether you are a caregiver or a friend, take a pause before answering mom’s question, and think about what you’re about to say, and check the phrasing. 
  • Make sure you are qualified to answer.  (If not, there’s no shame!  You can say, “let me think about that” or “let me ask so and so”).  Then, get help for her.
  • Think about your tone.  If you sound bossy or defensive, New Mom may hear that, more than she hears your words.
  • You are responsible for your body language – If your shoulders are relaxed and you’re smiling, it’s easier for the new mom to hear the substance of what you’re saying, and to learn.  If she sees your eyebrows scrunched together and a frowny face and your shoulders up by your ears, it can drown out whatever you’re trying to tell her!  Even if you’re worried, don’t distract with your body. The most effective way to get the baby and mom cared for is not to scare them, but to use your brain and words to get them what they need.
  • SMILE.  It makes everything you say more absorbent.  Try not to behave as though there is an emergency unless there is an emergency.  
  • Stay away from hypotheticals (“if, by tomorrow, we don’t see a change in X, we will have to do Y” or, for friends: “if your baby starts doing A now, you’re going to be in for it when she’s B months old”) unless there is a clinical need to discuss them right now.  People do this to show off their knowledge and to spread their own anxiety around, but it’s not fair to the new mom.  Unless it’s clear you need to act, try to keep the mom to the present, and stick with her so you can jump in if need be.
  • Ask whether you need to say anything at all.  Sometimes a grin is truly enough interaction. 
  • Use open ended questions to get the mom talking.  ”Tell me how breastfeeding is going” or “How are you feeling today?” or “So, what do you think of your baby?” will get you more information than, “how many minutes did he latch?” or “has he pooped yet?” or “has he been crying a lot?” 
  • Observe the mom.  Find something she is doing well.  There will be something – the way she smiles at the baby, the way she holds him more confidently each time, the way she asks good questions or shows appropriate instincts.  Tell her, specifically, that you notice these good things.
  • Observe the baby!  Find something totally adorable, and tell them mom you notice.  I remember one client I had whose baby was in the NICU.  I saw them on day 2 and pointed out how adorable it was that the baby was gripping Dad’s finger.  The mom burst into tears, saying, “That’s the first compliment she’s gotten since she was born!  Everyone is only talking about all the things she’s not doing.”  
  • Friends and loved ones:  Help the new family develop a “home team” (and be part of it), to get their needs met and their questions answered once they’re home.

What about you?  Do you remember what helped in those early days and weeks?