My partner and I fight all the time about how to care for our baby. It’s exhausting. What should we do?

Excerpt from Asking for a Pregnant Friend: 101 Answers to Questions Women Are Too Embarrassed to Ask about Pregnancy, Childbirth, and Motherhood

How to care for tiny, defenseless offspring can stir up major beef between parents — even parents who didn’t think they even had strong opinions about how to care for a baby. What some of us don’t realize is that we’re carrying all sorts of baggage into parenthood. Either we consciously or subconsciously believe that the way our parents parented is the way to go, or we want to do things the exact opposite of the way our parents did it, or we are somewhere in between. And of course, life experience sprinkles more baggage into the mix. If the baggage your partner brings to parenting conflicts with your own, major disagreements can arise. And these disagreements can get really heated, as you’re both fighting for what you think is best for your baby — a precious person you’ve likely fallen head over heels for. The stakes can feel unreasonably high. Ceding to the will of your partner might seem like an unimaginable scenario, much more so than when you’re arguing about less-precious topics.

Here’s an example: From day one, my mother-in-law has stood firm in the belief that babies should sleep in a crib, ideally in their own room. She is the leader of team “Let Them Cry It Out.” Because my husband treasures his parents, who have raised six kids, he believes they know what’s best in most realms of parenting. I also treasure my parents, who are not cry-it-out advocates and slept with my brother and I when we were infants, putting us either in their bed or in a crib in their room.

None of this initially seemed to be a problem. For the first few weeks of our son’s life, my husband didn’t argue when I decided to bed-share. Things were going great. Our son happily fed and snoozed by my side, we were all getting adequate sleep, and we were adhering to all the safety guidelines for bed-sharing. But then Eric’s mom started peppering us with questions about where the baby was sleeping. And next came the assertions that if he didn’t get used to sleeping on his own, he would be in our bed until college. The result: my previously “let the baby sleep wherever you want him to sleep” husband was suddenly pushing me to change the sleep plan.

I immediately bristled. Not only was this arrangement the only one that allowed Hudson and I to sleep more than three hours a night and facilitated ample night-time feedings, but also it felt intuitively right to me. The thought of being pushed to not have my baby beside me at night triggered all my Mama Bear instincts. Intense arguing ensued. We would go at it. And honestly, we never really reached a resolution. It was a parenting stalemate. I just kept doing what felt right, and he stopped challenging me as much. This particular argument would flair up every now and again, but other baby care issues eventually took its place.

I’ve retrospectively discovered the suggestions in the “What to do” section, and I hope to use them with our second baby. For now, I hope I can help you do better than I did.

You see, you and your partner aren’t arguing because your relationship is broken, or because one of you is a bad parent. You’re arguing because you both feel like it’s your duty to protect the well-being of your offspring and you might believe your partner has a seriously misguided parenting point of view. Without intentional strategies and a mega-dose of active listening and understanding, it might be tricky to pull out of the cycle of baby-care arguments. So putting in the work to implement these positive changes is worth it, because ultimately, finding peace with your significant other and figuring out ways to parent as a team will likely benefit your baby more than any decision in all the topics you’re fighting about.

What to do

Just yell, “Mama knows best!” when your partner questions your parenting….Sigh. If only it were that easy. Because it’s not, try these strategies instead:

Get other people out of the mix. Regardless of how wise your parents, in-laws, siblings, friends, or whoever are about parenting, they shouldn’t get a say in how you care for your baby. I would get furious when I felt like my husband was parroting parenting views I knew he’d gotten from his mom. And I’m sure he felt the same. We both wanted to communicate with our partner, not with a proxy for our mothers-in-law. You can kick those people out of your conversations by mutually agreeing to ask your parents (or whoever is in your ear) to stop providing parenting opinions unless you ask for them. Let them know you respect their point of view but need to go at it without their input.

Get the right person in the mix. While I just told you to get other people out of your baby care decisions, the one exception could be a pediatrician you both resonate with. This neutral party can ideally provide information that guides your parenting decisions and resolves discord. But the key here is that your partner goes with you to these appointments, as they’ll likely be more open to the guidance if it’s received firsthand. This will also give them the chance to ask illuminating questions.

Determine the root of your parenting opinions. It can be wild to discover what our true beliefs are after unraveling ourselves from the parenting influences of our past. To start that unraveling, ask yourself the following questions about any belief you and your partner are in conflict about:

  • Is this a parenting method I came to believe in because it’s what my parents, siblings, or other loved ones did and insist on as the way to go?
  • Did I do extensive research that led me to believe this was the right choice for my family?
  • Does this instinctually feel right? Or does it feel wrong, but
    the idea of finding a new way feels scary and unknown?

Keep digging into the layers of the belief until you discover where it came from. From there, you can determine if this is a belief that truly feels like the best choice for your family, or begin building a new belief based on fresh experiences and research.

Write each other letters. As you probably know, it can be really hard to get your point across, or absorb your partner’s point of view, when you’re in a heated argument. You can bypass that distracting, unwanted heat by both composing letters about how you’re feeling, explaining your beliefs about the baby-care situation in question.

This letter allows you to really explore where you’re coming from and communicate in a way that’s fueled by a desire to help your partner understand you, rather than to make them agree that you’re right and they’re wrong. In turn, reading your partner’s letter can open your mind and heart to where they’re coming from, and help you move forward with the decision-making process with enhanced understanding for the “other side.”

Agree to not discuss the letters until you’ve both had time to process them and can talk without strong emotions distracting from the main objective: finding a solution that’s best for your baby.

Try out your partner’s baby-care wishes on a trial basis. If the baby-care strategy your partner is suggesting is not something you believe would be damaging to your child, you could agree to try it their way for a few days. For example, if they’re all for cloth diapers and you’re a disposable devotee, you might agree to give cloth diapers a go for a week. At the end of that trial you might still loathe cloth diapers, but your partner will at least feel like you heard them and gave their preference a whirl. And maybe some of these trials could transform a few of your parenting views. At the very least they’ll bring more harmony and respect into your relationship.

Create a safe word. Help prevent your arguments from getting into damaging territory by creating a safe word or phrase. This is a word or phrase that can be used when one of you realizes the conversation has taken a turn for the worse and is no longer productive.

Because Eric and I usually argue in the evening, our phrase is, “We need to go to bed” — and not in a sexy way. This phrase helps us realize fatigue and short fuses are making us mean and irrational. It doesn’t always stop the argument, but it at least makes us check ourselves.

Research together. When you can’t find common ground on a certain baby-care issue, research solutions together. Skim the same parenting books, peruse articles and studies about the baby-care topic, speak with your pediatrician, or engage in any other activity that allows you to absorb the same information. This joint research gets you on the same page (or at least in the same chapter), so you can find a solution without too much arguing.

Write down your joint parenting philosophy. Once you’ve worked through most of your disputes about baby care, work together to create a shared parenting philosophy. As you create it, consider questions like these:

  • What type of parents do we want to be?
  • What values are important to us?
  • How do we want to nurture our baby?
  • What type of emotional climate do we want to create in our family?
  • How do we want to handle disputes and discipline when our baby is older?
  • What do we hope to get out of parenting?
  • In what ways do we hope parenting helps us change and grow?
  • What aspects of our childhoods do we want to infuse in to our child’s life?
  • What aspects of our childhoods do we want to leave behind?

Keep riffing, exploring, and taking notes until you’ve created a document that can inform your parenting decisions moving forward. And of course, this document can be adapted as your family evolves.

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