The language around pregnancy and new motherhood

When a woman is pregnant, has just given birth or is in the early days with a newborn she needs support, love and positivity. She doesn’t need criticism or judgment – that’s why the language we use is so important…

I was recently asked to share comments made by midwives during my antenatal and postnatal visits, as well as labour and childbirth. The woman interviewing me wanted to hear positives as well as negatives – and to know how I’d been made to feel. These comments were then going to be used in midwifery training, highlighting the importance of getting your language right when speaking to pregnant women and new mums.

These are the language examples I gave:

After giving birth to my daughter – my firstborn – I went to see a midwife at a clinic for a routine appointment. She told me my baby was very relaxed and that it was because I was so relaxed. That was a lovely thing to hear as a very new, first time mum.

A health visitor told me that that my son – my second-born – would smile early. She was right; he started smiling at three weeks. Again, a lovely comment.

Just after giving birth to my son, I was told I’d need to inject myself daily to prevent DVT (deep vein thrombosis). I asked why me (meaning: why me, specifically) and she said: “So that you don’t die.” Not so nice. I did inject myself, had a reaction and had to take antibiotics. I actually wasn’t high risk and shouldn’t have been doing it at all but I hadn’t questioned it again after her comment.

A midwife told me she’d prefer to be a vet than a midwife, while I was in labour with my son. And she said that she didn’t stay in the room for the birth as she wasn’t bothered. It was a shame, as the midwife on the shift before her had been so warm and kind.

I was dozing while holding my baby boy. He’d been born about an hour earlier. A trainee midwife came over and said she was checking I wasn’t “suffocating” him. I found that language inappropriate.

My daughter was a big baby. A midwife told me that I’d definitely need to top up my breastmilk with formula. I was a new mum – I assumed she must be right and felt worried. But instinct kicked in and I decided to ignore her advice. We were fine without formula – she didn’t have any until she was 10 months old.

It was an interesting exercise; reflecting on how these simple words or ideas could hugely impact my state of mind or perception of a situation. Hearing something positive and encouraging makes you feel empowered, and in control. While hearing something negative or demeaning can really lower your mood and confidence. Dangerously so.

New mums often feel very sensitive; it’s the combination of wild hormones and being solely responsible for a tiny human for the first time ever. We all want to get it right; to be the best mother we can – but sometimes things are out of your control. For example, milk supply affecting breastfeeding or a colicky baby who just won’t stop crying. Yes, there are tricks for helping the mother and baby to improve these situations but it’s crucial that she doesn’t feel like she’s in any way to blame.

Hearing: “You’re doing a fantastic job with the breastfeeding, how would you feel about topping up with formula while we work on increasing your supply?” will be better received than: “You’re starving your baby. You have to give him formula.” Likewise, “It can be really difficult dealing with a colicky baby, you’re doing amazingly. Have you tried holding him in this position to see if he’s more comfortable?” is a better approach than: “You’re really struggling aren’t you?”.

It should be common sense but sometimes people forget how vulnerable new mums (and dads) can feel. One comment taken the wrong way can throw a new parent totally off course. Any comments about a baby’s weight (if they need to be made at all) should be positive: “Isn’t he growing lots!” Not: “God, he’s still so small!”. And comments about breastfeeding (again, if they absolutely must be shared) should be encouraging: “Wow, you’re doing a fantastic job!”

Basically: keep it positive, keep it encouraging and keep in mind what the mother – in particular – has just been through with pregnancy, birth and likely sleep deprivation. Only give advice when she asks for it. Make her feel loved and happy; support her. Make her smile and laugh and feel warm inside. That’s all she needs.

What comments have stayed with you – positive or negative – from your pregnancy, birth or early days with a newborn?