Listening Mothers: Calm, Cool and Attached (Even When That Little One Wails)

Mother and baby

Editor's Note: Science has shown that the early patterns we set can help or hinder our parenting for years beyond. Many new parents want the tools and support to help create a relationship of trust and attachment with their babies, and to learn to mindfully manage the stress and pressure that often comes with the world's toughest yet most rewarding job. As part of the launch of our new BabyMap portal, I spoke with facilitators from Listening Mothers (LM), an eight-week program of the Community of Mindful Parents that helps new parents reduce stress and increase well-being. We've assembled a Q & A that peeks into what this approach is all about, plus some tips that parents can use with children of any age.

Meet our virtual panel:

Rama Ronen, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist trained in Cognitive Behavioral Psychotherapy. She works at the Entelechy Wellness Center with expectant, new, and experienced mothers. "Mindfulness" is integrated throughout her practice.

"Wow, is it challenging to be a mom these days? Absolutely! As a mom of three and from listening to other moms I find it at time overwhelming to trust what is “right” and what is wrong. I would like to encourage all of us to become more familiar with that critical voice and practice being kind to one’s self and remember that we are doing the best that we can."

Gigi Wickwire is a mom to a new baby, a LM facilitator since 2011, a registered nurse with a master’s in clinical social work and a former doula.

“Being in baby time — going slower than the culture what might want us to go — is so complementary to a mindfulness practice. It’s made the world of difference in my relationship with my son. There is something pretty exquisite when we pause and listen with our inner listening.”

Yaffa Maritz is a co-founder of Listening Mothers and clinical director of both Listening Mothers and Reflective Parenting, and she is founder and director of the Community of Mindful Parents. Maritz was born and trained in Israel as a clinical psychologist. She is also a licensed mental health counselor trained in infant mental health.

"We know from research that mother's touch enhances attachment between mother and her baby. It can signify security and can generate positive emotions. We especially encourage mothers to experiment with what we call "reflective touch," which follows the guidelines of our program and is a way of conveying a respectful, empathic, sensitive ways of relating."

Why are we so stressed today as parents?

In our competitive society today we all feel somehow less than adequate, and mothers instinctively want to be the best mothers they can be so that their child will thrive. But they are feeling great pressure both from the inside themselves and from the outside to perform in a certain “perfect” way. Because of that pressure, they end up with a barrage of self-doubt and self-judgment.

In our groups we help mothers develop skills to become more mindful so they can notice those judgmental and highly critical thoughts when they come and go and then understand that they, as mothers, are bigger and better than those crippling thoughts.

We learn to develop an attitude of kindness toward our judgmental self. Mindfulness skills teach us to pay attention to our body and our mind, to become discerning and sensitive, to be non-judgmental and accepting and to let go of what is not helpful or nurturing.

Self-Compassion is the attitude we cultivate, which is an attitude of love and kindness toward ourselves. For women in our society and especially mothers, it is easy to show love, kindness and compassion for others (of course to our babies!), but in order not to get burned out and depleted we need to learn first to show those nurturing qualities toward ourselves. (It is interesting to note that in our groups a very lively discussion often ensues regarding fear of self-compassion, which includes the ultimate question: Do we really deserve it?) ~ Maritz

What can mothers learn about trusting their judgment?

“It’s a new identity, we’re becoming mothers. We’re maybe not getting enough sleep or time for ourselves. And we have these hormones going on. It’s universal. And yet, you will have an inner voice, and no one knows your baby better than you. Be willing to go with those instincts. Everyone is going to have opinions, but no one has ever mothered your child.” ~ Wickwire


What does self-regulation mean in the realm of parenting?

Self-regulation is the foundation block on which our entire LM program is built. It is a well-known fact that kids who cultivate self-regulating skills are more successful at school, they are more resilient, they regain calm easily after frustration and stress and pay attention and follow direction more consistently as they are able regulate their sense of distractibility.

According to the well-known late child psychologist, Stanley Greenspan, the first developmental task of the infant is self-regulation. We think that the more correct term to use here is co-regulation, because we see the infant and the mother in the first few month of life as a “unit” (we call it the “kangaroo baby” phase).

Co-regulation means the mother is the emotional scaffolding the baby needs in order to learn self-regulation skills.

Babies’ nervous systems are very sensitive, and babies pick up cues from the environment very easily. The calmer the mother stays, the calmer the baby is. In our group we help mothers learn to read her own signs of rising stress and find the best ways for her to get back to a balanced state. It can be as simple as going for a walk or taking a bath.

The key is to recognize the triggers that cause sensory overload and for parents to have ready in their “tool box” the appropriate response, so that they bypass the typical emotional rollercoaster and the exhaustion that follows, which is one of the biggest challenge we face as new parents!

We also help mothers recognize the baby’s specific and innate self-regulating skills (is it listening to calming music or voice, or sucking the thumb?) so that gradually they can encourage the infant to build his or her own “tool box” for dealing with stress.

The baby and later the child will learn self- regulation both through the parents’ modeling, parental scaffolding, parental co-regulation as well as the parents helping the child recognize the tension cues the best skill to use to alleviate stress and tension. ~ Maritz

What is secure attachment, and why is it important?

The studies of the benefit of secure attachments have been around for over 60 years. Kids who are securely attached are happier, more trusting, more curious, more creative, more flexible and show leadership skills and resiliency.

Mothers of securely attached children are emotionally present and attuned to the child’s needs, respond timely and appropriately, show affection and joy and when the child makes mistakes, takes responsibility and engages in repair.

Those are important skills to have.

Mothers innately carry “mothering” intuition in their DNA. Thousands of years of maternal wisdom that got passed through the generations can’t be lost, but our ability to access our instincts today is clouded by an overload of confusing information and pressure to adhere to some elusive standard rather than listen to our inner wisdom.

In our groups, through mindful practices and discussion, mothers learn skills to stay focused, attuned, non-judgmental, kind and responsive. All those skills that are used to reduce stress are also the same skills that will enhance secure attachment! And these skills are lifelong skills that are adaptable to challenges at many different stages of development and will help develop healthier, more attuned more loving relationships with their kids and partners. ~Maritz

What’s an example of a technique?

“Coming back to our breath, and remembering that this moment, all we have is now, there’s no past just present. Slowing down, arriving in the space. Return back to being with your baby. Have a beginner’s mind — what is the baby going to teach me today? Part of mindfulness is just allowing ourselves to be surprised with the moment. If you want to understand how to be present our baby’s are the best teachers. We learn to let the young ones be the teachers.” ~ Wickwire

“We know from research that mother's touch enhances attachment between mother and her baby. It can signify security and can generates positive emotions. We especially encourage mothers to experiment with what we call "reflective touch," which follows the guidelines of our program and is another way of conveying a respectful, empathic, sensitive ways of relating. ~Maritz

How is our society right now particularly challenging for new mothers? Do new parents lack a support system?

These days moms are overwhelmed by information and feel pressured to do the “right thing” so they can feel good about themselves — It can range from cooking healthy organic food to buying the environmentally healthy toy, to you name it (and I didn’t even start talking about identity and how that may impact the relationship with your partner). Should I stay home or should I go back to work?

It is so interesting to recognize that for some moms who are frequently faced with a dilemma, no matter what the decision is the self-critical voice will always show up and cause them to feel guilty.

And moms can be so judgmental with themselves and with other moms, receiving or giving that nasty look of “how come you cannot sooth your baby?”

The important thing to remember and keep practicing is that parenting at times is hard and entails many moments of not knowing and feeling out of control. You are making a dance with your child by learning to know each other and to find what feels right to you as a family. ~ Ronen

What's empathy got to do with it?

Empathy is our ability to resonate with others’ emotional state. Throughout the eight weeks in our program, group mothers are developing listening skills that sharpen their "inner ear" (listening to their own emotions) as well as ability to listen to both the verbal and non-verbal cues of their babies.

Through the mindfulness and stress-reduction training, the parents learn not to get flooded easily at the moment of baby's distress. They become attuned to their baby’s emotional state more clearly and accurately, without projecting their own stress and with greater empathy.

Babies usually show empathic responses toward others (especially other babies crying) from quite early on in development. This natural tendency can be enhanced by parental role modeling of empathy. ~ Maritz

How can new mothers remember to care compassionately for ourselves?

“You need the little pauses, even five minutes to brush your teeth. In lot of other cultures there’s have a period of 40 days where mothers are attended to and cared for. I’ve also heard: 1st week in the bed, 2nd week on the bed, 3rd week near the bed. But everyone’s situation is different. Remembering to take those small moments of self-care is important.” ~ Wickwire

How can parents make that switch to slower "baby time" in our hectic world?

"Being willing to put our own expectations, desires and needs aside for a while and just be in the rhythm of being, sleeping, eating, diaper changing. Alowing ourselves those first three months, the kangaroo period, and get into a new rhythm as a family because the old rhythm is gone, and that will pay off in the end.

"It’s a hard thing for us; different families have different support systems, economic situations. But it’s really important that no one is ever set up to think they’ve failed. If we can, we should just give ourselves permission to enjoy those first few months.” ~ Wickwire

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