by Susan Miller, BScN
No doubt this title caught your attention. In this day and age it is not exactly “politically correct” to compare babies, children or anyone for that matter. With babies however, it is hard not to compare because as parents and caregivers, this is how we get information to assess how our own baby is growing and developing. There are many issues that arise when “comparing babies” and this is worth a discussion.
In Canadian society, we have had a long tradition of comparing babies. In years gone by it was fairly common to hear that there would be a “beautiful baby contest” at a community fair or event. Along with contests for best produce, needle work, baking and the best 4H heifer, babies were judged as well. Let me tell you about one such contest (yes, I am dating myself!). It was in 1965 when my kid brother was just under one year of age. My mother was contacted by a local community event organizer and asked to bring her baby boy to participate in a “Baby Contest” that was to be held in a local church basement. I was 11 years old at the time and was very excited about this event. My mother was less than enthusiastic but finally agreed to participate out of a sense of community, and also because I begged her to.
I can still remember the scene of about 10 moms and babies sitting in a circle on metal chairs. There were three judges, one man in a blue business suit and two ladies all decked out in high heels with bee-hive hairdo’s. The judges circulated in an officious manner with clipboards in hand, stopping in front of each mom and baby to have a look and a short conversation. When the male judge got to my mom he said “Oh dear what is that red mark on your baby’s forehead?” My mother was somewhat taken aback but was able to sputter a reply to explain that it was “just a mild birthmark that would fade with time.” The judge replied with “Oh what a shame!” At this my mother bristled and shot me a look of “You see? We should not have come to this contest!”
So the judging continued and then it was time for the winners to be announced and the prizes awarded. As I remember there were some fairly substantial prizes being awarded for certain physical attributes. Of course top prize went to the overall “best” and “most beautiful” baby. Then there were prizes for the baby with the most beautiful hair, or rosiest cheeks, nicest eyes, best smile, and the cutest outfit. How absolutely superficial! Understandably the mothers whose babies won the top prizes were bursting with pride. They were all beaming and looking slightly superior—remember it was 1965. My baby brother was not among the top prize winners.
Then the judges announced that there would be just one more prize awarded, and this was for the baby with the happiest disposition. Well you guessed it! My baby brother won this prize, birthmark and all! The irony of it was that the prize for the happiest baby was not a beautiful toy or outfit, but a cheap plastic thermometer to test the baby’s bath water. Obviously the organizers had decided that the more worthy babies were the ones with the outward beauty! My mother felt somewhat redeemed to have her baby recognized for who he was, not how he looked. She never used the bath thermometer and refrained from ever discussing that baby contest again. Of course, years later I finally understood my mother’s thoughts and sentiments about the whole concept of comparing babies, contest or not. Today we are more enlightened about putting too much emphasis on looks—at least where babies are concerned. It is indeed fitting that every parent sees their own baby as the most beautiful, and most parents have the good manners to keep this belief to themselves!
Infant development is another area in which parents tend to compare and this too can create some difficult situations. If yours is the baby that doesn’t seem to be doing as much as other babies the same age, you will naturally be concerned and deflated. Parents often report that they have lost sleep worrying about even small differences when comparing their baby to others. Every baby is an individual, and any infant development specialist will stress that although development is sequential, each baby will grow and develop on their own time line. The range of typical is getting wider as we learn more about individual differences in growth and temperament. It is a common dynamic in parent and baby groups to get into discussions about what your baby is or is not doing. Some babies will be much slower than others in certain areas. There are gender differences in development, and weight gain can be affected by genetics and the baby’s diet. A bigger baby is not necessarily healthier than a smaller baby, and walking earlier is not a sign of superior athleticism. So the next time you are tempted to compare your baby with another baby (even a sibling), DON’T! Having said this, if you have a “gut feeling” that something just isn’t right with your baby’s health or development talk to your baby’s physician or your public health nurse to have your concerns addressed.
It is important to be sensitive about how other parents may perceive your comments about your own baby’s development and what you may be implying about their baby in the process. This is especially true when you consider babies who were born early or with other health issues. Pre-term infants cannot be compared to full-term infants of the same chronological age. I clearly remember being furious with one mom I used to visit with when our first child was a very young baby. Our son had been born seven weeks early; healthy but small. This other mom would have me over for tea and quickly get to the point of highlighting her baby daughter’s superior development compared to my pre-term baby. I finally stopped going for tea and enduring this emotional abuse.
As new parents we are very sensitive but somewhere along the path of parenting experience we do seem to grow a thicker skin and learn to be true to ourselves. The next time someone starts comparing your baby to another baby just say, “He is who he is and let’s just wait and see!”
Susan Miller, R.N. BScN, is a Perinatal Educator and Certified Breastfeeding Counsellor. She works with prenatal and post-natal families in the Greater Victoria area.