‘Happy Mummy = Happy Baby’ or ‘Happy Baby = Happy Mummy’?

Is it just me? Or does anybody else cringe when they hear the term “happy mummy = happy baby”?

Often used as a backup to a mother advising another to do something that is perhaps not in her baby’s best interests in order to make life easier for the mother. Is it really true though? I don’t think so.

I believe however that this irritating phrase is commonly used to appease guilt and to excuse selfishness. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying it isn’t important for mothers to be happy, of course it is. I am one of the biggest advocates for mothers taking time out to nurture themselves and realising that they NEED to take care of their own needs, physical and emotional, in order that they can even begin to think about taking care of anybody else’s needs. Doing this whilst sacrificing their baby’s needs though does not make a happy baby, no matter how happy the mother may be.

Take for instance sleep training, who is happy in the following scenario?

a mother of a 6 month old baby who wakes regularly throughout the night, she is struggling to cope and is exhausted, resentful of her baby’s frequent wakings. So, out of desperation she turns to an internet discussion forum where other mums suggest various ways they have trained their baby to sleep through the night – from witholding feeds, to refusing to pick the baby up when they cry, to just plain old leaving them to cry for a few minutes. Now, if our exhausted mother chooses any of these methods she has a fair chance of her baby’s sleep temporarily improving (yes, I did say temporarily, research suggests no long lasting effects for this type of sleep training and some even suggests that babies trained in this way will experience sleep regression in their second year of life) and supposedly (according to shared baby forum wisdom) she will be happier and (said in an artificially joyous, Pollyanna tone) “a happy mummy = a happy baby!”.

Would the baby really be happy here? the obvious answer to me is “no”. He or she will likely be confused, hungry, scared or more, but mummy is happy, isn’t that all that matters? Isn’t it meant to MAKE the baby happy too?

The less obvious answer (and I’m sure the point that will be critiqued in any replies to this post!) is “but if she is so exhausted, it’s better for her baby to experience a couple of nights of crying (aka ‘trauma’) rather than her ending up with PND or worse”. I can’t argue this point, I do agree and in extreme cases it would be less risky to the mother-infant bond to intervene in some way, ‘do the least harm’ you might say. BUT…..but, but, but…….this commonly trotted out scenario is actually pretty rare and some researchers believes that actually, particularly for breastfeeding mothers, the link between night wakings and PND isn’t what you’d expect (summed up in THIS book), so actually this isn’t that applicable to as many mothers as you might believe.

Support is of course vital, new mothers need support (whether that is in the form of family support, paid support from somebody like a postnatal Doula or free help from a charity such as Homestart in order to survive the exhaustion of new parenting, they need to ‘fill their cup’ you might say, in order that they can give of themselves to their babies.  I honestly believe though, that it’s very rare that they need to make their babies unhappy in order to make themselves happy and I strongly believe that a happy mummy DOESN’T always equal a happy baby.


Happy baby = happy mummy though is something I can really get behind. Recent research (with the snappy title “Parents Reap What They Sow: Child-Centrism and Parental Well-Being” click on the link to read it) indicates that this is a mantra we really can believe in. With a fairly decent sample size of 322 parents, the researchers were keen to study how ‘child centric’ the parents were and to evaluate whether this correlated with their happiness levels, surprise surprise – it did, which led to them quoting:

“These findings stand in contrast to claims in the popular media that prioritizing children’s well-being undermines parents’ well-being…results suggest that the more care and attention people give to others, the more happiness and meaning they experience…..From this perspective, the more invested parents are in their children’s well-being—that is, the more ‘child centric’ parents are—the more happiness and meaning they will derive from parenting.”

That doesn’t mean they’re not exhausted, that doesn’t mean they aren’t at the end of their tether with their child’s sleep (or picky eating, or tantrums), they probably are. What it does mean that is that by being respectful and empathic towards their child, even though their parenting is probably as equally knackering as the example I’ve given above they were HAPPY and you know what, I bet their babies were too……..Happy babies = Happy mums……..you betcha!


p.s:  this is the reason I subtitled all of my books “calmer children and happier parents”!

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About SarahOckwell-Smith

Sarah Ockwell-Smith, Parenting author and mother to four.
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5 Responses to ‘Happy Mummy = Happy Baby’ or ‘Happy Baby = Happy Mummy’?

  1. Yes yes yes! This statement goes under the same category as “Didn’t do me no harm” *blink*
    I have always been fascinated by child psychology/development since qualifying as a Nursery Nurse over 20 years ago. As a parent (est. 2005) I found that the more I researched why my littlie was waking through the night the more I accepted it and adapted our day (i.e filled the coffee pot). This information was researched online through the night when I was breastfeeding him (and subsequently they).

  2. I only partially agree- I agree that sleep training is awful and I can not do it BUT I do think happy mum= happy baby when talking about breatsfeefing. I have offered support to to fellow or ex b/f and used the term happy mum= happy baby because the stress of mum can effect the feeding of baby. It may ease the guilt of a mum who stopped her feeding journey sooner than she wanted due to lack of support or knowledge but the baby wasn’t distressed because mum choose to give baby a bottle or offer baby a dummy.

  3. Phoebe says:

    I would pump at 4am and then put ear plugs in and my husband did the 4am to 8am shift so I got a guaranteed 4 hours sleep per nigh most of the time. I was going pretty down hill with the sleep deprivation and cried everyday for 9 days. I went back to happy me with this small change. My mum had post natal depression and my goal was not to get it. An important thing is support. I am a happy mother and smile and laugh a lot. It is not because I am ‘good’ but because I have a team around me supporting me and we share the parenting as equally as possible. Team work is an important part of parenting if you ask me. When I have been at my lowest point I have not had to consider ‘crying out’ or other stuff because the team (husband, in laws) has stepped up to the plate rather the model that says ‘it is all up to the mother’. When I have been absolutely desperate for sleep others have done their share. That is why I find it hard to judge others who don’t make not the most ideal choices. I don’t let my bubs watch any TV nor do I let him cry it out but who knows what short cuts I would make if it would stop me ending up getting a mental illness or end up being miserable? I am as happy as Larry now with enough sleep and exercise and I smile all day at my baby and he is a smiley & relaxed baby as a result. From on line groups I find mothers racked with guilt that let their babies cry it out. Let’s become better as a society so it is not all up to the mother to do everything and there are more support structures in place so mothers can look after themselves and their babies and not have to choose one or the other. So they don’t have to get desperate for sleep. I remember that feeling absolutely desperate for sleep and crying my eyes out at the 7am feed everyday. It does’t have to even get to that if there if more people take responsibility for the raising of a baby. If we become more collectivist.

  4. Linz G says:

    Too right. Controlled crying might be necessary when you are without support, exhausted, ill and with PND.

  5. firsttimemum15 says:

    Unfortunately I feel that this article passes a huge amount of judgement on all mums who make a choice and that is not what other mums should be doing! As you say in your article, it’s all about support!
    I was desperate to breastfeed my baby (now 9wks old) but unfortunately, despite an extremely straight forward pregnancy, I developed pneumonia and several infections and was hospitalised 3 days before she was due. I had to have an emergency section under general anaesthetic, and was on various IV antibiotics for a while. My little girl was also in the NICU. Whilst I tried breastfeeding for 2 weeks, I wasn’t getting any better myself (mainly due to not having enough rest!) Also because I hadn’t been able to feed my daughter in those crucial first few days, I was expressing milk after every single feed meaning that I was awake for at least 22hrs of a day from the time we got home. I was miserable and felt guilty that I didn’t want to cuddle my child because any time she wasn’t feeding, I felt I should be expressing, or trying to get some rest.

    After 2.5 weeks it became too much, especially as my daughter was still drastically under her birth weight. My husband and I took the decision to bottle feed her, but because I didn’t have enough milk I had to combine feed. We continued with breast milk until she was 5wks old and now she is just on formula. I am much happier, and my daughter who was severely underweight and very unsettled has become a lovely, contented, weight-gaining girl. I’m not saying that it is impossible to breastfeed but I really think that you should not be the one passing judgement on all those mums who try and try, and then yes perhaps do decide to give up breastfeeding. Trust me, I felt terrible for ages…until I saw that my little girl was doing much better and was far happier herself once she had a happier, and calmer mummy,

    How about you write an article about how mums should support other mums, no matter how they choose to feed their baby? I love my daughter no less then you love your children, I’m positive.

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