“Have You Tried Having Your Nipples Tweaked?”

…And Other Pieces Of Unsolicited Advice To Ignore While Pregnant, And Beyond

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So, you’re pregnant. Congratulations! You are embarking on a magical journey of wonder, excitement, worry, and high anticipation. You’re also about to learn the most earth-shattering lesson a parent can know: You have a bun in the oven, so everybody else has an opinion. Not just your partner, not just your medical professional — everybody in the world has something to say about it, and most of it is nonsense.

Let’s take a whistle-stop tour of some prime, well-worn examples.

1. “I can tell it’s a girl by the way you’re carrying…”

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First of all, why is this person staring at a pregnant woman’s bump, hips, and backside? Truly, it is never more evident that your body is not your own than during the second and third trimesters of pregnancy. Not only has a strange person taken over inside, but outside, everyone is having a really good look at how you’re ‘progressing,’ and freely sharing their thoughts about it. And that’s without the daily requests to touch.

Second of all, what’s with the insistent discussion about the sex of an unborn child? Maybe you, the parents, already know the sex, and choose not to share that information. Maybe you don’t want to know at all, and would like to find out the age-old way of looking at the baby when it’s born. Either way, it doesn’t really concern anybody else, does it? Yes, there are parents that like to find out, and then make some kind of “announcement,” but that’s their prerogative.

In truth, there are only two reasons why someone other than the parents seeks to engage in speculation about the sex of an unborn child. One reason is so that they can feel self-satisfied after the birth announcement when they find out they were right, and the other reason is to project pre-conceived notions about sex and gender onto a person that hasn’t even arrived yet. Either way, that conversation is entirely about them and the effects of our sexist society, not the baby or its exacerbated parents.

2. “Make sure you massage that perineum!”

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Ah, another example of the world being all up in your business, just because you are with child. This pearl of wisdom comes from the idea that regular massage of the perineum (the area between the vulva and the anus) — preferably with olive oil, apparently — comes from the school of ‘tear prevention.’ That’s right, ladies. There is an argument that reaching down over that enormous, uncomfortable bump to rub olive oil into your secret garden will help ensure that your little bundle of joy doesn’t tear you a new one when they finally crawl out. The more flexible that area, the easier it will stretch, so they say.

But here’s my question: Isn’t that area already ‘flexible’? In an adult woman who enjoys a healthy diet and a healthy sex drive, doesn’t it already receive a lot of… massage? In one way and/or another, it really is a high traffic area under normal circumstances, isn’t it? Not to sound paranoid, but could this one have been concocted by the lotion/lube/olive oil industry? Because, with the best will in the world, you can rub litres of the stuff on there all day long, but if your baby is large, or happens to emerge arm first, it’s still going to look like they busted out using a chainsaw. Do your pelvic floor exercises, power through, and hope the person attending you is good at sewing.

3. “Moisturise, so you don’t get stretch-marks.”

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More opportunity for the lotion industry to profit from mothers-to-be. Rare is the woman who doesn’t get stretch marks while growing another human being inside their abdomen. Seriously — everything stretches. Tummy, thighs, bum, boobs… You could sleep in a vat of Aveeno, and still come out looking like a glistening tiger at the end — that’s just the way skin and pregnancy works.

And who, by the way, decided that we needed to spend valuable and precious mental energy and income trying to prevent stretch-marks? What makes stretch-marks such an egregious assault to our senses? Could it be that the sight of someone else’s stretch-marks is a threat to the perfectly manufactured ideal that we’re all encouraged to hold about the female form? Lest we forget, the world expects us to conceive, carry and birth actual people, before immediately returning to our pre-baby appearance, attitude, and availability, for the benefit of the male gaze.

Yes, that’s the expectation — and it is nonsense. Your body is forever changed, and post-pregnancy stretch-marks are simply external signs of the fact that you made a human. You earned every single one of those stripes.

4. “You have to give birth in a hospital, otherwise it’s irresponsible.”

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Repeat after me: You can give birth wherever you damn well please. Sure, the ante-natal care, post-natal care, and birthing services available to you will depend on a number of things — your location, being chief among them. In the United States Of America, for example, it will involve consideration of your health insurance, and income. But, make no mistake — you could be sat at the North Pole, and if this baby decides it’s time to arrive, then this baby will arrive. Outside of chemical intervention, contractions and amniotic fluid wait for no man.

That’s why this unsolicited piece of advice is among the most ridiculous. The only person that can make an informed decision about which place is the most ‘responsible’ to give birth, is you. You know what the status of your pregnancy is — the level of complication, and the need to factor in any additional considerations that may apply. Most importantly, you know where you will be comfortable. This is a huge factor in any birthing experience, because a comfortable, relaxed mother can greatly aid the passage of travel for the baby.

It’s true — leaps in medical science have afforded us the ability to facilitate labour and childbirth, with interventions and pain relief as necessary. But, at the same time, if medical interventions are not needed, why would anyone seek to limit a woman’s options? Medical science has evolved, but the physical process of a vaginal birth has not changed — so if you are complication-free and would rather squeeze your wee one out in a paddling pool in your lounge — or on a tarp in your garden under the stars for that matter — get the green light from your medical professionals and go for it.

5. “Have you tried having your nipples tweaked?”

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There I was, five days overdue with an 8lb 12oz baby — queuing to buy a kettle in a UK department store, in the middle of the 2004 heatwave.

“Gosh,” said the lady at the checkout. “You look ready to pop!”

“Yes,” I sighed, through gritted teeth. “I just want to get on with it now.”

“Have you tried having your nipples tweaked?” the man queuing behind me yelled, with the deepest sincerity. “They suggested that for us when my wife was overdue. Something to do with stimulating hormones, I think…”

While I fantasised, in that moment, about tearing his own nipples from his body with my bare, swollen hands, I simply could not summon the energy for more than a withering death-stare.

Really, my point here is two-fold. First, if a woman is heavily pregnant, I would strongly advise against going anywhere near her nipples unless she makes an explicit demand because, at that point, those things are their own science experiment — perched atop little lactation factories that are literally aching to leap into action. Her entire being is at its absolute limit — hormones, fluids, stress on joints and muscles, vocal fear of imminent labour, unspoken fear of motherhood, trying to figure out how the baby monitor works, suppressing doubt about the choice of colour for baby’s walls, panicking about not massaging the perineum enough — this is a woman on the edge. Do you — a random stranger — really want to suggest she let someone other than her midwife manhandle her body parts?

No. We all know that any moment now the function of her breasts is about to become central to public discourse, and central to her every waking thought — so just leave her nipples alone.

6. “Breast is best.”

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And that brings us tidily to this age-old adage. “Breast is best.” Except that it isn’t, necessarily.

Few things divide the people around a pregnant woman like the subject of breast-feeding. Some will be vehemently against it, while others will insist that if you don’t staple yourself to a nursing chair and persevere through blood, sweat and tears, then you have failed your child. You will find that these contrasting opinions are reflected in the media, and throughout pregnancy literature. But, all of this noise surrounding the issue serves to drown out the biggest lesson to be learned upon popping out an infant: Whichever option you choose, you will be shamed for it — so you may as well just go with your gut.

If you breastfeed, some of those that don’t will judge you for it. And that’s before you try and do it somewhere that is outside of your private home. The disapproval you will face for having the audacity to use your breasts for their actual purpose — as opposed to saying nothing while men sexualise them — will be swift and noticeable. But, guess what? Bottle-feed your infant, and you’ll incur the wrath of those that truly believe you are intentionally destroying your newborn’s immune system.

Is breast milk good for babies? Absolutely. Is formula good for babies? Also, absolutely. The question is, which allows the family unit to function best? Breast milk is great, but if it is not working for any of a million different reasons, the result can be a hungry child and a mentally and physically exhausted new mother — who is also riding hormonal tsunami after hormonal tsunami.

The bottom-line is: a well-nourished baby is best — whichever way a family chooses to achieve that. And it really is nobody else’s business.

7. “You have to wean them on the broadest range of foods, so they don’t turn into fussy eaters.”

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This is a notable candidate for ‘biggest lie ever told to new parents.’ You will read, and hear, reams and reams of advice about weaning to avoid fussiness in later life — but here’s the truth: You can spend hours steaming, pureeing and freezing as many different kinds of organic fruit and veg as you like. Children’s tastes change over time, and if they are going to be ‘fussy,’ they will be. Their flexibility with regard to ‘trying new things’ can be affected by a myriad of factors — not just the broad range of produce you spoon feed them in infancy.

But, there’s a bigger question here. Why do we place so much emphasis on the avoidance of ‘fussy eating’? Sure, there can be implications in terms of the provision of a balanced diet, but there are ways and means of ensuring this, even for the fussiest eater. It can be tricky at first, but these things often move in phases, and your child’s preferences will shift with age. However you start weaning the kid, you will be tearing our hair out over one feeding issue or another soon enough — while someone nearby sits in silent judgement, or offers pointless, unsolicited advice.

After all is said and done, when it comes to your child’s gut, trust yours.

8. “Young children should be in rear-facing pushchairs, so the person pushing can talk to them.”

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That’s right — as your newborn grows into infancy and beyond, even your choice of pushchair is a subject for public debate. If you stroll around with your child facing outwards, you are apparently actively limiting the opportunity for teaching speech and vocabulary. If you stroll around with your child facing toward you, you are depriving your child of the chance to view the wider world.

There are few more ridiculous things to say to a parent, though, since this comment works on the assumption that the only time a parent speaks to their child is when they are pushing them in a pushchair. It is entirely possible, for example, that a parent has spent all morning conversing with their child, face-to-face, about all manner of subjects, and this delightful stroll is a chance to mix things up a bit, and give the poor youngling an opportunity to look at something other than that particular face; to listen to things other than that particular voice.

Indeed, some folks with opinions on parenting are all about providing a breadth of experience in weaning foods, but heaven forfend you let the child experience something other than conversation with you. It’s almost as if it’s more about shaming people than helping a child.

9. “Sticker charts are great for toilet training.”

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You know what’s actually great for toilet training? Whatever works for your individual child. You know how you figure out what that is? Trial and error. Parenting was never going to be simple. You read all those books thinking they would have all the answers and perhaps some useful hints and tips, but then the little rascal finally appeared, and very little of what they do reflects what you were told to expect. The same is true of the toilet training phase.

There are so many factors that combine to dictate when your child will stop needing nappies. Their age, their physical development, the family routine, their diet, the way they process sensory stimuli, sometimes even the weather. The only thing that holds true for most is that “they’ll let you know when they’re ready.” Perhaps your child will respond as desired to the positive reinforcement of a sticker chart, but perhaps you should try some cost-free strategies first. You might be pleasantly surprised.

10. “You have to limit their screen time.”

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You don’t have to “limit their screen time,” you just have to make other interesting activities available as well. Introduce them to books, sports, arts and crafts, construction, friends, and exploring the world. Do you have a hobby that doesn’t involve looking at a screen? Share it with your child. If children have genuine interests other than screen-based activities, they will balance their time.

The negativity that swirls around children and technology really says more about the older generation than it does children. Just because we didn’t use smart-phones when we were young, doesn’t mean they’re a terrible thing that should be stamped out whenever possible. Making your child live out your exact experience of childhood is not the goal. If your child has a different experience, that doesn’t reflect poorly on yours. Do bad things happen online? Yes, of course. But, bad things probably happened in the park when you were a child, too. The point is to teach your child how to handle bad things when they happen — online, or in the real world.

Technology plays a far bigger role in our daily lives now than it ever has done before. Schools rely on it far more heavily — as do colleges and universities. When your infant has grown to adulthood, and is seeking gainful employment, there will be technologies at play that haven’t even been invented yet — and they will need the skills to use them. That’s why it is imperative that they have the opportunity to interact with technology as they develop — just not to the exclusion of literally everything else in the world. That’s where you come in. It is true that most children will sit in front of a screen forever if there is nothing more interesting to do — so give them access to more interesting things, and there will be no need to purposefully “limit their screen time.”

You may have noticed three patterns here. You may have noticed that parents will face criticism and negativity whichever choices they make. You may have also noticed that those criticisms usually reflect the insecurities other people have about their own experiences.

Overwhelmingly, you probably noticed that people feel comfortable issuing unsolicited advice about the bodies of women, especially when those women are pregnant — as if the presence of a new person inside means that everyone is invited. As if the act of bearing a child equates to setting a sign out front announcing ‘Open House.’ As if the future of this unborn child is in everyone’s hands, not just those of the parents.

When pregnancy is involved, boundaries become a vague, strange concept to many people, which is arguably an extension of the social attitude toward the reproductive system of women. The same way that governments are so keen to legislate the same, while failing to adequately fund research and advancement in women’s health; expecting access to women’s bodies and reproductive systems, while taxing women’s sanitary products.

Everybody loves a woman using her womb to make a person, but nobody wants to hear about monthly menstruation. Everybody loves sexualising the female form, but plenty want to stop women from breastfeeding in public. Everybody wants women to reproduce, but plenty of people want to stop them having a choice about how and where to do it. Society pressures women into having babies, then pressures them into trying to look like they never had any babies at all, after the fact.

Just as with everything else in life, women are shamed for their choices, and people will always hand them pointless, unsolicited advice about it. Pregnancy is the most important time to tune it all out. Tune it all out, and go with your gut. That’s the only non-medical advice you need.