What to Do When You Feel Like a Bad Parent to Your Baby

A person holds a baby while looking upset (What to Do When You Feel Like a Bad Parent)

Verywell / Alison Czinkota

When I first held my newborn girl in the hospital, it was love at first sight. I truly thought parenting this sweet baby would be a piece of cake. I had taken care of many babies over the years and the basic tasks of diapering, feeding, and putting a baby to bed seemed like they would be a snap with my very own baby. I felt well-prepared and confident. In the hospital, it was easy, as she slept and fed well.

Flash forward a few days and I was sleep-deprived, with engorged breasts, sore nipples, and no idea what I was doing. My baby was having trouble latching and didn't want to sleep unless she was in my arms. I went from a confident, joyful new mom to doubting my ability to parent in a blink of an eye. I felt I had no idea what to do to make her happy, let alone keep her fed and well-rested.

Luckily, time and ample support from my husband, sisters, and parents—and a few naps—worked wonders. As did timely appointments with a kind, knowledgeable lactation consultant and my baby's no-nonsense, experienced pediatrician, both of whom helped me trust in my parenting instincts and get back on the right track. It really helped to know that lots of new parents struggle at first, as well.

In fact, it's very common to question your parenting or even to feel like your new baby doesn't like you. If you're feeling like less than parent-of-the-year, know that these emotions are normal and don't make you a bad parent in the slightest—even if you sometimes feel like one.

Why Do I Feel Like a Bad Parent?

Both you and your baby are learning, getting to know each other, and discovering how to take care of each other. Lack of sleep, recovering from pregnancy and childbirth, and adjusting to being a parent all take time to get through and get used to. Soon enough, you'll be in sync and much of caring for your baby may begin to feel automatic.

The truth is that being a new parent is hard and new parents often feel overwhelmed and out of their element. "You may be surprised to know that most parents have self-doubt," says Elizabeth Moorhouse Sperry, LCSW at Northwestern Medicine Central DuPage Hospital.

They're tired, hungry, possibly sore (from childbirth, a C-section, and/or nursing), and have just been handed a newborn that they suddenly need to tend to 24 hours a day. It's normal to question whether you are doing a good job or even to feel that you're destined to fail, explains Sperry. These feelings tend to be especially prevalent in the postpartum period when new parents are most susceptible to the baby blues and postpartum depression.

There's a steep learning curve to parenting, so it's common to worry about not being able to read or address your baby's needs at first while you're figuring them out. This communication gap can make you feel like a "bad parent." In particular, parents can be more prone to discouragement, frustration, and self-doubt if their baby tends to cry a lot, has trouble nursing or bottle feeding, or has other health complications that make their care more challenging.

Many parents have feelings that can be categorized as a depressed or anxious mood. "Approximately one in seven mothers and one in 10 fathers experience depression or anxiety following childbirth, and during the first year of a child’s life," says Sperry. Additionally, the prevalence of these conditions is even higher for parents who are also dealing with stressful life events, such as financial worries, a limited support system, or relationship conflict, says Sperry. 

While there are many situations that may make a parent feel like they are doing a bad job, it's worth noting that all parents go through difficult patches. Even more importantly, struggling a bit as a new parent does not mean you aren't a good parent—or that your baby isn't thriving. However, studies show that parenting confidence is a factor in providing successful childcare, so it is important to trust in your ability to nurture your baby.

How Can I Address My Feelings of Guilt or Shame?

Beyond just knowing that it's common to question your parenting or feel inadequate at times, you'll also want to deal with any negative emotions as they come up. "As a parent, it is natural to feel at times that you could improve your parenting," says Sperry. The key is to give yourself grace, know it takes time to get into a good rhythm, and most importantly, don't strive for perfection.

Have Patience

Don't expect to have everything running smoothly from the first day you bring your baby home. "Be patient with yourself as you assume your role as a parent. There is much to learn!" says Sperry. "Parenting changes your life in ways that you could not have imagined." Accept that it takes time to adjust to major life events and to develop your own parenting style.

"Babies cannot verbalize what they need, which can be very frustrating," says Sperry. The truth is that it takes time to decipher their specific cues for hunger, comfort, sleep, distress, and diaper changes. This does not make you an unfit parent. It's normal not to know exactly what your baby wants or needs every time, particularly in the newborn stage.

With time, you will get to know your baby's signals. Note that some babies simply cry or fuss more often—and this isn't a reflection of your parenting. In fact, approximately, one in five infants experience colic or prolonged, intense unexplained periods of crying, typically in the evening hours. If your baby has colic, it's not your fault. Consult their pediatrician if you have concerns about their crying, but often you'll simply need to wait out their tears while tending to their (and your) basic needs.

It can be hard not to get discouraged when your efforts to soothe your baby don't seem to work. Keep trying various techniques, such as swaddling, diaper changes, feeding, burping, or holding your baby. Know that these rough patches will pass. Often, parenting, and taking care of a baby, in particular, is just harder and more stressful than expected. Plus, we may not have 100% to give at all times. Adjust your expectations—there is no such thing as a perfect parent.

"Know that each and every parent makes mistakes at times," says Sperry. However, as long as you are giving your baby love and caring for their basic needs, you are doing fine.

Ask for Help

The postpartum period is a time of recovery and transition that can be very stressful, emotional, and trying. Reaching out for help is an effective way to cope. Even just talking to another adult about the struggles or doubts you are having can be useful and therapeutic.

All parents both need and deserve support, understanding, and compassion. "Reaching out for help is a sign of strength," says Sperry. "You are not alone." Plus, there are often many people out there who are more than willing to help—you just need to ask. "Allowing others to help you will actually benefit them as well. They will receive gratification in knowing they have done something useful to help."

Practice Self-Care

"You can cope more effectively if you practice your own self-care and take care of your own physical and mental health," says Sperry. Some effective ways to do this include sleeping when you can, such as when your baby naps, eating healthy foods, and allowing others to send you gift cards for meals or make a trip to the grocery store for you, suggests Sperry.   

"Do activities that you enjoy to get breaks from parenting when needed; even 15 minutes to yourself every day will have restorative benefits," says Sperry. This might be talking on the phone with a friend, watching a TV show, making yourself a nice snack, going for a walk, or even just taking a shower.

"Nurturing yourself helps you not only endure the demands of parenting but enjoy time with your children as well," says Sperry.

Am I Harming My Baby?

Many new parents worry that they may inadvertently harm their baby. You might worry that you will drop them, not change their diaper in time to prevent a diaper rash, or not feed them enough. Usually, these worries are just worries, but if you have any concerns, check in with your baby's pediatrician who can advise you on any concerns you have.

However, for parents that are experiencing postpartum depression or other stressors, it can be harder to take care of themselves and their babies. Sometimes, parents can get overwhelmed and struggle to provide responsive, safe parenting. In these cases, your baby may be at risk for inadequate childcare.

"Pay attention to your feelings and get help if you experience feelings of anger or irritability, a lack of interest in parenting, a lack of attachment to your child, changes in your appetite (eating too much or too little), changes in sleep pattern (sleeping too much or too little), excessive worry or sadness that prevents you from enjoying time with your child, and feelings of guilt or shame," says Sperry.

Most importantly, feelings of hopelessness or any thoughts of harming yourself are your child require immediate attention, says Sperry. Ask for help from family and friends when you need it and contact your healthcare provider to get treatment.

If you are having thoughts of harming yourself or your baby, you should call 911 immediately and seek emergency care. You also can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988.

A Word From Verywell

Babies are adorable but parenting can be difficult—and leave you feeling like you're not doing a good job. However, these bumps, missteps, and moments of frustration don't make you a bad parent, just one who wants the best for your baby and might need a break to reset. Trust in your instincts and know that doing the best you can is all you need to do.

12 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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