Becoming Confident in Parenting Abilities | Child & Family Blog
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Becoming Confident in Parenting Abilities

By Gizem Samdan and , Tilman Reinelt and , | May 2024 

Parental self-efficacy is the first step to a good parent-child relationship and can be enhanced by a supportive environment.

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Key takeaways for caregivers

  1. Parental self-efficacy (i.e., a parent’s confidence in their own ability to care for their infant and respond to the infant’s needs) is the first step to a good parent-child relationship.
  2. Research has explored the development of maternal self-efficacy beginning during pregnancy and continuing after childbirth.
  3. Mothers who have previous childbirth and parenting experience or who live in a supportive environment have higher levels of self-efficacy in parenting after childbirth than do mothers without experience or support. A supportive environment might include access to professionals for relevant advice or family and friends for emotional support.
  4. Attending classes on preparing for birth or childrearing can support the development of parental self-efficacy during pregnancy.

This article will explore the four following topics in becoming a confident parent:

  1. Finding self-efficacy in the transition to (re)parenthood
  2. What is self-efficacy and why is it important?
  3. Social support and sociodemographic factors relate to parental self-efficacy
  4. Mothers’ reports of their social support and maternal self-efficacy

1) Finding self-efficacy in the transition to (re)parenthood

In a study we conducted of new mothers, one mother described her early experiences with her baby in these words: “… somehow, he was only crying, and that’s normal, but he was really extreme; well he’s not a baby for beginners, that’s what my midwife said, and uhm, yeah, I don’t know, he was actually only crying and we were really at our limits…”

A new parent lacking confidence

The challenges of becoming a parent can often be unique to the individual. Photo by Ron Lach on Pexels.

Becoming a parent is often a joyful process, but it also comes with challenges. Apart from the physical changes of childbirth and recovery, the transition to parenthood is characterized by behavioral and psychological challenges, such as acquiring new caretaking skills and adapting to a new role. Once the infant is born, parents typically experience a lack of sleep and an increased workload; they need to change their daily routines or even their overall lifestyle.

Describing this stage, another mother said, “… the beginning, the first four weeks, they were really hard, because he always woke up at night, cried, didn’t want to sleep for two hours, made me totally exhausted, and I’m such a person, I absolutely need sleep and food, … then one just can’t go anymore, … talk anymore…”

Not all parents experience the transition to parenthood in the same way

But not all parents experience the transition to parenthood in this way. Among the factors that influence a mother’s adaptation to parenthood are prenatal expectations, social support, the quality of her partnership with the baby’s father, previous parenting experiences, characteristics of the infant, mental health, and stress. During this process, parental role and parental self-efficacy are shaped, and both play a key role in later parenting behaviors and the parent-infant-relationship. In this article, we focus on parental self-efficacy in mothers.

… the beginning, the first four weeks, they were really hard, because he always woke up at night, cried, didn’t want to sleep for two hours, made me totally exhausted, and I’m such a person, I absolutely need sleep and food, … then one just can’t go anymore, … talk anymore…

2) What is parental self-efficacy and why is it important?

Parental self-efficacy refers to a parent’s confidence in their ability to care for their child and meet the child’s needs. Worldwide, higher levels of parental self-efficacy are associated with better home learning environments, stronger parent-child relationships, and healthier child development (e.g., better social skills, fewer internalizing and externalizing behaviors). Even though the role of fathers in this context is beginning to be recognized in many Anglo-American and European countries, mothers remain the primary focus when considering the months before and after childbirth because they are the primary caregivers most of the time.

Supporting women early in this stage to increase their beliefs of maternal self-efficacy may have long-term positive effects for both mothers and children. Such support appears to be particularly important for children from disadvantaged populations (e.g., children of parents with low levels of education, low incomes, or migrant backgrounds) who may lack the resources and knowledge to create enriching environments.

3) Social support and sociodemographic factors relate to parental self-efficacy

Multiple studies show that a lack of social support during the prenatal period increases the risk of not adapting well to parenthood. However, several sociodemographic factors make pregnant women less likely to receive such support, and therefore also make those women more likely to struggle with low levels of parental self-efficacy. For example, pregnant mothers who do not live in their country of origin often have smaller social networks and are more likely than native residents to experience social isolation during pregnancy. That social isolation, in turn, can contribute to mothers’ lack of confidence in their new role.

For first-time mothers, especially, this new role is a substantial change. Many feel less competent as parents than do mothers who have children and therefore have had experience with childbirth and parenting. As a result, many first-time mothers find it more difficult to adapt to the maternal role, according to a study in Portugal. 

A new parent becoming more confident

Finding confidence as a mother can be as challenging as it can be rewarding. Photo by William Fortunato on Pexels.

4) Mothers’ reports of their social support and maternal self-efficacy

Together with our collaborators, we conducted a study to explore sociodemographic factors and relations between mothers’ social support and maternal self-efficacy during the transition from pregnancy to (re-)motherhood. Even though parental efficacy/confidence develops during pregnancy through the child-related preparations, expectations, and experiences, most studies focus on the postnatal period, neglecting the period when self-efficacy in parenting develops. In addition, studies have tended to be conducted with participants of high socioeconomic background in Western societies.

In this study, we interviewed 292 mothers (between 18 and 47 years old) living in disadvantaged neighborhoods in a medium-sized city in Germany. The status of “disadvantaged” was based on at least one parent meeting one or more of these requirements: low levels of education (no formal schooling beyond secondary school or no vocational school), low family income (unemployed or low-wage earner), or being an immigrant or child of an immigrant. We spoke to them both before and after delivery, asking about their demographic information (e.g., education level, migration background, previous childbirth experience), how well they felt supported by their social environment, and whether they participated in professional social support programs (e.g., birth preparation or parenting classes). We measured their sense of parental self-efficacy using an established questionnaire, with questions targeting mothers’ beliefs about their own parenting knowledge and associated feelings.

Our findings

Although the regions where the mothers in our study lived offered free support programs for all pregnant women and women with young children, only about half took advantage of these services. These were mostly first-time mothers and mothers without a migration background. Not only were these mothers more likely to seek formal support, but they also benefited the most from participating in such programs, showing the greatest increases in maternal self-efficacy/confidence between pregnancy and the early months after childbirth.

Our suggestions

Based on our findings, communities should make sure that expectant mothers are informed about the social support programs and classes that are available and we should encourage them to participate. For instance, in Germany, many municipalities offer prenatal and postnatal support programs for mothers free of charge. In these programs, mothers can get to know each other, share experiences and engage in peer mentoring, and receive information from a professional (e.g., midwife). These types of programs are promising ways to increase maternal self-efficacy, which can then have long-term positive effects on both parenting practices and children’s behavior.

Confident parents

Support programs that demonstrate success in improving parenting confidence are becoming increasingly popular. Photo by RDNE Stock project on Pexels.

Municipalities should increase efforts to ensure that all mothers can access these kinds of services. Making the programs free is one step; however, communicating about the programs and making them accessible to a diverse network of women and families involves further steps. For example, some foreign-born mothers, especially those who have recently immigrated, do not know about these services, and many are hesitant to participate because of language barriers. However, although the first step may be difficult, many mothers who participate report that these programs can be both enjoyable and helpful in terms of gaining parenting knowledge and confidence.

By connecting women to accessible support programs, communities can pave the way for a healthy parent-child relationship and help give each child the best possible start in life.

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