The Unicorn Baby: Debunking Parenting Myths

Child Magazine editor, Anél Lewis, chatted to Cape Town-based occupational therapist, Roxanne Atkinson, about her new book, The Unicorn Baby. 

Roxanne Atkinson
Roxanne Atkinson, author of The Unicorn Baby

I wish that someone had told me, during my first pregnancy, that having a baby would look nothing like the magazine articles and parenting books we were voraciously reading. Nothing really prepares you for those first few weeks, when your sole focus is keeping a tiny human being alive while trying to squeeze your postpartum belly into the biggest pair of trousers you can find, at the same time trying to stop your milk from staining the T-shirt that has not been washed for five days. 

Parenting is a rollercoaster – made easier only with the knowledge that you are not alone, and that no baby is perfect. There is no such thing as a “Unicorn Baby that poops rainbows and pees pure gold”, says occupational therapist Roxanne Atkinson explains.  In her newly-released book, The Unicorn Baby, Roxanne takes parents on a rollicking ride with her disarmingly honest and helpful guide to the first year.  The information that is easily understandable, and provides much comfort to anxious parents who think that they are doing everything wrong. “I wanted parents to know that having a baby is hard. They should not feel that they are bad parents, or carry unnecessary anxiety,” she said.

She admitted that even though she works with babies, she felt completely unprepared when having her own. “It was a shock to the system. I wish someone had said that it would be okay to not love every minute of being a mother.” She said the book therefore highlights the ‘different seasons” of parenting, which is a welcome reminder that many of the challenges that arise, especially during the first year, will pass. 

Sleep is a recurring concern raised by parents, and one of the 10 myths Roxanne debunks in the book. 

Myth: You must teach your baby to sleep through the night.

Reality: There is no magic formula that will make your baby sleep through the night, no matter what you do. 

Recognising that many of her readers will be in the throes of sleep training, and sleep-deprived themselves, Roxanne has cleverly written the book in such a way that a parent can easily jump around and search for relevant information.

The good news is that Roxanne is already contemplating a follow-up, The Unicorn Toddler. I can’t wait to see what she has to say about potty training and the delightful “terrible twos”. 

See below for a sneak peek from the book, The Unicorn Baby, Published by Jonathan Ball Publishers

If you read books or search the Internet for parenting tips you will most likely stumble across the mythical Unicorn Baby. This is the baby who feeds every four hours, sleeps through the night and poops rainbows. Didn’t get one of these? Don’t worry, neither did clinical occupational therapist and author of The Unicorn Baby, Roxanne Atkinson.

What is a Unicorn Baby?

 If you have read a few baby books or searched the Internet for parenting tips, you have most likely stumbled across the mythical Unicorn Baby. This baby is said to pee pure gold and poop rainbows. While most parents have heard about the Unicorn Baby, few have ever seen one.

The Unicorn Baby is elusive, so it may be easier to spot the parents of the Unicorn Baby. These parents will be looking good and claiming to feel great. This is largely because the Unicorn Baby has not changed their lives. Their Unicorn Baby has fitted seamlessly into the ideal routine as prescribed by an accredited, opinionated person. Their babies have breastfed with ease every four hours and, of course, slept through the night since they were six weeks old. Their Unicorn Baby grows and develops above the 50th percentile, leaving very little for their parents to work on or worry about.

These parents attribute their baby’s success to their superior parenting practices, as well as the stimulation classes that are sure to turn their Unicorn Baby into an even more super baby. This will be the baby who not only hits their developmental milestones on time, but smashes them out of the park. They will go on to speak four languages thanks to a fabulous foreign language app.

Whether this baby exists or not does not really matter. What does matter is this: apparently, you did not get this baby. And that is probably why you are reading this book.

I believe the Unicorn Baby has risen to fame through a relatively new parenting phenomenon – online comparison. This generation of parents is the first to use both parenting books and online parenting advice that is available 24/7 via the Internet. Today’s parents can gather data anywhere at any time about babies who are exactly the same age in weeks as their own baby. The Unicorn Baby has become the gold standard to which every other baby is compared, resulting in babies who are labelled as good or difficult based on unrealistic and at times even harmful expectations.

Parents seem to start with high expectations of themselves and then transfer these to their babies. With an insatiable appetite for (mis)information, parents can find themselves with a long list of dos and an even longer list of don’ts.

The lie is that you, too, can create your very own Unicorn Baby if only you follow certain parenting tips. Online articles and parenting books will describe a few easy steps that promise amazing short-term results, such as:

  1. Your baby will sleep through the night.
  2. Your baby will feed only every four hours.
  3. Your baby will be able to fall asleep without you.
  4. Your baby will play by themselves peacefully.
  5. Your baby will learn to self-soothe.

You will be tempted to buy into these programmes because every parent wants their baby to feed less often, sleep more and fit in with their life. While this may or may not make parenting easier in the short term, it will definitely make parenting your baby more difficult in the long term. The reality is that there is no such thing as the perfect baby – and, equally, there is no such thing as the perfect parent or the perfect family or the perfect routine.

The many myths of modern parenting depend on the following central lie: if your baby does not comply with modern parenting norms, then there is something wrong – either with your baby or with your parenting. This is based on the assumption that all babies are born the same. They are all born a blank slate, void of any preference or personality, and so it is your job as the parent to programme them and make them comply. If the baby is not complying then it means that the parents have done something wrong and the baby has not been programmed correctly.

Perhaps the parents have not followed the right plan from the beginning? Perhaps they have been too undisciplined at implementing a good routine or have given in to their baby’s cries, creating a baby who expects their needs to be met all day and night? The baby has a problem and must be ‘fixed’.

Parents want as much success in their home life as they may have had in their work life. For them, the stakes are high and they do not want to get anything wrong. However, this only causes a heightened sense of fear and anxiety.

How does this generation of parents sort through the noise? Many find themselves parenting in isolation: living and working far away from their families and the environments in which they themselves were raised. Many are juggling a career with raising a child or two, and simply don’t have the time they need to wait for their baby to ‘grow out of it’.

Debunking the myths

If you have often asked yourself the question, ‘Is this normal?’ with regards to your baby, then this book is for you. It offers parents a chance to understand their baby’s biology and how it drives development. There is variation within the normal range, and this should be celebrated rather than feared.

How do you make your baby perfect for you? You don’t. You choose to accept them for who they are just as they accept you for the parents you are. You get to know them – all of them – the good, the bad and the ugly. Just as they get to know all of you – the good, the bad and the ugly.

You get to know how they like to feed, fall asleep and be held. They get to know how you like to live, receive love and interact with them. Successful parenting is not about showing love only on special occasions (although these are pretty cool for any kid); it is showing children that they matter in many, very small moments over many years.

I decided to write this book before my own parenting glasses become too rose-tinted and while my clinical practice is still full of atypical babies that drive home the message again and again that Unicorn Babies are hard to find and that there are many variations of what is ‘normal’.

My aim is to help all new parents discover that their baby is fearfully and wonderfully made. Yes, you should have equal parts of fear and wonder as you parent this ever-changing, ever-growing little being. I want to give you a biological and developmental road map of your baby that will hopefully help to point you in the right direction.

Development is a dance between biology and experience. Some babies will require more experience to learn than others. The golden rule is to respectfully introduce your baby to a wider variety of sensorimotor experiences, watching and waiting as their development unfolds.

Almost all babies will have an area of development that is tricky for them, be it sleep, feeding, talking, or teething. Oh, except for the Unicorn Baby, of course. The Unicorn Baby develops without exposure. The Unicorn Baby never fails. In fact, the Unicorn Baby does not rely on biology!

With that in mind, it is time to explore some of the myths of modern parenthood. Each myth can be read independently, so if you are more interested in one area than another, go ahead and jump around.

My hope is that, as you unpack each myth and replace it with its corresponding biological and developmental realities, you will feel more prepared. You will gain insight into and appreciation for your baby and your role as a parent. You will celebrate your baby’s uniqueness, whether they have been born a Unicorn or not.

There has never been, and never will be, another baby just like yours.

Read more myths surrounding mothering.