You open Facebook and see a video of a friend’s 7-month-old baby crawling up a storm. Then you click on a celebrity’s Instagram story and watch their toddler talk to the camera in crystal-clear sentences. You scroll for a bit on TikTok and come across a post from an influencer sharing tips about how they taught their little one to read before kindergarten.
If these situations frequently leave you feeling down about your parenting skills or your kid’s development, you may be dealing with what psychiatrist Dr. Anisha Patel-Dunn, chief medical officer at LifeStance Health, calls “motherhood milestone FOMO” — though dads aren’t immune to it either.
Milestone FOMO (fear of missing out) is the tendency to compare and despair when it comes to our parenthood journeys, constantly looking over our shoulders — both online and IRL — to see how we stack up to the families around us. It’s not unusual to feel this way, especially as a first-time parent, said Patel-Dunn.
“This can be everything from announcing your pregnancy to your postpartum experience to your child taking their first steps,” she said.
The pressure to hit certain milestones by a certain time or in a certain way is not new, but it is much more pronounced in the age of social media, Patel-Dunn said. Today, you’re able to measure your family against so many more people than you ever would have previously.
“If your experience is not matching up with what you see friends, family or celebrities experiencing online, it’s not uncommon to feel some degree of stress or anxiety that you’re falling behind or not on the ‘right’ track,” Patel-Dunn said.
These days, parents are “bombarded with so much information” and often “get inconsistent messages,” Ann-Louise Lockhart, a pediatric psychologist and parent coach at A New Day Pediatric Psychology, told HuffPost.
“If their child isn’t developing certain skills or abilities, parents are riddled with guilt that they’re doing something wrong or that there’s something wrong with their child,” she said.
“It’s not uncommon to feel some degree of stress or anxiety that you’re falling behind or not on the ‘right’ track.”
Know that when it comes to hitting developmental milestones — things like walking, talking and getting dressed — there’s a wide range of “normal.” As health economist Emily Oster wrote in her February 2022 ParentData newsletter: “By and large, the exact speed of development in these areas has relatively little predictive power for long-term outcomes.”
That means that, in many cases, your child may just be on the later end of the typical window and will reach the benchmark on their own time. In other cases, not meeting a milestone by a certain age may be an indication that there’s a developmental delay. If you have any concerns, don’t hesitate to bring them up with your pediatrician. The doctor can do a screening, give you a referral to a specialist for further evaluation and connect you with early intervention services in your area, if needed. If your pediatrician isn’t worried, but you still have concerns, you can always get another opinion.
Kendra Williams is a motherhood coach who has dealt with the effects of milestone FOMO both professionally and personally. In her coaching business, she has noticed that mothers, particularly those who are successful in their careers, often interpret a slower-to-be-reached milestone like “failing a review or not getting a job.”
“I usually hear they’ve worked hard their whole life and have always been good at what they put effort into, so if their child isn’t hitting a milestone, it must be a shortcoming on their part,” she told HuffPost. “This is a beautiful entry point to introduce conscious parenting and the concept that our children are not extensions of us so we can’t use their successes or failures as our own.”
In her own life, Williams said experiencing delayed milestones with one of her children, who she later learned was neurodivergent, was “the ultimate fuel for my anxiety tank.”
“The double fear that something was wrong with my child and something was wrong with me,” Williams said. “The constant searching for signs of the milestone to be met and constant mental search for clues that I had somehow messed up in pregnancy or, even worse, that I was not a good mom and not supporting him well enough.”
So what can you do if you’re feeling “behind” as a parent?
First, know that “everyone’s parenthood experience is going to look vastly different, and that’s OK,” Patel-Dunn said.
One tip that might help: Cut back on your social media use. If you feel stressed out, anxious or down after scrolling through your feed, that’s a sign you may benefit from spending less time on these apps.
“You can also try unfollowing any accounts that may bring up these challenging emotions,” she said.
And keep in mind that people are often posting “the absolute best highlights of their lives” online. “It’s not a realistic depiction of their actual day-to-day experience.”
For example, a child who appears to be hitting all of their physical milestones early may not be as advanced verbally. But you wouldn’t necessarily know that based on what the parents choose to share online.
Consider also reducing the amount of parenting content you’re consuming in general — not just on social media — to tune out some of the noise that can lead to patterns of self-doubt.
Lockhart said that many of her parent-coaching clients “read books from fantastic professionals, listen to great podcasts, attend parent summits, and follow quality social media accounts.”
“However, just as parents have different approaches to raising kids, professionals have different opinions too,” she said. “Parents will hear things from people they admire, respect, and like, and it will sound like the advice from professionals conflicts with one another.”
It doesn’t mean one expert’s take is right and the other is wrong, she explained. They’re just different approaches. But these divergent perspectives can be “extremely confusing for parents,” Lockhart said. Find an approach that resonates with you, aligns with your family goals and then “resist the need to consume more information.”
Patel-Dunn also “strongly encourages” opening up to your friends and family about the milestone FOMO you’re feeling.
“Chances are, they have been there and can serve as a great sounding board for what you’re going through,” she said.
Speaking with a therapist is also a good way to process your emotions “in a safe, non-judgmental space.”
“A licensed mental health professional can also help you identify healthy coping techniques and tools to leverage when these challenging situations arise.”