Online groups and accounts can offer helpful support, but can also create unrealistic expectations about what pregnancy or parenting is like.

woman on cell phoneShare on Pinterest
Illustration by Alyssa Kiefer

Ah, Social media. We all use it — or at least most of us do.

Our feeds are full of our friends’ posts, memes, videos, news, ads, and influencers. Every social media algorithm tries to work its magic to show us what they think we want. And sometimes they get it right. Other times, though, they don’t.

For expecting parents, social media can be a double-edged sword. It can be an amazing resource to join parenting groups or follow accounts with pregnancy-related information, but it can also create unrealistic expectations about what pregnancy or parenting is like.

“I think it’s super toxic” says Molly Miller,* a millennial mom-to-be. “I think when you’re on social media all the time you just get so obsessed with what people are doing and comparing yourself and it’s too much.”

We all feel this. We’ve heard the saying that social media is just a highlight reel, only showing the perfectly crafted moments people want us to see. It doesn’t show the full picture of life — which can give us a warped sense of what other peoples’ lives are like.

When it comes to pregnancy and parenting, social media can add another layer of anxiety as parents try to navigate how to best care for themselves and their children. Seeing endless picture-perfect images of new parents and their babies can make it feel like there’s some ideal that you’re not reaching, when that’s really not the case.

“I don’t think it’s realistic. A lot of times it’s celebrities posting about their pregnancies. I don’t have a personal trainer, I don’t have a chef at home making me all of these nutritious meals,” says Miller.

These unrealistic ideals have even been studied by researchers in the United Kingdom. Joanne Mayoh, PhD, senior lecturer in sport physical activity and health at Bournemouth University, recently published research diving into how social media communicates these unrealistic expectations for pregnant women.

“Instagram reproduces very homogenous images, especially of bodies. … It’s one type of body, it’s a thin white woman on a beach doing yoga, drinking a smoothie,” Mayoh says.

In her research, Mayoh found that many posts try to showcase the
“perfect pregnancy” by showcasing luxurious products and filtered photos of their pregnant bellies. Her research noted that posts often lacked diversity, leaving out the voices of people of color and members of the LGBTQIA+ community.

For expecting moms like Miller, these findings aren’t all that surprising. It’s pretty easy to find these themes in your own feed, which can cause a lot of anxiety for new parents.

“I feel like a lot of times on Instagram people will treat their babies as an accessory rather than an actual human that they have to take care of,” says Miller.

While conducting her research, Mayoh discovered a movement of women trying to change the social media narrative surrounding pregnancy.

“It was almost like backlash — women using Instagram as a space to rework and reproduce the dominant ideology to show really explicit and overt images of pregnancy and childbirth. [I wanted to] challenge the idea that [pregnancy is a] glossy, gleaming, perfect experience,” says Mayoh.

Of course we’re all excited to hear about strong women coming together to normalize real pregnancy moments — but some people believe that women are posting these raw moments just to boost their social profiles and gain popularity online.

“Are they really posting to help other people or are they posting for likes and fame?” questions Miller.

Well, according to Mayoh, even if women are posting for likes and fame, it’s really not a big deal. “It doesn’t matter because they’re being shared. We need to talk about postnatal depression, and we need to talk about miscarriage, and we need to talk about traumatic birth, and anything that encourages women to talk about that is a really positive thing and normalizes it,” she says.

Though it might be easier said than done, Mayoh says the trick to using social media in a healthy way is to ensure you’re curating your feeds to include content that makes you feel good about you and your pregnancy.

Here are some tips, in part from the National Alliance on Mental Illness, for curating your feed and maintaining a healthier relationship with social media:

  • Take a step back and look at the accounts you follow and how they make you feel.
  • Avoid filling your feeds entirely with “picture-perfect” pregnancy and parenting posts.
  • Try to include accounts that show what pregnancy and parenthood are really like. (Hint: We like @hlparenthood).
  • Feel empowered to unfollow or mute accounts that aren’t working for you right now.
  • Consider reducing your time spent on social media platforms or even taking a break from them completely.

Social media is notorious for making us compare ourselves to others. For new and expecting parents, this can be a source of unnecessary added stress during an already stressful time.

If you’re starting to feel like social media is messing with your self-esteem or overall happiness, it might be a good idea to take a step back and make some changes to your social feeds or habits.

It might be overwhelming at first, but making the right changes can help you find some relief and start developing a healthier relationship with social media and — more importantly — yourself.

* Name changed at request for anonymity