Having a baby is hard, and with COVID-19 in the mix, life with a little one can feel even more complicated than before. You have fewer places to go with your baby, and limited access to family and friends to give you a break. If your baby seems to cry more than most, doesn’t seem to sleep unless in your arms, doesn’t want to eat, or pulls away from the breast or bottle, you are managing even more stress with less support. It would be great if there was a perfect way to parent, but there’s often no quick fix or easy solution.
Remember: Each baby (and parent) is unique, and understanding yours might mean going against what the books say. It’s important to trust your gut and explore what works and what doesn’t. Following are a few ideas that we encourage in our work at Erikson Institute’s Fussy Baby Network, which will go a long way in helping you feel more confident as a parent.
Babies are individuals
Isn’t it interesting that we all accept that adults differ as individuals, yet we expect babies to all act the same? Babies are individuals from the moment they’re born, and parents must figure out how to best meet their individual needs. Another way to think about it is to ask, “What fills my baby’s cup and what depletes it?” Learning what these “fill ups” are for your baby requires observation and trial and error.
For example, some babies love to be held, while others want to move freely. “Tummy time” sessions are widely seen as a good developmental exercise for babies. But if you notice your child resists tummy time and prefers being held, use this information to make sure you “fill their cup” with cuddles before and after a session. By doing this, you are communicating to your baby that you understand their needs — an important component of trust in a parent/child relationship.
Sleep begets sleep
Parents might also find that their baby, particularly young infants, is fussier in the early evenings for a few hours, often starting around 5 p.m. During this time, they want to be constantly held and if you try to put them down, they cry and the cycle continues. There are many theories about why babies cry more around this time, and one thought is sensory overload. A newborn is taking in so many sights and sounds that by the evening, their little body can’t take it anymore. Another theory is that babies are overtired around these hours. Often they “cat nap” throughout the day so by the evening, they are sleep-deprived and difficult to sooth. Many parents assume keeping their baby awake will help them sleep better when actually the opposite is true. The more babies sleep throughout the day, the better they are able to fall and stay asleep.
Take a break
Another tip is understanding that when you feel stressed or anxious, it doesn’t automatically mean your baby will mirror your emotions. But it might mean that you have less patience and you need to find a way to take time for yourself. When overwhelmed, parents often hold babies differently or move too quickly for them. It is always OK to put your baby down in a safe place and breath for a few moments. Try saying phrases like, “I’m OK, I can do this. My baby is just trying to communicate with me.” You can also do some deep breathing and while you do, put your hand on your baby’s chest so you are both slowing down together. Notice how your baby’s breathing changes when you do this.
Overall, it’s key to remember that babies are not one-size-fits-all. Even if you experience your baby as fussy or challenging, that does not indicate you are doing something wrong. Often as adults, when we feel safe and secure, we feel more comfortable crying or letting loose. Imagine when a loved one hugs us and we actually cry harder! The same goes for babies and as their caregiver, you can likely figure out how to sooth them best. Trust what you know about them, and remember tomorrow is a new day and there will always be room to keep exploring and building your relationship with your baby.
Nancy Mork-Bakker, LCSW, is the Director of Erikson Institute’s Fussy Baby Network (FBN). Linda Horwitz, MSEd, is FBN’s Outreach Coordinator and Infant Family Specialist. FBN offers telephone support, virtual visits, and weekly virtual drop-in groups. There is no fee for services during the pandemic. Families can call 1-888-431-2229 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo by Kevin Liang