Concerned About Unconventional Mental Health Interventions?

Concerned About Unconventional Mental Health Interventions?
Alternative Psychotherapies: Evaluating Unconventional Mental Health Treatments

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

When Babies Need Comforting: Part II-- Older Babies

Yesterday I discussed some ideas about how young babies can be comforted when they are crying and fretting but don’t seem to “really need” obvious things like food or an adjustment of warmth or coolness. After a baby is more than 3 or 4 months old, he or she may still need some of the old stand-by help like rocking, but there may be more issues that need to be dealt with than is true for the youngest infants.

Older babies have probably already learned some self-regulating tricks like thumb-sucking or positioning in certain ways or holding a favorite blanket. If you know a baby well, you’ll recognize these as ways the baby can try to calm down. If you don’t know the baby well, you may not know what he or she is trying to do--  but you’d be wise to let the baby do what it seems to want. Don’t worry about the teeth or whether this child will still be dragging that blanket around when he goes to college! Developing ways to be calm and tolerate frustration is much more important than those future issues. Also, keep in mind that a baby’s ability to calm alone (or with a little help) does not take away from her attachment to you, from the quality of your relationship, or from your ability as a caregiver. The baby does not have to be completely dependent on you for emotional regulation, and in fact if you are a good caregiver you will help the baby gradually take over the task.

Here are some other important issues for babies from 4-5 months to about 12 months--  depending on the individuals, some may arrive at different times for different babies:

  1. Older babies get frightened in a way that’s not possible for younger babies. Sudden loud noises, people moving fast, or things they can’t see, like garbage trucks outside, can all make them cry with fear. It does not matter that they have been hearing and seeing these things for many months without being frightened! When they reach the age when the “fear system” begins to work, babies spend some months being easily startled and scared. This is a matter of maturation and should be welcomed, even though it can feel difficult to caregivers. Unless there’s some other good evidence that the baby has been harmed, sudden fearfulness should not be attributed to traumatic experience if it begins between 6 and 12 months.
  2. When older babies cry because they are frightened, they can be comforted by familiar people. They try to get close to someone they know and trust, or at least to be able to see them. An unfamiliar person may have a lot of trouble comforting an older baby, who gets more scared when a stranger approaches. But if you are a stranger and the only caregiver available, you can help by staying near but averting your eyes much of the time--  not staring at the baby, but sneaking a peek at her face now and then until she warms up and begins to look at you occasionally. You can gradually move from that point to being able to pick her up. (If you are a new foster or adoptive parent, don’t just assume that the frightened child is more comfortable when you go away. )
  3. If a crying older baby averts his eyes when you approach to comfort him, he is telling you he doesn’t know you well enough to accept your care. Don’t take this personally and get offended, but use your understanding of this communication to modulate your approach. As described above, you can probably get the baby to warm up to you if you are patient, although some babies take longer than others.
  4. When an older baby sees or hears anything unusual, he checks out the facial expression and voice tone of a trusted familiar person. The baby wants to know what the grown-up thinks about this strange event. If the grown-up looks happy, the baby usually decides that the unusual thing is not something to be scared of. If the grown-up looks cared or even expressionless, the baby may become frightened and cry---  even though the adult’s expression had to do with something entirely different.
  5. Older babies look at adults’ faces a lot, both for play and to see whether the adult is worried about things that are happening. Most of the time, a caregiver will look back at the baby and will change expression one way or another, as well as speaking and moving in response. If a familiar grown-up stares expressionlessly and doesn’t respond to the baby’s bid for communication, the baby soon begins to cry and even becomes physically upset.   (What does this mean about talking a lot on the cellphone while around the baby? I don’t know, but it seems it should mean something…)  
  6. Babies who have spent much of their time around depressed caregivers often look sad, cry easily, and are hard to get to play and interact. They need lots of playful interaction as well as comfort to get them to a more normal emotional state.

Not surprisingly, older babies still need lots of comfort from their caregivers--  but, as you see, their needs are not as simple as they were before.

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