Tuesday, June 11, 2013
When Babies Need Comforting: Part I-- Little Babies
Just like the rest of us, babies get upset sometimes. Unlike many of us adults, though, babies don’t have many things they can do to make themselves feel better. They can’t have a cup of coffee or a cold beer, telephone a friend, eat chocolates, or go for a long walk. They depend on us caregivers to help them out.
Of course, some adults don’t think it’s wise to try to comfort an upset, crying baby. They think it “spoils” the baby, or that the baby is crying “on purpose” and having fun manipulating an adult. Some, like the egregious William Emerson, believe that babies need to cry in order to discharge negative emotions acquired during birth, and that adults just slow that process when they try to offer comfort.
I, on the other hand, would argue that there are a number of reasons why we should try to comfort crying babies.
It’s to our own benefit to help a baby calm down. A constantly crying, cranky, crabby child is very stressful to be around. Although caregivers may be able to “stand it” when a baby cries a lot, they can’t do as good a job or feel as good themselves when they have to listen to crying. One of the best things we can do for children in our care is to be cheerful and playful-- and that’s hard to do when someone is crying constantly.
If there are other babies or young children around, they too will be disturbed by loud shrill crying. Constant noise makes it hard for them to eat, sleep, or just look and listen. Very young babies can learn a lot just from hearing you talk, but they can’t hear well when there’s a lot of background noise. Calming the criers is a help for other babies and children.
And, of course, the criers benefit if you help them. Every time we help a baby calm down, that baby learns a little bit about how to calm down alone-- to “self-regulate”—and to be able to ignore all the distracting little nuisances of life. When you hold a baby in a comforting way, she learns that you can feel better soon after you start feeling bad. She learns that things like moving around or looking at things or thumb-sucking can all help her relax and forget little problems. This means that she becomes able to pay attention longer and eventually do more things by herself. In the long run, comforting a baby pays big dividends in development and may be one of the best things we can do to get kids ready for school.
So, how do we go about it? There are going to be some different issues depending on whether we’re talking about an infant between birth and 3-4 months, or about an older baby. And of course there will be things one baby likes and another does not. However, it’s possible to list some ideas that may be of help.
For the younger babies, here are some things to keep in mind:
1. Touch is the most important comfort technique for very young babies. Sometimes just your hand patting the baby will work, but they are more likely to like all-over touch, with their bodies pressed against yours. Some babies don’t like light touch, and it might seem as if they don’t want to be touched at all-- but you can try touching them more firmly rather than less, and see whether that works. And some don’t seem to like being belly-to-belly with an adult, but may like being held facing away.
2. Movement is something little babies like but can’t give themselves. Most are comforted by rocking, walking, or gentle jiggling and bouncing.
3. Quiet, rhythmic sounds like singing and talking can help a crying baby calm down.
4. Having something to suck is one of the most comforting things for young babies. Very young ones may need help to handle a pacifier. Thumb and finger-sucking is fine and will not spoil their teeth unless they ttill do it when the permanent ones come in.
5. The rhythm of what you do is as important as the thing you’re doing. You can often “override the baby’s tempo” and bring him to a quieter state by starting at a rapid pace and then slowing down. So, if you rock a crying baby, begin by rocking fast and then slow down gradually. You’ll probably find that the screams slow and quiet too.
6. Remember that it may take time for your comforting method to do its job. Once a baby is thoroughly upset, she doesn’t relax quickly, even though she really likes what you’re doing.
7. When one thing you try doesn’t seem to work, more than one comfort method can do the trick. Try combining patting with singing, or walking with close, firm touch.
8. Remember that you are not the only thing near the baby that affects her. Babies can be stimulated by lights, people moving around and talking, or noises nearby, and these can make it too hard for the baby to relax, sleep, or even eat. Try to create a calm environment around a baby who tend to cry a lot.
9. As a general rule, it’s a good idea to avoid doing too many things the baby doesn’t like at the same time. If you have a very young baby baby who cries about bathing, about dressing, about changing, etc., it’s awfully tempting to do all those things one after the other rather than dealing with separate crying jags. However, doing that makes it very hard for the baby to get better at calming down, so it’s better in the long run to give effective comfort after each upset rather than rushing through a long routine in the way nurses used to call “cluster care”.
Of course, although most often babies cry out of frustration and the inability to self-regulate, it’s possible that the crying indicates a serious problem. Babies do experience pain, even though the classic “diaper pin stick” is long gone. When you’re trying to comfort the baby, and it’s difficult, you may well wonder whether the baby is really sick or in serious pain. Is it possible to tell the difference? Yes, there are some signals that may indicate that it’s time to seek medical help, and certainly not to try to let the baby “cry it out”. For example, a baby in real pain may not sleep for hours even though he ordinarily naps a lot. The baby’s facial expression may be a “screwed up” look of pain. A baby in pain can give a constant high-pitched cry rather than changing pitch and loudness in the usual way. He or she may thrash the limbs or tremble, and may keep the fingers and toes flexed rather than straight (young babies often do have their fists closed, but if they are not crying, this does not suggest a problem). Finally, the baby does not suck when something is offered, and none of the other tricks described above work either.