One of my favorite family pics of almost all of us a few years ago!

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Teaching and Learning Together: Nurturing Your Newborn

Today, I’m teaching a young mom and dad what it means to nurture their 9-week-old infant.  I realized that this does not come naturally to parents who probably were not adequately nurtured themselves.  After years and years of raising kids, I learned something new.

Our sweet boy is 9-weeks-old now.  He’s no longer the limp little rag doll who his new parents handled like a precious china doll.  He can smile now. He’s weighs twice what he did when he was born.  He can hold his head up and kick his feet non-stop.  He will bear weight on his feet when held up.  He eats much more and sleeps a little less. His proud parents feel like he is smarter than most babies his age. 

During the newborn stage both mom and dad found it easy to handle their little baby.   His needs were fairly simple and straightforward. As long as they fed him, burbed him, cuddled him, and allowed him to sleep  – in between diaper changes – all were happy.  By all definitions he was a “good baby.

They treasure their baby and are committed to raising him with love and care and making him feel secure, putting his needs first.  Unlike what they remember of their upbringing. 

But today it occurred to me that wanting this and knowing how to do it are different beasts. Oddly, in an unrelated conversation the same day, one of my young adult kids -- who was institutionalized for most of his teen years -- told me that he didn’t know how to ask for a hug.  When he needed attention, he would hit or punch or kick the staff and it would take 4-5 staff to restrain him. That was the only way he knew to get the physical touch he craved from his caregivers.

He wasn’t angry.  But it sure looked that way to everyone around him. The problem was that he lacked the skill set to know how to get what he needed from the only people he had around him.  And he didn’t even have the words to explain what he was really thinking until he was much older.

That was an eye-opening moment for me.  I intuitively know that some of my kids act out for attention, but this was my first child to verbalize it so clearly.  I think Heather tried to tell me this many times, but never as clearly as I heard it today.
So, now that the baby is awake much more often, the young parents aren’t quite sure what to do. Perhaps they still expect him to fall asleep while he’s eating, and when he doesn’t, they think they are doing something wrong or he is being stubborn. 

I know that they fear “spoiling” him and ending up with a bratty child that is demanding and attention seeking.  I get that.  I hate being around those kind of kids.  Especially my own.

Anyway, I hear them saying, “We fed him, burped him and changed him.  He’s fine.  Don’t pick him up.  You are just spoiling him.” Just let him cry it out. “  And I know that they are mimicking what I have said about our older babies and young children, who are developmentally able to pitch a certified fit and are also able to self-soothe.  So they innocently apply the same strategy to their 9-week-old.  And I try to differentiate.

I describe why they can’t really “spoil” their child at this age because their baby is not intentionally crying.  It’s instinctive and involuntary.  It’s the only way he has to express a need and a cry guarantees him attention.  He has not yet developed what we think of as a “will.”  

For the record, I don’t suggest that they run every time he cries either.  I explain that it is fine to let him cry for a few minutes to see if he will calm down on his own. But I also suggest that after 3 or 4 minutes, one of them go to him and talk in a soothing tone or pick him up and comfort him just for a moment or two to break the crying cycle. Because babies this age have a very short memory and a break in the crying cycle can cause them to forget that they were crying in the first place. 

Of course, I also emphasize that when they are frustrated and irritated with the baby, it is far better to let him cry than to deal with him while they are frustrated.  That is a safety warning for any parent, but is an especially important reminder for parents that have been abused themselves.  It is easy to revert to what you knew grewing up, even if you hated it.

I try to get them to understand that he is not crying just for the sake of getting what he wants like a bratty 4-year-old.  He cries instinctively out of some need he can’t express. I know.  Four-year-olds cry in frustration too.  But they have more ability to control their emotions and outbursts at that age so our strategies are different.

So, even though they can intellectually understand what I’m saying, they can’t yet recognize the difference.  I listen to them, waiting to see if they can figure it out without me.  After about 10 minutes, I ask them to bring the baby to me so I can see if I can tell what is wrong.  As soon as mom picks up her baby, he stops crying and starts smiling.  Mom and dad see evidence of spoiling.  I see evidence that the baby was crying because he needed to be held and nurtured.

I tell them how our brains are making connections at this age.  We begin to understand concepts of trust and depending on others to meet our needs.  We are growing attachments based on this trust.  And without these connections, things literally go haywire and kids grow up not trusting.  Not depending.  Not social.  At the most extreme level, this is the beginning of attachment disorder.

I say that to explain, not to scare. 

Their child needs to feel safe and secure and loved.  But these are concepts and concepts are felt, not seen.  

Ironically, infants develop this sense of safety and security and love based on other peoples’ actions. For a new baby, that would be actions like holding him, and gazing into his eyes, and talking to him, and feeding him cradling him rather than propping the bottle (or better yet nursing – at least as it relates to that physical feeling of comfort and safety), and stroking him (if he likes that).  That is how he learns to feel trust and security and safety.  And that is the most important building block for his future.

Propping the bottle all the time.  Repeatedly leaving him in a dirty diaper that creates open sores on his skin and results in pain.  Not feeding him as his needs require.  (FYI:  I’m not referring to choosing a set schedule versus feeding on demand.  Either can work as long as he gets sufficient food to sustain a healthy life.)  Not holding him.  Leaving him alone for long periods without human interaction.  These are just some of the things that can cause a baby to mistrust.  To feel insecure and unsafe.

I also talk about the new parents about developmental changes.  He is awake more and that means he needs more challenges and interactions.  His needs will continue to change as he grows.  He needs to hear his parents’ voice talking to him.  He needs to hear new words.  He needs to see new colors and shapes.  Feel new textures.  Explore his body.  This doesn’t require a mass of toys and objects from Wal-mart.  The world around us is perfectly fine and has worked for thousands of years.  God was good that way. 
Eventually, their baby will develop what we think of as a “will” and he will likely be stubborn and demanding and frustrated and frustrating.  But for now, he is still an infant and he needs to feel the safety and security of his mom and dad so that he can learn to trust the big world around him.

As for me, I learned a few new things today... or at least understood them more clearly.  That's the interesting part about parenting - the need to acquire new skills never ends!

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