Raising babies with respect begins with perceiving them as competent, aware individuals rather than cute blobs that are mindless or “half-baked” (no joke — a psychologist used that descriptor in her Psychology Today column). Perceiving babies as whole people is by far the most rewarding, successful parenting path and is finally now research-proven. Yes, it can be less convenient at times, because it requires us to be considerate of our baby’s human point of view. We can’t connect with our baby as a person while also using tricks, distractions, and other quick-fixes to control her moods, crying, and sleep. So we’re limited to relationship building practices like honesty and real listening.
Parents and caregivers have asked me in emails over the years how to help babies accept the care of a spouse, grandparent or other relative, or professional caregiver. Here are my responses to some of the questions I’ve received on this topic.
Why might a baby cry in the arms of someone other than the primary caregiver?
For me, the question would be: Why wouldn’t a baby cry in the arms of someone other than the primary caregiver? Consider this: Babies are as present and aware as you or me. Even more so, in fact,according to the recent scientific findings of psychologists Alison Gopnik, Paul Bloom, and several others on the forefront of infant brain research. Imagine you are extremely open, absorbent, and the many wonders of life “on the outside” are brand new to you. The stimulation and novelty inherent in even the most peaceful setting can be overwhelming, especially when you are tired, hungry, or otherwise uncomfortable, as babies often are. You feel anchored in the comfort of the familiar – consistent, responsive caregivers and a daily routine you can depend on. Wouldn’t you feel at least a little uneasy in the arms of someone you don’t know that well?
How can parents help babies get used to others?
As slowly and gradually as possible with a lot of verbal preparation and respectful communication. Get into the habit of talking to your baby. Babies are ready to learn language from birth. Will they understand every word? Probably not, but infants comprehend far more than they are given credit for because, again, they are tuned in at full volume, especially when their primary caregivers are speaking. Slowly, simply inform your baby, “Today you will meet Ann, a new caregiver. This first time she comes over, she will spend some time watching how I change your diaper. She will sit with me while I watch you play.” Or, “Soon grandpa will come to our house. He will want to hold you. We will wait for you to let us know you are ready. I’ll stay close by if you need me.”
Understandably, many will find the idea of talking to babies in this manner preposterous. I’m sure I’d have felt that way had I not been inspired to try it (by infant specialist Magda Gerber). Now, like the thousands of others who have taken this leap of faith, I can say with certainty that honest verbal communication with babies works. (The naysayers have one thing in common: contempt prior to investigation. They haven’t given it a try.)
What if baby cries in the arms of another primary caregiver (i.e., baby always cries for Dad but not Mom)? What can partners do in this situation?
As with all crying, I would perceive it as communication and remain as calm and as open as possible so that you can hear what your baby is saying rather than rushing to judge or fix it. Consider first that the baby might have a need that only the one parent can fill (like breastfeeding). But let’s say Mom needs a trip to the bathroom or a drink of water. Dad might then acknowledge, “Sounds like you’re saying you want milk. Mom will be back in a minute to give you some. I know. I hear you. It’s really hard to wait. We’ll wait together.”
If a biological need for Mom has been ruled out, calmly acknowledge, “Mommy was holding you and now I am. You sound very upset.” Allow your baby to express herself while you consider why she cries. “Hmmm…do you need to burp? Or maybe your mouth is hurting? Here are a couple of teethers that might help. Would you like to choose one?” Remind yourself that remaining calm is crucial because, again, babies are ultra-aware. They are unnerved by our anxiety, and it can make them cry even more. Also, know that the message you are giving your baby in these typical and safe, albeit less than ideal, situations is extremely positive: It’s okay to express yourself with Dad. He wants to hear your feelings. He doesn’t panic. He doesn’t even take it personally when he’s not your top choice. Believe it or not, this is bonding. So I recommend seizing, even welcoming these opportunities.
What would you advise parents or caregivers in this situation to absolutely NOT do? I advise parents and caregivers to work at not fearing crying, which means not trying to stifle the child’s feelings by jiggling, bouncing, shushing, overfeeding, etc. Crying is one of the few ways babies can communicate their thoughts and emotions. We must always respond, but only rarely does it signal a dire emergency. Calmly accepting and acknowledging our baby’s occasional displeasure (like when she seems to want Mom while Dad or another caregiver is caring for her) will foster an honest, trusting adult-child relationship and nurture emotional health.
For more about respectful care…
Entering Into a Conversation With Your Baby, and RIE From the Start – 2 Simple Things You Can Do to Support Baby by Lisa Sunbury, Regarding Baby
My book, Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting
(Photo by thejbird on Flickr)