12/14/2012 Unfortunate update: It’s time to talk about this again. My heart is broken, as is yours. Feel free to connect with me here or on Twitter to ask about how you can approach this in your family.
The Colorado shooting has come and gone — and now the Connecticut school shootings, and we’re left trying to explain things to The Littles. One well-meaning mom criticized me on Twitter for even suggesting we talk to young children about violence. “Why even bring it up?” she wondered.
Her life is much more insular than many of ours — I have a 2 year old. But I also have a 6 year old. And a 9 year old. And an 11 year old. And those kids have completely different levels of awareness and understanding of these situations — and they talk. In front of The Littles. So parents like us need talking points for those tricky situations.
So here are my thoughts about how to navigate these unavoidable conversations. Let’s be ready, because unfortunately, it won’t be the last time.
I was also quoted in Newsweek/The Daily Beast about the issue. I hope I made the point that parents taking their young children to movie theaters aren’t the problem. Untreated mental illness and widespread availability of guns ARE.
Mom of Four, Parenting Expert
I recently wrote about 4-year-olds, and why they’re so awesome. No longer toddlers, but not yet “big kids”, they still snuggle like the baby you miss, but have enough independence that they’re fun to hang out with.
Not to dis on the 5-year-olds, but SIX is an amazing age. I learned this when our oldest child’s first grade teacher turned me on to a classic, fabulous book about early childhood development — with an educational focus. It’s a little technical and geeky, but if you like this stuff you’ll LOVE this book. The upshot is this: Something magical happens in first grade. At some point during the year, each kid will go through an amazing transformation. She’ll start out like a kindergartener — still a little clingy and whiny, and living in the magic world of imagination — ponies, princesses, and fairies. But she’ll end up the year like a KID — an honest-to-goodness Grade School Kid — who can be swayed by logic, her peers, and the rules of the world.
Schools in many European countries understand this developmental fact, and that’s why they don’t do serious academic work until age 7. But their outcomes are much better than ours — because they’re working WITH development, not AGAINST it. You can use this to your advantage by not falling for the ubiquitous pressure to force younger and younger children to do “academics”. Having realistic expectations for the behavior and learning of your preschooler and kindergartener will potentially save you a lot of worry when you’re told they’re not performing up to “standards”. The “standards” of most school systems weren’t created with normal development in mind. But that’s another big topic for another day.
Mom of Four, Parenting Expert
One of the reasons I produce BabyShrink is that I’ve had to learn the hard way with my own 4 kids — what works, what doesn’t — and why. Those of you who know me know that my doctorate in Psychology, and a license to practice in two states, didn’t get me much closer to answers. Doing a ton of research — practical and applied — has gotten me to this point. Why should YOU have to go through all that effort to reinvent the parenting wheel? Believe me, people — it CAN be easier — and a lot more fun. Keep these things in mind as you confront the seventy bazillion or so parenting challenges you face each day:
TEMPERAMENT makes a big difference. Your child’s inborn nature: whether he’s irritable, easy, shy, or bold (among other things), will shape the way he deals with your guidance — especially when he’s young. Pay close attention and figure out his temperament — it will help you decide what’s best for him. For instance, an “easy” baby might be pressed to give up his Binky at 6 months. An irritable, easily overstimulated little guy might be given a pass until age 2 or even 3.
AGE makes a big difference. Sleep issues (among other things) change dramatically over even a few weeks. A newborn isn’t a 3-month-old, who isn’t a 9-month-old, who certainly isn’t a 3-year-old. You shouldn’t expect your newborn to put himself to sleep — nor should you try. But it’s very reasonable to work on it with your 12 or 15-month-old. Vary your approach based on age.
FAMILY NEEDS make a big difference. Culture, style, the state of the parents’ relationship, and personal preference matter. If you don’t mind co-sleeping — if it works well for your family — great. But if the baby keeps you awake, interferes with your relationship, or you just don’t wanna — then DON’T. Your baby takes his cues from you, and he’ll be fine either way. It’s the “trickle down” theory of family happiness.
And now I hope you browse around for specific tips on your questions — potty training, bath time fears, sleep issues, behavior, sibling stuff and more.
Here’s another Thinking Points article, if you’re interested.
(And I hope you like some of the new changes here at BabyShrink!)
Mom of Four, Parenting Expert
I had an amazing conversation with one of the world’s foremost infant researchers last week, Dr. Joseph Campos. He’s at Berkeley, where he’s churned out tons of scientifically rigorous studies about the developmental changes in infancy. He’s come up with some transformative ideas about babies, the upshot of one being that crawling causes your baby to become your little social partner, for the first time. No longer just a passive lump in the social world, now she’s able to start to understand some of what’s going on inside your mind. She understands how important you are to her, and seeks your emotional support, presence and encouragement as she starts to scoot out into the world under her own power. She now gets reassurance from your presence and your emotions — your facial expressions and body language — not just from physically holding her.The flip side of this is that it also causes clinginess, fussiness, and sleep problems — some of the major complaints of parents at this stage. Turns out, crawling out into the wide world is fascinating — and terrifying. Your little adventurer gets it now — that as much as she wants to venture out on her own, she desperately needs you, and is panicked that she’ll lose you somewhere along the way. As Dr. Campos said to me, the baby’s drive for independence is equally matched by her fear of it.
So to you fellow parents of 9 to 12-month-old babies out there: I know it can be a challenging, difficult stage. Your little bug seems content to scramble around the house one minute, then wails in panic the next. What used to be stable sleep habits are now in a shambles. Feeding –and nursing — has become an unpredictable struggle — and separations are exceptionally difficult. And forget diaper changes! What a wrestling match! Immmobility is the enemy to her now — being restrained in any way is bound to be a fight. High chairs, strollers and car seats are demon baby torture devices. They keep her from exploring her brave new world.
What to do? Re-think your daily tasks with this knowledge in mind. Everything will take a little longer, as your baby goes through this unpredictable (but temporary) stage. Some days she may need you constantly. But don’t worry — when you’ve finally reached the end of your rope with your little Clingon, she’ll start to feel “refueled”, and venture out again — allowing you to catch up on that laundry and email. And make sure you get some help with nighttime wakenings — you’ll need extra rest too, since you’re up again with a fussy baby — but don’t forget to reinforce the sleep routines that have worked well in the past. She’ll eventually remember what her job is, at night — and now that her memory is better, she can hold on to her internal image of you a bit longer, giving her some comfort, despite being away from you to sleep. Feel some reassurance knowing that the earlier — and stronger — your baby shows separation anxiety, the sooner it resolves. Lots of parental support and understanding help her get through this challenging — but remarkable — stage.
Dr. Campos was generous and encouraging in my BabyShrink book-writing project, and I had a blast geeking out with him, picking his brain about the amazing new developmental capacities in normal 9-month-old babies. What a great experience! Now, please excuse me — I’ve got a 9-month-old baby clinging to my leg.
Mom of Four, Parenting Expert
Dear Dr. Heather,
Our 8 month old son seems to be skipping the crawling phase altogether and learning to cruise and walk straightaway. Today someone told me that this means he’ll have learning disabilities later; is this true?
A Concerned Dad
That’s an old wives tale, but one that many people still believe. Here’s the deal: if he’s not working on locomotion — in some form or another — at this age, it could be reflective of some underlying issue. But ANY of the goofy forms of locomotion exhibited by babies at this age counts as “normal locomotion” — the “Commando Crawl”, the “Tushie-Scoot”, the “One-Kneed Creep”, and of course regular cruising and walking. Apparently the Back-To-Sleep campaign has resulted in an increase in babies who skip crawling, as they don’t get as much practice on their tummies. But getting mobile is the important thing.
Look at it this way: crawling is a drag. Walking is a lot more fun –and a lot less gross — for parents (Think: less opportunity to find and eat yucky stuff off the floor!). Plus you’ll save tons on Spray ‘n Wash since his knees won’t be dragging through the dirt all the time. And for you parents of girls — rejoice! You can finally bust out the pretty dresses! (There’s nothing more frustrating to a crawling baby than having a dress get caught up underneath her over and over!)
We look for some form of mobility — attempts to crawl, scoot or walk — by about 10 months, but this isn’t a hard and fast rule. Your pediatrician can do a quick review of your baby’s developmental progress if you’re worried.
Enjoy — and double-check your baby-proofing. This phase begins the wild time of The Mobile Baby With No Self-Protection Mechanisms! You’ll be running around after him very closely for the next year or so!
Mom of Four, Parenting Expert
Hi Dr. Heather,
I came across your website when doing a search for signs of autism in infants. Our 3-month-old doesn’t look at us very much, doesn’t track objects across the midline well, and doesn’t often respond to our voice. He stares at the wall or just beyond us pretty much anytime we hold him in our lap looking up at us. He is very calm and mellow, and only cries when he is tired or hungry. He would sit in his bouncer or swing all day if we let him. We also have a 3-year-old very active boy with sensory processing problems so I know our baby doesn’t get as much attention as i would like to give him. We know he is way too young for any of these signs to be a definitive answer, but I am having a hard time finding information on what we can do preventatively as we observe him over time. There is a program in our city, but other than that, everything I find is geared towards 18 months to 2 years, since that is the time that it is easier to see more clear signs. Can you help?
I’m so glad you are aware of this crucial aspect of your baby’s cognitive development. I think most parents would be happy to have a “mellow and easy” baby who would happily sit in his bouncer all day. But you recognize that he might not be reaching out to you for the important “give and take” and communication that he needs to trigger important aspects of his development. He needs to engage with you and play “Baby Games” in order to solidify his relationship with you, which forms the foundation of his cognitive growth. What to do?
I understand that you want to be as proactive as possible, given your experience with your older son. And while there is a possibility that your baby may suffer some similar developmental issues, it’s also quite possible that everything you describe is well within the norm for typical development. First of all, try not to over-worry, but maintain the watchful engagement that led you to research your concerns. Your baby can pick up your fears and anxieties, and this can push him to be even more distant. There is some interesting psychological discussion and observation going on about this very basic “give and take” in the parent/infant interaction, and in the ability of a baby to pick up on his parents’ feelings. When a very anxious parent reaches out to a baby in a way that seems desperate or demanding, the infant can sometimes seem to feel pressured, and retreat even more. So, as with many aspects of parenting, containing and managing your own feelings is Job One.
That said, there are many things that ALL parents can — and should — be doing to maximize this incredibly important time in a baby’s development:
Carefully watch your baby’s sleep/wake/activity schedule for clues as to when he is most likely to be responsive to parent interaction. Sometimes he’ll be fussy, or seem overstimulated by your efforts. Other times he may be more receptive. Often, these receptive times are shortly after waking from a nap and having a feed. But you are your baby’s best expert; try to figure out when he’s most approachable.
Then, make a conscious effort to play “Baby Games” during these times of approachability. Try to match his energy level and catch his gaze. Follow his lead; if he coos and looks away, try to respond in kind. You want to reinforce any efforts on his part, even brief eye contact that might be just 1 or 2 seconds long. Each baby is different; perhaps your baby is more auditory and responds well to your cooing back, other babies might be better reinforced by a brief touch to the face or hand, or from a big returned smile. Experiment, and see which response generates another round of interaction from your baby.
Don’t give up if your baby continues to avert his gaze. Take a deep breath if you start to worry, and try to be as available as you can for “Baby Games”. Give him time and keep trying.
Jennifer, I have a 3-month old too. Although she does engage in periodic eye contact, coos and smiles, she is much more reserved than her siblings were at this stage. At first I also worried about her relative lack of eye contact and her willingness to hang out in her crib for long periods of time. I can’t help but think that the noise and chaos of our busy household causes her to be a bit more protective in her interactions; there’s a lot for a little baby to absorb in this household! But her Daddy and I have been engaged in the exactly these exercises with our little one, and I can see the difference in just a couple of weeks of consciously trying to engage with her.
Dr. T. Berry Brazelton has some excellent suggestions for engaging a baby who might have sensory issues or sensitivities. Use your parents’ detective skills to determine WHICH senses your baby tolerates — and DOESN’T tolerate — very easily. Use this information to “fine tune” your interactions with him. For instance, our baby seems to respond longer to us, and with more smiles, when I’m quiet. Responding both with my facial expressions AND my voice seems to be too much for her, and she turns away. But if I keep focused on giving her a big returned smile, maintain eye contact, and maybe even stroke her hand or her cheek, she’s much more likely to stay engaged in our “Baby Game” than if I coo or talk back to her. Eventually, she’ll develop the ability to tolerate my voice as well. But until then, I’ll hold back a bit. Experiment with using different modes of communication with your baby and maximize what works.
I also double-checked on the expected timeframe of infant response to parents’ voices, and most authorities agree that this isn’t regularly observed in most infants until 4 months. Our baby is 14 weeks, and only in the past few days has she started responding to our voices on a somewhat-regular basis.
Now, I’m not able to evaluate your little one, but there are many things you can do to maximize this important aspect to your son’s development. Over time, you can judge his progress and if you’re not satisfied, have him evaluated by the program you mentioned in your city. If they’re not yet able to enroll him due to his young age, perhaps their specialists can take a quick look at your son and make some further suggestions to you. I’m a firm believer in erring on the side of having a child evaluated early, not only for reassurance of an expert opinion, but for the often very helpful recommendations that the specialists can give you, even if there’s nothing really atypical with your child.
And I can’t stress this enough: At 3 months of age, you should be aiming for interactions measured in SECONDS, not minutes. Feel good if you generate a few “rounds” of interaction between you and your baby at this age. Over time, you’ll both want to stretch these interactions to last longer and become more complex. But at 3 months of age, your baby is still very young and new to the world of interaction. A 3-month-old is only recently “hatched” — our psychological term for the opening of awareness that marks the end of the “squirrelly newborn” phase. So manage your expectations accordingly.
Jennifer, thanks for the opportunity to write about this extremely important topic. I hope you’ll write back to update us on your progress!
Mom of Four, Parenting Expert