Friday, April 23, 2010

On the Job Training: Learning What the Kid Wants

There’s such a feeling of panic when the front door closes behind you and all of a sudden it’s just the four of you: you, your husband, the baby and the sudden realization that you are completely responsible for another human being.

Your moms may come to help out for a while, you may have the pediatrician on speed-dial and an entire library’s worth of parenting books, but the time will still come when there’s nothing but befuddled, sleep-deprived you holding a screaming infant and wondering what on Earth it wants, and what ever possessed you to think that you could do this job in the first place.

First, relax. Yes, really. In the first place, you being tense will make the baby tense, too. In the second place, I’m going to give you the super-power of Perspective, as passed down to me by my own mother:

Your baby won’t know if you screw up.

Your baby is just a baby. No experience. Nada.

As far as your baby knows, what you are doing is exactly what needs to be done.

There now. That’s remarkably freeing, isn’t it? Yes, the kid is purple and won’t stop screaming, there is that. Still, as far as the baby knows it’s supposed to be purple and screaming, so don't worry that you’re causing it irreparable psychological harm. You will probably figure out what’s wrong with it sooner or later.

New babies are pretty much one-trick ponies – all they can do to communicate with you is cry. Even though it all sounds the same to you at first, you’ll figure out pretty quickly that sometimes you can determine what the baby is crying about by listening to the sound of the cry. Baby heads are so small that there’s room in there for only one concept at a time, so if for example the baby’s hungry it will sound hungry when it cries. (It’s my theory that it holds its mouth in an “eating” shape, since NURSE is the command going through its head. My own babies’ hunger cries had a sort of “yang” sound to them, I think because of the tongue-thrust.)

Of course when you don’t know what’s wrong you just go down the list of possibilities and try feeding/ changing/ burping/ rocking/ singing until you hit it. While you’re doing this, dust off the adjectives from your old “Mad Libs” days and really listen to the cries. Sleepy cries sound sleepy, and the baby may have a red nose. (I don’t know why babies fight sleep so hard – one theory is that they’re afraid they’re going to miss something cool.) The wet/ poopy cry sounds a little disgusted, don’t you think? The pain cry is easy to tell because there’s a sort of tremolo to the cries, and the baby often arches its back.

Babies do get bored, and they do get mad, and when they are, they cry. It’s easy for a baby to experience sensory overload – and cry – and some people swear that sometimes a baby will cry for no reason at all but the exercise. Sometimes a baby will have colic, and then boy howdy will it cry. One of the biggest secrets they keep from you in Parenting School is that sometimes you can’t fix why the baby is crying.

This is not to say that you leave the kid on a park bench and go on your merry way rejoicing, however tempting that might sound some days. No, you run through the list, and walk the kid around in your arms for a while, talking to them softly (“Say, Baby, let me teach you to conjugate the French verb avoir.”) Try a baby carrier if your baby likes it, run the vacuum and see if that helps, strap the kid in a car seat and go for a drive. Don’t beat yourself up, though. Babies cry. It doesn’t mean that you’re not doing your job right.

If your baby cries and cries and cries and you feel something is wrong, trust that instinct and take the baby to the doctor. If you have a good doctor she will take you seriously, examine the baby, and either tell you that there’s some physical reason for the crying (such as colic) and what to do about it, or will commiserate with you and make you feel like a conscientious parent. If the doctor dismisses you, is condescending and rude, or makes you feel you are wasting his time, get a different doctor. This is not the person you want making decisions with you in the event of your child developing a serious health problem.

If your baby cries and cries and cries and so do you, take a break. It’s okay to leave the baby with your spouse or a neighbor or your mom and take a couple of hours to shower or nap or go to a movie by yourself. You aren’t abandoning your child, and a screaming baby won’t bother the spouse/ neighbor/ mom as much as it does you because a) they haven’t been up with it for the last 3 nights and b) they know they get to give it back to you. You will be a much better parent if you take these mini-breaks. You need the perspective.

Finally: If, every time you hand the screaming baby to your mom (or sister or aunt or best friend or the butcher at the Safeway, there’s always at least one of these annoying know-it-alls in every parent’s life), the kid stops crying immediately, it’s not because you stink at parenting. There is one of two things going on – either there is something about this person that fascinates the baby and it forgets to cry while it’s checking out the glasses, red hair, perfume or what-have-you; or this person is calm around babies and you vibrate like a violin string because you haven’t slept in two weeks and have barf in your hair. Your baby still loves you the best.


  1. I love it! Where were you when I had Peter screaming 24/7 with premie colic?! Note: Premie colic is just like regular colic except that the parents are ready for a two week all expense paid vacation for TWO (no baby) to Hawaii the day after the baby finally comes home

  2. I keep seeing advertisements for "baby translators" . . . after reading this, those seem like kind of a useless endeavor. ;)


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