As parents, so much of what we do involves paddling against the current. We routinely thwart our children's wishes when it's in their best interest for us to do so, and we weather the consequences of their displeasure. We push back against influences in the culture around us--influences we perceive as harmful or negative or just plain wrong. Often struggling to be a good parent is just that: a struggle. But there are times when going with the flow is exactly what's required.
Taking a baby-led approach to caring for your infant in the first year is equivalent to riding down the river in a raft. The raft floats with the current, and no matter how choppy or rough the water gets, this raft doesn't capsize. Caring for a baby is already demanding work; when we try to impose our ideas on the baby (a "parent-led" approach), we create an unnecessary situation of tension and stress for both the baby and the parents.
Babies are programmed with certain needs. Food, warmth, nurturing, sucking for comfort...all of these are innate desires for the infant. She doesn't invent things, and she can't tell time. If her tummy feels hungry, she cries. It doesn't matter if it's been an hour or three hours since she last ate--all she knows is that she needs to fill her tummy. Sometimes she cries just because she needs to be held. Again, this isn't a rational process. She just knows she needs loving arms and warmth.
But what happens when parents try to padle against this current? Let's imagine for a moment that the baby is hungry. She just ate an hour ago, and mom doesn't want to sit down for another twenty minutes (at least) and nurse again. It's not convenient right now, and she has three loads of laundry to fold and half a dozen emails to send. "She just ate," the mom tells herself. "She's fine." Mom decides to sit down and take care of her emails. She tries just bouncing the baby on her knee. Baby is content for a few minutes, then starts crying again. Mom tries laying baby down for tummy time. Baby is quiet for another couple of minutes, then starts crying again. Mom picks baby up and tries bouncing her again, but now baby is really upset and her cries become more and more insistent. Mom, still trying to avoid nursing, stands up with baby on her hip, trying to type with one hand while bouncing. All the while, her nerves are becoming more and more raw, and the baby's cries become more intense. Finally, mom and baby are both completely desperate, and mom sits down and puts baby to the breast. Baby nurses for ten minutes, falls asleep, and sleeps for two hours.
Let's rewind. What if mom just responded to baby's needs the first time baby cried? Instead of trying to put baby off (unsuccessfully) and causing herself and the baby unnecessary grief, mom could have gotten baby settled and then had the time (not to mention sanity) to get her own tasks finished. It's so much easier on everyone to provide baby what she needs right away. The baby's needs, like the river in my analogy above, are not predictable and they don't operate according to adult priorities. They just are what they are--the choice lies in how the parents choose to respond.
Responding rapidly to a baby's cries in the first year doesn't spoil her. Instead, responsive parenting builds a strong foundation of trust that helps the child to thrive. In time, the baby cries less often and for less time because she knows her needs will be met promptly. And as the child grows, she and the parents can move forward from a position of strongly-bonded and secure love.
Is this always easy? Of course not. But in most cases, it's much easier to respond to baby's needs than to fight them. And it's not only easier, but also better for baby (and mom too). Still, there are times when babies are intensely high-need, and moms (and dads) may feel that they never get a break. When this becomes the case, parents need to work as a team, ensuring that caring for baby doesn't equal parental burnout.
So often, though, what makes caring for a high-need infant so difficult is the baggage we bring to the relationship. We expect baby to behave a certain way. We expect her to sleep through the night at three months old like the neighbor's baby did. We expect her to be happy in her bouncy seat for an hour and a half while we fold laundry and get the dishes done. We expect her to nurse every three or four hours, not every hour and a half. When these expectations aren't met, we get frustrated. I challenge you: next time you feel frustrated with your baby, take a long hard look at yourself and your expectations. It's likely that this is where you'll find the root of the conflict.
So don't try to paddle upstream as you parent your infant. This is one time when it's perfectly okay just to relax and go with the flow.
About S.K. Valenzuela
S.K. is a Lamaze Certified Childbirth Educator and teaches childbirth and baby care classes at a major Dallas hospital. She also enjoys freelancing about writing and all things mothering. Her book, Mothering the Mother of Many, will be released in 2013. She also enjoys writing fiction, and her second novel, The Lords of Askalon, is now available as an ebook and in paperback. For more information about her current projects, please visit her at www.skvalenzuela.com and follow her on Twitter at @skvalenzuela. She and her husband and their six beautiful children live in Dallas, Texas.