My coworker had her first baby, an adorable giant butterball named Reed, back in February. Right now, she and her husband are butting heads a little bit over how to handle his sleep routine, introducing foods, methods of comforting… and their differences of opinion are all being exacerbated by Reed going through a period of increased fussiness for some reason they can’t quite figure out.
My coworker’s husband is a problem-solver: he wants desperately to identify what the baby’s problem is, so they can go ahead and solve it and eliminate any bad habits that Reed might have picked up.
And listen, I know that in terms of motherhood, I’m still a relative novice. But in the two years of experience I DO have under my belt, the most valuable lesson I’ve learned for the baby stage is what I really want to tell this man.
Here it is:
You are probably not the cause of, and may not be the solution to, most of the things your baby is doing.
Babies are growing quickly and changing a LOT, all the time, in their first year. Parents have a lot less of an ability at that point to create habits—good OR bad—than we like to think. Mostly, infants are just gonna do what they’re gonna do, based on evolutionary wiring and their specific temperaments.
The truth is, Baby Reed might be fussy right now because he’s going through a growth spurt and is extra hungry, or he could be teething, or he could have growing pains. (You know how your muscles feel after a really tough workout? Think about all the new physical skills babies have to develop, and how fast their strength increases. I bet their muscles are sore a LOT.) Or maybe it’s something else! Maybe he’s right on the verge of a developmental leap, and he’s voicing some frustration over the thing he wants to do, but just can’t quite do yet!
There’s no way to know. And look at that list of possibilities: none of them are caused by good or bad parenting! They’re developmental—they just happen. Babies gotta baby.
But the great thing is, you don’t HAVE to know what the specific problem is every single time, because chances are there’s nothing you need to fix. He’s just going to keep growing and changing, and this stage will pass. Your job is to respond to his cries, to be there for him, comfort and feed and love him as best as you can—and that’s enough. His distress is real, but it’s not permanent. He grew into this period of fussiness, and soon he’ll grow out of it, just like a set of pajamas.
(I mean, sure, if it seems like he might be sick or has a problem you CAN identify, get right on it! But a lot of the time, that’s just not how it works.)
As a new parent myself, every time something seemed to be “wrong,” I wracked my brain to figure out what I had done and what I needed to change to fix the problem. Because if I didn’t, whatever was happening would keep going FOREVER. After all, I was responsible for him! If I didn’t fix it, whatever it was, my baby would cry all day, every day, for the rest of his life, and never learn to sleep or eat or even fart comfortably. And it would be ALL MY FAULT.
This is crazy. It was crazy when I thought it, and it is crazy if you are thinking it.
What’s happening now is not what will happen forever. I promise. Even if you don’t “fix” anything—because your parenting was not the problem in the first place.
So you love them, and you soothe them when they’re upset, and you keep on truckin’. If nursing them every 20 minutes seems to do the trick, do that. If sleeping next to them seems to help, do that (following safe cosleeping guidelines, natch). If carrying them or rocking them to sleep or bouncing on an exercise ball seems to help, do it! None of these things will create permanent “bad habits” in the first year. If they help right now, great! If they stop working for you and your baby in the future, you can change your routine then. Really. No one is locking you into a 5-year parenting plan today.
So we love them and help them as best we can, in this day or this hour or this minute, even when we don’t know what the specific problem is this time. We are there for them, recognizing and respecting that there probably is a legitimate reason for their fussiness, even if we can’t identify it.
And then we can trust that they’ll continue to grow and change, this stage will pass, and things will get easier again (at least temporarily).
We don’t have to have all the answers, just a little patience and empathy and trust.