Those first 2 weeks of life are pretty simple: feed, sleep, diaper. Lather, rinse and repeat. From about 2 weeks until 12-14 weeks, the Happiest Baby strategies for getting a baby calm and sleeping soundly really do work to keep newborns (and parents) happy. I am a certified Happiest Baby educator, and it is relatively easy to decode the common complaints of newborns in those first weeks and months. In fact, using The Happiest Baby techniques can make it easier to see true medical problems that fussiness and intractable crying were masking. This is one of the best reasons to learn these techniques if you or your partner are not pediatric clinicians. And maybe even if you are.
After that period, the swaddle is replaced by a sleep garment, side and stomach positioning to calm doesn’t have much of an effect, and the swing is put away in the garage. Using white noise can continue, and so can the pacifier. If so, then why is this period a minefield for accidental parenting? Because changes in behavior that are just normal development aren’t anticipated and interpreted. All you fans of the 5 S’s of Happiest Baby on the Block, here is what is coming down the line: big changes that you need to anticipate and manage in a forward-thinking manner. It won’t be so simple at 4 months. Don’t be nervous; keep your eyes open and read the rest of this post!
I am a big fan of The Baby Whisperer’s books, with her strategies for a flexible but firm routine in the first year. Tracy Hogg’s infant routines can seem a bit rigid to some parents, but if you asked a little one, they don’t find reasonable routines (not rigid ones) to be strict. Routines help little people know what to expect and when to expect it. Trust me, the younger you are, the more it helps to use routines to communicate. Without the ability to speak, babies can’t tell us what is going on for them either. Knowing that a child is behaving inconsistently is an important way to see a leap in development or an emerging illness. How else would you know that refusing to nurse is because of an actual problem instead of being overtired? Without a baseline of regular behavior at regular times, it is much harder to see inconsistent reactions that signal distress once babies are more complicated. And at 4 months and up, things get more complicated.
Take a look at the Baby Whisperer’s E.A.S.Y. plans for eating, activity, sleep, time for you at different stages. Beware of what she calls “accidental parenting”. Dr. Karp does a nice job talking about this trap as well in his great book The Happiest Baby Guide to Great Sleep but I think that Tracy Hogg gives more helpful hints on schedules and real-life baby day scenarios. Accidental parenting is like John Lennon’s famous line “Life is what happens when you are busy doing other things.” Accidental parenting happens when the solution to a heat-of-the moment problem results in habits that cause bigger problems.
A good example is a young infant that is fussy and falls asleep nursing, and after a few nights of this super-easy way to get him to sleep, now cannot fall asleep any other way. Why is this a problem? Because when mom is at the store, this child is exhausted and unable to nap. He also cannot sleep in his crib or anywhere else but on his mom. This is not a child who is experiencing the warmth of connection: this is a child who is uncomfortable unless he has exactly one situation and one alone. He has accidentally been taught that there is only one way to settle and sleep, by the very people that want him to feel safe and calm in his own body anywhere. That is the problem with accidental parenting. The actions taken were a short-term fix for a problem, not a real long-term plan for greater peace and flexibility.
Both the Baby Whisperer and Dr. Karp have similar solutions for you if you have done some accidental parenting at this young age. Again, I am going to say that Tracy Hogg gives you more details about the solutions, but they both have good ideas. The most important things to remember about their solutions:
- Have confidence that your future vision of calmness and your newly-found knowledge from these experts will work. The current atmosphere is to distrust “authorities” of all stripes, but there are people that know their way around these early months. If you distrust everyone, you are left hoping that your guess is the right one.
- Learn to read your child’s cues correctly. They both give you information that can counter there frantic sense that there is no rhyme or reason to all that fussiness. You can only interpret these cues if you know a lot about normal development and pay attention to your child over time.
- Expect change, and learn what the next stage is. Everyone changes, but babies change fast. A 6 week-old and a 6 month-old can be so very different. That is only a difference of a few months but it is an eternity in infant development. Stay on your toes and anticipate this. You are the receiver and that child is the quarterback. Pay attention and get ready for new signals. Sorry to confuse those of you who don’t follow American Football. But I think you get the general idea. Anticipate change.
- Don’t expect an easy fix, and don’t waiver in your commitment. The older the child, and the stronger their temperament, the longer a habit created from accidental parenting takes to shift.
- Get support, and don’t try a strategy that you really resist. Forcing a child is not what routines are about, and if you need to tweak a strategy, then do it. If you are the parent that can’t handle even a little fussing, then switch off to your partner to help your child realize that his distress about switching from nursing to sleep to sleeping another way is habitual and can change. Because it can.
- Notice when you are unrealistic about what babies can manage, or if you are so uncomfortable with any fussiness that you are qualify as a victim of Tracy Hogg’s “poor baby syndrome”, in which you feel so guilty about any crying for any reason at all that you lose your wider view of what a child needs.
Accidental parenting is nothing to be ashamed of. This parenting thing is hard, very hard, and everyone is doing their best. I really believe that. Habits can change, and things can go forward successfully with a different approach!