02 May 2015

How To Soothe Baby – An Insider’s Perspective

There is no doubt in my mind that some sort of cosmic baby lottery exists. Some people, like most of our friends, hit the baby jackpot: their children are happy, they’re healthy, and they’re quiet – often. Other people, like my wife and I, lose the baby lottery – or maybe it’s more appropriate to say that we bought a ticket and ended up being one integer away from every winning number. Our child is healthy (and very good looking), which is such an amazing comfort and relief. However, he is a loud, angry scream factory who demands nothing less than an all-consuming, undivided attention just to keep him from reaching a particular shrill frequency in his cries that literally causes our dogs to start barking.

I’m absolutely certain that last sentence has already engendered the fiery wrath of an entire swath of mothers and fathers who adhere to some version of a “no-cry” parenting style. And I’m totally empathetic to their concerns. But here’s the thing: I don’t think there’s a single parent who is pro crying. No parent wants to see their child cry – for any reason. And honestly, after talking to dozens upon dozens of new parents and after reading extensively on the subject, I’m convinced that most people who win the baby lottery just have absolutely no clue what it’s like to have a child who cannot be soothed for more than a few minutes at a time.

Sure - they probably have a conceptual grasp of sleep deprivation, but they don’t understand working out a detailed schedule and spatial sleep arrangement so that both you and your partner can get just enough winks to stave off the constant nausea that you both feel. They probably understand the need to let the household chores go a bit, but they don’t understand the swirling cauldron of madness that sucks you down further and further as every time something you’re in the middle of is interrupted by your child abruptly waking and screaming so loud you think his larynx will be permanently damaged – and the ever-increasing trail of unfinished tasks that you leave behind and that you or your partner know you will need to, at some point, finish. They probably understand being incredibly concerned and worried about their child, but they’re unfamiliar with the erosion on your psyche when you have attended classes, read books, talked to doctors, and had experiences with many other people’s children but remain consistently and completely ineffectual at comforting a being who is both yourself and the person you know so well and decided to spend the rest of your life with.

And they don’t understand how taxing it is to constantly triage your screaming child: you feed your baby, change your baby, swaddle your baby, and then spend 45 minutes loving your baby, holding him just right, rocking him at precisely the right angle and speed, repeatedly singing the 4 vividly metaphorical sea shanties you learned just for him before he was born (because his nursery was nautically themed), gently rubbing your nose from his forehead down to the tip of his nose to get him to close his eyes, watching him ever-so-slowly fall asleep, and then delicately placing him into his favorite cozy spot inch by inch, turning on the vibration he likes without taking your hands off of him, turning on the only nature sound (flowing water) that calms him down, and slowly moving away as if you’re drawing your arms out of a shoulder-deep vat of volatile chemicals that would set off a nuclear reaction should they come together too quickly. And then 15 minutes later your child starts screaming all over again.

Despite the incredibly diverse range of disparate beliefs about parenting styles (and the concomitant zealous devotion that many people seem to have to their own particular parenting style), the surprising truth is that your choices about parenting style are probably more influenced by the personality of your child than you might like to admit – and not the other way around. Hand a “no-cry parent” my child, and they would probably give a little ground after two or three nights. Give us a relatively quiet child, and we would probably take all the care we spread out across our child’s day and laser focus it on those few times per day that our quiet child did become fussy.

Fortunately, my wife and I were lucky enough to have both been at home for the first eight weeks of our child’s life (which is a whole different kind of cosmic lottery that we’ve been playing for a long time). We had the luxury of being able to help each other whenever the other person was getting to a breaking point, which is a better situation than a lot of new parents (and new babies) experience. In hopes of making life a little easier for other parents and those who will undoubtedly babysit our child at some point – I’ve put together a flow chart for comforting our child. It’s based on a few months of heavy reading, experimentation, and repeated trials – since you get a lot of chances to try new things when your child screams whenever he’s not eating. And although you’ve probably read this before, it’s worth mentioning again: sometimes, babies just cry. In those times when you’ve taken care of all of Baby’s needs and tried everything twice but nothing seems to make Baby any happier – put Baby in a safe spot and then take a break, collect your thoughts, and remember that your efforts are an investment, even if you’re not seeing immediate returns.

Notes on the Flowchart:
1.      Sources of discomfort include things like an irritated bottom (if there’s any hint of red, go ahead and go nuts with the butt cream); chafing fuzzies in skin folds or in-between fingers or toes; loose hairs on the face, in the eyes, or wrapped around fingers or toes; lines from the diaper being too tight; and any number of other things. It’s important to make sure that you check the diaper and Baby before feeding since these things will probably wake Baby up, while feeding usually helps induce sleep. It doesn’t hurt to check Baby’s temperature during this process and make any decisions about clothing if Baby seems too warm or too cold.
2.      Feeding baby is, naturally, an incredibly fraught subject. Undoubtedly, breastfeeding exclusively should be an ideal goal, but sometimes that’s just not possible. We began supplementing with formula once or twice a day depending on how hungry our child was, and it definitely helped. When babies go through growth spurts, it can sometimes feel like the only thing they want to do is eat every 30 minutes. Sometimes, you’ll feed them until they are full – and ten minutes later they will be hungry again when you assume that’s impossible because they just ate. More often than any other issue, Baby is probably hungry when he or she is crying. As far as I know, it’s pretty difficult to overfeed any infant (and nigh-impossible to overfeed a breastfed one) to the point where it’s dangerous or unhealthy – you might just need to deal with a little spit-up or an epic poopy diaper a few hours later.
3.      At every turn, it seems like people are suggesting that gas is the problem when babies cry. In our experience, it seems like about 60% of the time, gas may be distressful enough to cause sustained crying. The other 40% of the time, Baby might pass gas from both ends and not even open his eyes. The inconsistency of his reactions to gas make me skeptical that it’s a root cause of serious, prolonged crying/screaming episodes. That being said, a change of position from laying down to sitting up often quiets Baby immediately – at least for a few moments. Continuously giving him some gentle but noticeable thumps on his back while he’s in a sitting position (like he’s being burped) often soothes him. Sometimes, even an hour after a feeding, he’ll still burp, and that may or may not seem to relieve him.
4.      Determining Baby’s “alertness phase,” for lack of a better term, is helpful but not always necessary. If you’re not sure, go ahead and assume they were alert. Babies cry when they’re bored – and when they’re overstimulated. It’s better to engage your baby by trying some play and seeing if it redirects their attention. If they’re still upset during play (and after you’ve taken care of all their needs), they’re probably overstimulated or fighting off sleep. In both cases, you’ll want to transition into a calmer environment.
5.      Most babies naturally seem to hate tummy time and will start crying when you start doing it. So, if Baby is already upset, you might as well use it to your and your baby’s advantage and get some tummy time in. Babies are usually more active when they’re upset too, so the tummy time will be more productive. Granted, you want to try to create positive associations with play whenever possible, but unless your kid really loves tummy time, they’re going to get upset regardless. Just be there for Baby – rub his/her back, talk soothingly to Baby, and encourage him/her.
6.      After you have attended to Baby’s needs and tried some playtime for a while, you may notice that about an hour has passed since Baby finished eating. If this is the case (and Baby is still crying), there’s a good chance he/she is hungry again. This, unfortunately, means you probably have to start triage all over again. The good news is that Baby will at least be quiet for a while as he or she feeds – and you can get a little bit of a mental break.
7.      More than anything else, Baby loves your voice – even if they don’t seem to respond to it. Baby heard your voice while in the womb and has heard your voice ever since birth. Trust me when I say they love your voice. It’s a great source of comfort for them – even if it doesn’t seem like it while they’re having a fit. You will definitely want to talk to Baby to comfort him/her, but you’ll also want something on in the background so that when you stop talking, there is some kind of sound continuity. Having some white noise like nature sounds, static, or even a recording of you saying “shhhhh” on a loop will help Baby transition from being the focus of your attention to being on his or her own.
8.      You will want two comfortable places: one for you and one for Baby. A comfy couch with lots of pillows and blankets is nice when your legs are tired and you just need to sit down. It’s also nice if you happen to get baby into a good place and you’re hesitant to move for fear of inciting another episode. The goal should be to put Baby down in a bassinet or crib, but sometimes you just need to enjoy the quiet (and soak in the presence of your adorable child at his or her best) for a while. That being said, you should make sure the spot you hope to put Baby in is ready and comfortable before you start soothing. My wife and I heat up a heating pad and lay it in the bassinet where Baby will sleep so that it’s not an abrupt temperature shift when we lay him down. Sometimes straps, buckles, or even the tightly sewn edges of strap holes can be irritating to Baby, so make sure there’s a soft, padded, taught surface for Baby to safely lay on his or her back.
9.      This is where my patience and willpower often started to really drain, especially since our child had a seemingly endless reserve of energy with which to continue screaming despite our best efforts to help him out; I feel like some days he is awake 24 hours. Regardless, this point in the process is where you need to not only have patience and willpower, but also make mental (or written) notes about what seems to work for your baby. Also, know that what works for your baby will change. Our child would scream as soon as we set him down in his swing, so we gave up on it. Out of desperation, we tried it two weeks later and it put him to sleep right away – only to end up being completely useless the next day. Sometimes Baby, ironically, wants more vigorous interventions in order to relax. I will sometimes move him around so much that it feels like he is an astronaut in training, and he will close his eyes and go limp, which is what you usually want to wait for before finally attempting to put Baby down. More often, I will just set him down on my chest on his tummy – gasp! – and pat his back; I would not advise doing this unless you’re awake and can make sure Baby is okay. The key, really, is experimenting with as many ideas as you can devise. I did discover that gently and slowly moving my finger (or nose when my hands were occupied) from the center of Baby’s forehead down to the tip of his nose made him close his eyes in response and primed him for calming down, especially when he had already started turning things down a notch. Another thing that works every time for me is swaddling baby, holding him on his side up near my neck, patting his back, twisting my torso so that he rocks in a half-moon pattern, and “shhh”ing about six inches from his ear; I also made sure he was facing out a window. This little technique has become known as “daddy magic” at our house. It’s exhausting doing it for a long time, but it calms him down immediately every time I do it.
10.  This is pretty much the breaking point for me. At this point, you’ve probably spent 45 minutes or more focusing solely on Baby trying to get him or her to fall asleep. Sometimes, babies will go right back into full-blown panic mode the second they are set down. Other times, you’ll spend a few minutes slowly, almost finger-by-finger, transitioning away from Baby and he or she will be asleep as you walk away only to wake up screaming a few minutes later while you’re in the middle of washing the 10 baby bottles that have stacked up next to the sink over the last couple days. Once in a while, though, you’ll have a blissful 45 minutes or hour and a half to yourself while Baby sleeps quietly. Whether it’s five minutes of silence or a hundred and five minutes, prepare yourself to start back at square one as soon as the crying starts up again.

Final, Important Note:
I wrote most of this during the first 6 weeks of Baby’s life. We thought we were making some good progress during week 5 only to have Baby completely lose his mind during week 6. However, after that insanity, things have calmed down, and he is making great progress. He started sleeping for longer stretches (1.5 to 2 hours usually, but sometimes up to 4 hours) at night (after midnight) and in the early morning (until about 10am). Once he started doing that, we started to get him into a more regular nightly routine where we would feed him, give him a bath, swaddle him, and then either feed him and then put him in his bassinet or just put him straight into his bassinet. (Baths were the only thing he never hated – he’s always quiet and content during his bath, and he smiles like a maniac afterwards.) He’s still a pretty fussy kid, but he tends to mostly just be fussy when he’s hungry now – which is still relatively often. He also smiles at us more, interacts with toys, and makes more typical cooing and other baby vocalizations that aren’t screaming. So, like everyone we know has told us, it does – in fact – get better.

No comments:

Post a Comment