Many of our ideas about what babies need are based on a misunderstanding about their fragility. Of course, babies are quite fragile in many ways. They choke very easily and have weak immune systems. For this reason, being told to do anything vigorously may seem as counterintuitive to you as being told that adding a slimy, raw egg to a cake will make it delicious … yet, it’s every bit as true!
That’s because, in many other ways, your newborn is a tough little “cave” baby. He can snooze at the noisiest parties and scream at the top of his lungs much longer than you or I could. Parents are often amazed at how forcefully nurses handle babies when they bathe and burp them. Even breast-feeding may feel pushy when you first learn how. Yet experienced moms know they must be assertive when latching their baby on the breast or else they’ll end up with sore nipples and a frustrated baby.
One mom in my practice, a psychologist, realized how impossible it was to gently guide her baby from screaming to serenity:
“Because of my professional training, I’m very good at remaining calm and reasonable even in the face of frantic and angry outbursts. I expected that this mild demeanor would also help me guide my one-month-old, Helene, out of her primitive screaming fits. What a joke! This little brawler needed me to take control like police subduing a rowdy mob.”
Parents often mistakenly believe that their job is to lead their unhappy baby into calmness by responding to his wails with soft whispers and gentle rocking. While that’s a very reasonable, civilized approach, it rarely calms an infant in the middle of a meltdown.
Jessica tried to calm her frantic six-week-old by wrapping him up, turning on a tape recording of the vacuum, and putting him in the swing. But it backfired. Like a little Houdini, Jonathan freed himself from the swaddle in minutes and wailed longer and louder than ever. I suggested that Jessica try tightening the wrapping and turning on the real vacuum, not a tape. Jonathan’s screaming bouts shortened from hours to minutes!
Most first-time parents don’t feel instantly comfortable with their fussy baby’s need for vigor. Let’s face it, as a parent you’re given so much contradictory advice. One minute, you’re warned to handle your baby gently and the next you’re told to deposit your shrieking child into a buzzing bouncy seat beside a roaring vacuum cleaner. Yet experienced baby “wranglers” know the more frantically a baby is crying the tighter his swaddling, the louder the shushing, and the more jiggly the swinging must be, or else they simply won’t work.
The fastest way to succeed in stopping your baby’s cycle of crying is to meet his level of intensity. Only after your screaming baby pauses for a few moments can you gradually slow your motion, soften your shushing, and guide him down from his frenzy to a soft landing.
The best colic-calmers say that soothing an infant is like dancing with him—but they always let the baby lead! These talented people pay close attention to the vigor of their infant’s crying and mirror it with the vigor of their 5 “S’s.” If crying is frantic, the rocking and shushing are as spirited as a jitterbug. As cries turn into sobs, the response shifts to the fluid pace of a waltz. And once the baby slips into serenity, their actions slide into the gentle to-and-fro of a slow dance. Of course, any return to screaming is immediately met with renewed vigor and a bouncy tempo.