Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Baby Behavior Basics Part 4: Crying: Your Baby’s Super Power

Newborns seem to be so tiny and helpless. They need their parents to keep them fed, safe, warm, and dry yet, they can’t use words to describe what they need. How then, can babies make sure their needs are met? Instinctively, they use their ultimate “super power;” they cry.
To most adults, a baby’s cry is one of the most irritating sounds on earth. When babies cry, stress hormones are released and parents spring into frantic action as they search for reasons for the crying. With all this activity, it is certain that the child’s needs eventually will be met. By using their special super power, babies, out of necessity, control their little worlds. One of the biggest secrets of baby behavior is that babies’ ability to cry is really a wonderful talent. Of course, most new parents won’t agree.
A better understanding of why babies cry and what parents can do to calm their babies can help everyone feel better. In this post, we’ll provide an overview of infant crying. We’ll talk about “colic” in later posts.

Crying Babies Aren't Always Hungry
Babies cry whenever they feel uncomfortable or distressed. For babies, being hungry is very uncomfortable and healthy babies cry if they are not fed in response to early hunger cues (see Baby Behavior Basics Part 3). However, babies also cry when they are:
· Tired
· Wet or have a dirty diaper
· Over stimulated
· Too cold or too hot
· Startled or scared
· Bored or lonely
· Sick or in pain
· Frustrated

Using Crying Babies' Cues
Since young babies cry to indicate any kind of distress, parents have to rely on other cues to understand why their babies are crying. Generally, babies who are hungry use many cues to make sure that food is on the way! For details about these and other baby cues, see our last post, Baby Behavior Basics Part 3. Babies who are not hungry will use other cues when they cry. For example, babies who are over stimulated by too many sights, sounds, smells, or well-intentioned relatives may cry and use “disengagement cues” such as turning or arching away. Babies who are over tired, may open and close their eyes and nod their heads as they cry.
If babies don’t get a response to their subtler cues, they will cry. That means responding to early cues can help reduce crying. Remember, young babies can't communicate specific messages and you need to think “big picture” when trying to interpret your baby's cues. Fortunately, as you and your baby get to know each other, you’ll get better at anticipating your baby's needs and recognizing her cues.

Calming the Storm: Repetition, Repetition, Repetition
Unfortunately, fixing the problem (such as removing the barking dog or changing the diaper) doesn’t always stop the crying. Sometimes, babies cry even if there is nothing obviously wrong. Fortunately, there is a solution. Babies are hard-wired to respond to repetition by calming down. That’s why singing, rocking, or riding in the car can help quiet crying babies. Many parents will instinctively pick up their crying babies, hold them close, rock them back and forth, and softly repeat the same words. These instincts are great! Problems start when parents give up too soon because their babies may not calm down right away. Depending on how upset they are, babies can take awhile to relax. By trying lots of different things to stop the crying, parents can make their babies even more upset. Be patient! Keep doing the same thing over and over until your little one feels better.

When the Crying Makes You Crazy
Infant crying is very stressful and in these challenging times, one more stress might be just too much to take. If you feel angry, helpless, or overwhelmed in dealing with your baby’s crying, it is time to get help. While your baby has his “super power” to make sure his needs are met, it is important that you don’t try to be “super human” and deal with your rollercoaster emotions on your own. If you feel out of control, ask a trusted friend or family member to care for your baby or put your baby down in a safe place so that you can take a short break. Every new parent has moments of extreme frustration and fatigue. Talk to your doctor if these moments don’t pass quickly.

Next time: You’ll meet the rest of the moms at the UC Davis Human Lactation Center!

Friday, June 26, 2009

Baby Behavior Basics Part 3 – Learning and Creating Your Baby’s Special Language

One of the most astonishing things about newborns is their ability to communicate almost from the moment they are born. Without words, they manage to let their parents know when they want to eat, learn, play, or rest. They also can use their bodies and some awful noises to send unmistakable signals when they need a break (or a diaper change!). In the past, experienced friends and family members were there to help moms “decode” baby messages. These days, many new parents are on their own in trying to understand their babies’ signals, called “cues.” In this post, we’ll help you translate the seemingly random movements and sounds that your baby makes into comprehensible messages. We’re going to tell you about “engagement cues,” “disengagement cues,” and “clustered cues.”

Engagement cues – When babies want to interact with the people who love them (or anyone nearby), they will instinctively look, move, and make noise in specific ways. Collectively, these movements and noises are called “engagement cues.”
What you’ll see – Your baby will have wide open eyes and look at you or a toy as if they are trying to memorize what they see. Their faces and their bodies will be relaxed and they will use smooth body movements. Older babies may smile and try to touch or taste whatever interests them. When they are very excited, babies will kick their legs and squirm with glee.
What you can do – Using engagement cues, your baby is asking you to help her learn more about you and her new world. At first, your baby will be content just looking at your face and listening to your voice. Later, she’ll want to play more complicated games. Enjoy this time together but be prepared to watch for signs that your baby might be tiring. Engaging with you is hard work!

Disengagement cues – When babies need a break, either for a moment or a nap, they’ll use a different set of movements and noises to make sure you know it. These signs are called “disengagement cues.”
What you’ll see – Your baby may close his eyes, turn his face or body away from you or he may arch or twist his body away. His muscles will be tense and he may frown or look like he is about to cry. If he’s not allowed to take a break, he will start crying to make sure you know what to do. Older babies will stiffen their hands and bring them up towards their faces; they may try to change position, have you pick them up or put them down.
What you can do – Let your baby take a break! Stop whatever you were doing; reduce stimulation in the environment (noises, lights, toys, or interactions) that might have been too much for your baby. Pay close attention and see if your baby is happy with a short break or if he may need a longer one or a big change of scene. Babies who are over stimulated by what is going on around them will use disengagement cues but babies have a very limited ability to communicate. While they can tell you when they need a break, they can’t tell you why they need the break. If you pick up your fussy baby and he arches away from you, he might be trying to tell you that the TV is too loud or that the dog smells bad. Sometimes the problem will be obvious; other times you’ll need to be a detective to figure out what has upset your baby.

The Ultimate Baby Body Language: Clustered Cues
It wouldn’t make sense that it could be hard to tell when a baby is hungry. If people needed a PhD to tell when babies needed to eat, babies wouldn’t survive. Babies will give parents lots of cues, called “clustered cues,” when they need them to do important things. A hungry newborn will move her head looking for something to suck on. She will pull her hands and her knees upward toward her face. She will make sucking noises and try to suck on anything she can find. If no one feeds her right away (babies don’t like to wait), she will start crying while still using all the other cues. Older babies will try to get into a breastfeeding position, or excitedly reach for the bottle or spoon. Babies use clustered cues to show they are full too. They relax their muscles, slow down in their eating, let their hands fall away from their face, and sometimes fall asleep. Making sure you know when to stop feeding is just as important to your baby as letting you know she needs to eat. It is important when parents hear their babies cry that they check for clustered hunger cues before they assume they are hungry.

Creating Your Own Special Language
Now that I’ve made it all sound so simple, I do have to warn you that some babies are not born able to give clear cues. Some babies have to develop their skills over the first few days and weeks. Fortunately, nature makes sure that things turn out well; when parents respond to babies’ signals, babies get better at using cues and parents get better at reading them. After a relatively short time, parents and babies develop their own special language and this continues as children get older and learn other ways to communicate, including using words. We’d love to hear about your baby’s special ways of communicating with you.

Next time: Crying: Your Baby’s Super Power

Monday, June 22, 2009

Baby Behavior Basics Part 2 - The Many Moods of Babies

Babies seem so mysterious; they may be happy one moment then crying hysterically in the next. Having a new baby can be overwhelming, especially when parents struggle to guess what their babies will do next. Fortunately, once you know a few key secrets, babies’ behaviors are no longer so confusing.

To start, let me tell you a little bit about babies’ moods (also called states). When babies are awake (see “Baby Behavior Basics Part 1 for a discussion on sleep states), they move in and out of 4 different states. Parents can identify babies’ states by paying attention to the sounds babies make and how they move and breathe. While we have all heard that “all babies are different,” most healthy babies tend to behave in similar ways in each state. Below, you'll find a summary of the 4 different states and some simple tips on how to identify them in your baby.

What you will see: Drowsy babies’ eyes will open and close, they won’t show interest in toys or playing. They may breathe faster, then more slowly, and they may struggle to keep their heads off their parents’ shoulders. Unfortunately, some babies become irritable and cry whenever they get drowsy. If you have one of those babies, we promise to give you more information why this happens in later posts.

What you can do: Babies in this state need to rest and take a break from what they were doing. Keep in mind that they might need some help to fall asleep.

Quiet Alert
What you will see: Quiet alert babies are relaxed, calm, and happy. Babies in this state are ready to learn and socialize with everyone around them. Quiet alert babies will melt your heart as they stare contently at your face, follow your voice, and work hard to interact and play with you.

What you can do: Babies in this state are ready to interact and learn but they may struggle to stay focused. Keep in mind that while parents get to relax during this happy time, babies must work hard to try to learn despite all the distractions in their new world. That means your baby will get tired of all the fun, long before you will. Watch for signs that your baby needs a break.

What you will see: Irritable babies squirm and fuss. They are not content with toys or playing and may turn and arch away from anyone who is trying to interact with them. They may tense their muscles and breathe irregularly. Hungry babies often become irritable, fussing as they suck on anything they can find. Tired babies get irritable too because playing and learning is so much fun and they don’t want to stop. Sometimes babies will get irritable when they have bowel movements because they aren't used to their own bodily functions. Babies in this state are distracted and frustrated by discomfort or overstimulation.

What you can do: Try to find out why your baby is irritable and make him more comfortable. Check your baby’s diaper. If you see hunger signs, feed your baby. Give your baby a break if he is tired or over-stimulated.

What you will see: I’m sure I don’t need to explain what crying looks like. Crying babies tense their muscles, turn bright red, and make noises that are stressful to anyone around them. Babies cry to indicate distress and to tell their parents they need something (now!). While we’ll talk a lot more about crying in later posts, it is important for you to understand that babies have to make horrible noises to make adults pay attention to them! If babies started cooing when they were hungry or distressed, who would come and take care of them? As hard as it is to hear, crying is a special skill designed to make sure you come running whenever you are needed.

What you can do: Babies in this state are sending a strong signal that they need your help to feel safe and more comfortable. Try using the same soothing movement or sound to calm your crying baby. Depending on how upset he or she is, this may take awhile. Trying different things to soothe your crying baby can backfire. Instead of rocking him and then bouncing him and then singing a song, pick ONE of these soothing techniques and stick with it until your baby calms down. It will save you a lot of time and stress!

While this all may seem a little confusing, we’ll be sharing specifics about each of these states over the coming weeks. Until next time, watch your baby to see how he or she moves in and out of these states. Does your baby mind being drowsy? How long can your baby stay quiet and alert before he or she gets tired? Is your baby starting to develop patterns of behavior like fussing in the afternoons or crying in certain situations? We’d love to hear your stories and answer your questions.

Next Time: Learning and Creating Your Baby’s Special Language

Thanks to Jennifer Goldbronn for all her work on this post!

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Baby Behavior Basics Part 1 - Three Reasons Why Babies Don't Sleep Through the Night

One of the most challenging parts of being a new parent is dealing with lack of sleep. Most newborns wake up every 2 hours, around the clock, and many parents desperately wonder when their babies will finally sleep through the night. Tired parents are barraged with the latest gizmos and "systems" to get their babies to sleep longer. Unfortunately, young babies are not supposed to sleep through the night. Waking up at night doesn't make anyone happy, but thankfully, it isn't long before babies naturally sleep for longer stretches. You will get some restful nights, at least until your baby grows up and learns to drive...
No matter what you've heard, there is no one age when all babies will sleep through the night and babies can vary how many times they wake. There's no getting around it; young babies need to wake up at night for some very good reasons and their physiology ensures that's exactly what they do.

Reason 1. Young Babies Wake to Eat
Newborn tummies are very tiny. They can't take in very much at each feeding. No matter how they are being fed, by breast or bottle, babies' rapid growth requires that they are fed frequently. While there is a lot of variability in how much babies can drink at one time, all babies need to eat during the night for the first few weeks of life. As they get bigger, babies can drink more at one time and they don't have to wake as often to eat.

Reason 2. Young Babies Wake Because They Dream
Babies don't sleep like adults. When adults first fall asleep, they fall into a deeper sleep without dreaming, then dream for short periods of time (off and on) throughout the night. Babies fall asleep dreaming (in "rapid eye movement" or REM sleep) and move more slowly to "deeper" forms of sleep, without dreams. For infants, dreaming is vital for normal brain development. While infants dream, blood flows to their brains and neural connections are made. Because it is so important for their development, newborns may dream 30 minutes before they fall into deeper sleep. Premature infants dream even longer and more often than term infants.

Babies, like adults, are more likely to wake up when they are dreaming than if they are in deeper forms of sleep. So, if something happens while they are dreaming, like the phone rings or they are put down into a bassinet, babies are likely to wake. When babies are dreaming, their eyelids will flutter and their faces and bodies will twitch, so it is easy for parents to see when babies stop dreaming and enter deeper forms of sleep. By waiting to put newborns down until after signs of dreaming stop, parents can help their babies stay asleep. By the time babies are 3 or 4 months old, they fall asleep in deeper sleep just like their parents. Often, parents of 4-month-old babies will notice how much "better" their babies are sleeping. Many babies will sleep most of the night around 6 to 9 months of age.

Reason 3. Young Babies Wake to Stay Comfortable and Safe
Babies are born with brand new lungs, muscles, and brains. Sometimes, their little bodies need a little time to get into synch. If babies sleep too deeply, they may get too hot or too cold or they may not wake when they need move their muscles or to get a little more air. This does not mean that babies should wake up all the time. After the first 6 weeks (when almost anything goes), most babies will settle down and sleep 3- to 4-hour stretches. As they get older and their bodies mature, they will sleep even longer.

But..."I Need My Sleep"...
Now that I've given you so much bad news, what can I say to reassure my bleary-eyed readers? I can tell you that all the sleep deprivation is directly supporting the health and development of your wonderful new baby. I can also tell you, that this time passes and before you know it, your baby will be a child, a teen, and suddenly, an adult. You won't believe me, but you'll miss these early months (well, maybe not those first 6 weeks). Meanwhile, rest when you can, even sitting quietly can be helpful. Get as much help as you can with household chores and other responsibilities. Most people love to help new moms.

Just one more thing! Sometimes interrupted sleep can be so stressful that parents may find that they can't think clearly. When we are very tired, the normal checks and balances in our brains don't always work the way they should. If you ever find yourself feeling upset or angry with your baby for waking you up (again!), make sure you take the time to get yourself fully awake before you pick up your baby. Splash some water on your face, have a drink of water, and then care for your baby. When you're awake, you'll be much more likely to make good decisions. If you find that you are often angry or having trouble controlling your emotions, get some help. It is important for you and your baby that you get help. Talk to your doctor or a trusted friend or family member. There are many people who will understand your feelings; you are not alone.
Sweet Dreams!

Next time: Baby Behavior Basics Part 2: The Many Moods of Babies

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Not Rocket Science

Understanding babies isn't rocket science. If it was, human beings never would have survived as a species. As a new parent, you may be thinking, if it isn't hard to figure out what my baby needs, why do I feel so lost? Maybe your baby seems to be fine one minute and screaming the next. Maybe you are wondering how much longer your baby will keep waking up at night. Maybe you wish you knew the secrets that other parents seem to know, especially those parents with the "good" babies who seem so happy all the time. Maybe you've already read magazines and books and bought toys, bags, chairs, slings, videos, and anything else that promises to keep your baby happy. Yet, sometimes your baby is not happy; sometimes the crying and the sleepless nights seem endless.

Parenting is a tough job and sadly, much of the wisdom and support that struggling parents used to get from their own familes has been lost. Expectations for how babies should behave have been distorted by idealized media versions of "perfect" babies and their well-coifed, well-dressed mothers who get rid of their "baby weight" in the first week after their babies are born.

It's time to use a little common sense and readjust our thinking. We can learn a lot from babies and the wonderful research that has been done about them over the last 30 years. In this blog, you'll hear from moms who have been in the trenches (and in the classroom), who understand what you are going through and what your baby is trying to tell you. We look forward to sharing our knowledge and experience with you and we hope that you'll share your ideas and questions with us.