Thursday, January 28, 2010

New Babies, Growing Families, and Fitting In

Because babies are so small and needy, we tend not to think of them as needing to adapt to “fit in” to their new families. Instead, parents think of all the adjustments that they have to make to meet their babies’ needs. Yes, we know how hard it is to care for a new baby, but try to imagine early life from the baby’s perspective. Babies must adapt to a whirlwind of new experiences and learn how to communicate with no words and very little control over their own bodies. They must rely on adults to meet their needs and teach them everything about life. The relationships babies build with their parents, siblings, grandparents, and other family members provide the foundation they need to grow and develop into happy, successful people. As we wrap up this series and babies' relationships, we'll take a close look at the critical role that the family plays in babies' lives.

The Foundation of Family

Sixty years ago, developmental psychologists thought that the only relationship that mattered for a baby was the one he had with his mother. These days, researchers realize that many people are involved in helping babies socialize and learn. Of course, the first and most influential group in a baby's life is his family. In today's diverse world, "family" is defined more in terms of members' emotional ties and responsiblities rather than by genetics or roles in more formal or traditional structures. For our purposes, a baby's "family" refers to the group of people who interact with and care for him.

The Family "System"

As scientists have learned more about infants' social development, they've come to understand that family influences on babies don't work in isolation from each other. Families form networks with each member playing a special role in the baby's life. As mentioned in an earlier post, family members' relationships with a baby are influenced by the temperament and behavior of the baby. But, these relationships are also influenced by family members' relationships with each other. The whole family works together as a "system" as they interact with the baby and with one another. In secure and happy families, this "system" creates a safety net for each member to deal with the inevitable ups and downs of childrearing. When families are uncooperative or in direct conflict, the safety net breaks down and everyone, including the baby, is challenged.

For many new parents and family members, the physical and emotional stress of dealing with a new baby is overwhelming. No one ever seems to be doing enough to help. Ties between family members that may be already strained can snap, and caregivers can turn against one another. Fortunately, no family "system" is inevitably stuck in one pattern. Familes have the capacity to change and develop just like their children. For many familes, this development happens naturally as babies get older and easier to care for, but others may need help, and even professional support, to work together.

Baby Behavior and a Lighter Burden

Babies need consistent loving care from those around them. Even when they are not exhausted, family members who don't understand what the baby wants or why the baby is crying are far more likely to avoid or resent having to care for the baby. As more family members learn to understand babies' behaviors and cues, more individuals are ready to confidently support babies' efforts to "fit in." Sharing the basics of baby behavior might help lessen the burden on everyone.

In our first post in this series, we asked "where is that village" that is supposed to be needed to raise a child? For some, that village is already close by and family members are ready to work together. For others, help is needed from trusted friends or professionals to get family members to see how working together is best for themselves as well as the baby. Still, others may need to build their village from scratch, reaching out to trusted friends and making a family "system" all their own.

Next time: We'll answer some of your questions!


  1. This was an excellent article. It really hit home with what my husband and I have been struggling with. We just had our first child and have no family in the area. So, we don't have a ready group of caregivers that are invested in getting to know and care for our child. Our friends don't understand why we can't just "get a sitter" to go out. I just can't see leaving our baby with a stranger that doesn't know him and can't respond to his needs. So, if he can't go with us then we don't go. It's exhausting, but I think it is so much better for our little guy (and for us since we're either all happy or all miserable!)

  2. I certainly understand the challenge of having a new baby with no family nearby but I hope that you will seek out some friends that you can trust to watch your baby even for a short time so that you and your husband can get a break sometimes. Maybe someone in your circle would be open to hearing about baby behavior and you can "translate" your child's cues for them. Sometimes friends without kids can be afraid of caring for a baby but with enough practice in your presence, you both might be comfortable enough that you can get a break.