Sunday, May 25, 2014

Giving your baby what it needs

"I just don't know what he wants."

It's something new parents say often, usually while throwing their hands up in frustration. The sentiment is harmless enough, and I can definitely sympathize. The first year of my son's life was spent spitting out this phrase in sheer exasperation. Being a new parent is the most mind-blowing, exhausting, utterly befuddling experience I have ever endured. You know in theory what your baby needs, but in actuality? That's something that takes work to figure out.

There are two types of parents in the world: First-timers, and the rest of us. Yes, it really is that simple. I say this because I recently realized just what it is that separates the two.

The other night my sister, Casey, was in town and she was helping out my husband and I as we bathed our 3-year-old son and 4-month-old twin daughters. This is no simple affair. To make things more complicated, the babies hadn't napped well that day and were getting pretty cranky. And to top it off, Aaron was selling his truck and had people continually calling, texting, and coming to see it. It was a pretty chaotic night.

After everyone was bathed, Aaron was putting Evan to bed and I swaddled Sadie and handed her to my sister to be fed while I did the same for Beth. Things did not go well for poor Casey as Sadie fought the bottle and cried pretty much continually. By the time I finished with Beth and put her to sleep, Casey had finally calmed Sadie, but she was no longer swaddled or seemingly interested in the bottle. That's when Casey uttered the phrase, "I just don't know what she wants."

A lightbulb went on.

Suddenly I understood that when you're a first-time parent — or not yet a parent, as is the case with my sister — it's all about that four-letter word: "want." Feeling nervous and ill-equipped to care for an infant, we look to the baby for clues as to what it wants. Does it want to be fed? Does it want to be cuddled? Does it want to get out of the crib and play? And then we frantically set off to satisfy those wants in an attempt to soothe the cries of the baby, as well as our own racing hearts and pounding heads.

What's wrong with this scenario? That word "want." If we looked to fulfill just the wants of anyone else, we would soon realize there's a problem. My son wants to eat chocolate and French fries all day and stay up late watching cartoons. I want to sleep in until 9, also eating chocolate and French fries all day, ignoring the laundry and dishes and staying up late reading books and pretending I'm not on call for when my babies wake to be fed at 5 a.m.

But this isn't what we need. We need good sleep and healthy food, with the occasional treat thrown in for good measure. We need physical activity and love and silliness and entertainment and mental stimulation and relaxation, but in the right place at the right time in the right amounts.

It makes sense, then, that trying to figure out what a baby wants is a losing game. Even if a baby was capable of communicating its every desire, we would be crazy to let that baby be in charge. Not only that, but oftentimes, giving a baby what it wants completely contradicts what that baby needs. Here's just one example: Most babies want to be held and rocked all night long, but they need to learn how to fall asleep and stay asleep on their own.

So it's up to us as parents to understand what our children need, and then fulfill those needs as best as we can.

Back to the bathtime scenario... I relieved my sister, re-swaddled Sadie despite her screams of protest, picked her up, and held the bottle in her mouth for a few seconds until she realized, "Oh yeah, I really AM hungry!" And within minutes, she was eating, calm, and on her way to sleep.

I'm not trying to throw my sister under the bus, here. I am grateful she was there to lend a hand, and I certainly don't blame her for not knowing what Sadie needs and how to fulfill those needs. I'm only trying to illustrate the point that newbies chase down wants, while veterans get down to business and take care of needs.

It's easy to see how we get sucked into this way of thinking, that we must look to our babies to give them what they want. We are continually told that babies don't come with an instruction manual, and we just have to figure it out as we go along. But I disagree, and say it doesn't have to be like this.

While we do have to learn on the job, in the trenches, and figure out our own children and their unique needs, we are not left with only the clues our screaming babies leave. There may not be an end-all, be-all encyclopedia on baby raising, but there are a lot of books out there that come pretty close. Then you have the countless magazines, websites and blog posts dedicated to every issue a parent has ever encountered in this modern world, plus advice from friends, family, and complete strangers, offering enough wisdom to help even the most frazzled parent. While I don't think there's ever a one-size-fits-all approach that works for every baby, there's enough collective experience in the world to equip any parent with at least enough tips and tricks to help navigate those tricky parenthood hurdles.

So, first-timers, educate yourself on basic baby needs, especially when it comes to eating and sleeping. Then do your best to be prepared to meet those needs as they come up. Don't be afraid to ask for advice when you need it, and then get to work to figure out how to help your unique baby best.

And don't forget that you are in charge of your baby, not the other way around. Give it what it needs, not what it wants.