Your Little One's Worries
Sure, your little one's not worried about her plummeting 401(k) or a too-long to-do list, but the ordeals of daily life can have the same physiological effect on her that stress has on you, flooding her with hormones like cortisol and speeding up her heart rate. That can turn her into a cranky crybaby who flails her limbs, fusses, and furrows her brow.
"Babies need to learn how to cope with stress," says Cathi Propper, Ph.D., a research scientist at the University of North Carolina's Center for Developmental Science, in Chapel Hill. "With your support, your child will pick up soothing strategies over the first year so that she can start to do it on her own." Until then, we've got advice on helping your little one through five scenarios that ratchet up the tension in her life.
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Shopping In a Crowded Store
Lights! Noise! Strangers cooing at him! All that sensory input can cause an overload. To shut it out, he may start howling.
Soothing Solution: Stop for a moment and take a cuddle break, as Amy Pitzen, of Aurora, Illinois, did when 6-monthold Tim began wailing in the mall. "I started to head back to the car, but he was so upset that I ended up finding a quiet corner and nursing. The only thing that soothed him was skin-to-skin contact and the sound of my heartbeat." Can't pause to snuggle? Tuck one of your scarves or blankets from home in next to him. A study from Gettysburg College, in Pennsylvania, found that familiar scents help worked-up babies calm down faster.
Not Having Your Full Attention
Why does your baby fuss the second you get on the phone? Because she's used to having your instant response to her smiles, coos, and cries of frustration -- and few situations stress her out as much as feeling ignored (even temporarily).
Soothing Solution: Let her know you hear her. In one study, babies who were genetically predisposed to be unable to regulate their heart rate under stress learned to calm themselves as effectively as other babies by 12 months. The key? Having attentive, sensitive caregivers who responded quickly to their cries and paid attention when they needed it, says Cathi Propper, Ph.D., a research scientist at the University of North Carolina's Center for Developmental Science, in Chapel Hill. "Some infants have the form of a gene that has been linked to excitability, but positive parenting can override its negative effect." That doesn't mean you have to give up talking on the phone, but if your baby seems upset, smile or dangle a rattle to let her know you haven't forgotten her.
Just like you, your little one is more susceptible to feeling tense (and having a meltdown) when she's exhausted.
Soothing Solution: Get moving. "When our 5-month-old misses a nap, she becomes so cranky and stressed-out," says Hollie Meyer, of Mason City, Iowa. Her fix: wrapping her baby up and rocking her, since rhythmic motion can lull a frantic infant. If your baby gets a second wind -- she's fussy from lack of sleep but is too upset to settle down -- hanging out in a front carrier or a sling can keep her happy as it quiets her jangled nerves. When it's not too cold, head out for a walk in the stroller; the white noise of nature can be as calming as the movement.
Being Left With a Babysitter
Between 6 and 8 months, your baby may fuss when he's left with an unfamiliar caregiver, thanks to separation anxiety, a normal stage that turns new faces or situations into stress inducers.
Soothing Solution: Tune in to your baby's personality so you can tailor how best to help him soothe himself, says Cynthia A. Stifter, Ph.D., professor of human development and psychology at Penn State, in University Park. For instance, allow plenty of time to introduce a shy or high-needs baby to the sitter before you dash out the door. With a more mellow child, offer a new toy; the novelty will distract him from his stress pangs so that you can say an upbeat goodbye and make your escape.
Sensing That You're Stressed
If the holidays leave you feeling swamped, don't be surprised if your baby starts acting as fussy as you feel. "Babies look to their parents for cues about life," says Elizabeth Pantley, author of The No-Cry Nap Solution. "When you show signs of stress, then your baby figures there is something he should be worried about too." Even if you're not in full-blown freak-out mode, your subtle "I'm frazzled!" signs -- rushing, fidgeting, speaking loudly -- can signal to your little one that it's time to fret.
Soothing Solution: You don't have to hide your emotions from your baby. Instead, show him that you are capable of soothing yourself (preferably not with a pint of Ben and Jerry's). Take a minute to calm both of you by blowing raspberries into your baby's tiny tummy. The tickling sensation will break his tension, while the deep breathing will ease your own.
Originally published in the December 2009 issue of Parents magazine.