Raise a Resilient Baby

Not all first-year milestones are fun, but helping your baby face them will make her stronger and healthier.
Thayer Allyson Gowdy

For the most part, Baby's days are pretty blissful -- full of snoozing, snacking, and bouts of worshipful adoration from an ever-growing fan base. And you'd like to keep it all rainbows and unicorns, forever. But unfortunately, no matter how hard you try to protect your baby from life's little bumps and bruises, being human means dealing with difficult challenges on occasion. And they start early.

In the first year, your baby will face a handful of slightly taxing but standard milestones. As trying as shots, sickness, and mastering motor development may be, they are good experiences in the long run. Facing hard stuff head-on builds traits like perseverance, grit, and an ability to bounce back from missteps. "Babies are capable and resourceful," says Wendy Mogel, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in Los Angeles and author of The Blessing of a Skinned Knee. "But as good-intentioned parents, we can get so jittery that we do too much to solve our babies' problems for them." The best thing to do is just relax as your little one tackles these six bummer milestones.

As your growing baby moves from crawling to cruising to walking, she'll probably get her share of bumps and boo-boos, and occasionally a more severe injury, like a bruise from a bonk against the coffee table. It's enough to make you want to encase your whole house in cotton batting.

Falling Down Over and Over

Falling down, then getting right back up again, helps your baby understand that biting the dust can't keep her from an important goal -- and that most spills aren't worth the fuss. In fact, some minor physical mishaps are simply signs that your child is doing exactly what she's meant to do. "Mostly we get injured because we're exploring or having fun, doing something with our bodies, and learning how our bodies work," Dr. Mogel says. And those first few oops-a-daises, when your baby looks to you for a cue how to react, are the perfect opportunities to teach your little one that when we stumble, we pick ourselves back up again. Do some basic childproofing, then keep a lid on your "Oh my gosh we have to go to the ER" panic (unless it is an actual emergency). Instead, smile and say, "You're okay!" Chances are, Baby will bounce right back up and keep on toddling.

For many newborns, learning to fall asleep on their own, often at about 3 to 4 months of age, is accompanied by plenty of, um, sound effects, to say the least. However, this crying doesn't necessarily mean your munchkin needs you to step in. "There's a misconception that if you let a baby cry too much, he won't feel loved," says Aaron Kaweblum, M.D., a pediatrician in Boca Raton, Florida, and author of Crystoppers. However, going into the room when your child cries at night may hinder your baby's ability to develop self-soothing techniques. "The baby who wakes numerous times at night will be exhausted, leaving the parents nonfunctioning," Dr. Kaweblum says.

Crying Himself to Sleep

Aside from the obvious fact that a well-rested mom is a happier mom, a baby who can fall asleep on his own has learned the vital skill of self-soothing -- meaning, he doesn't have to rely on you to feel better, he can do it himself. After your nightly bedtime routine, give your baby a kiss and place him in the crib while he's drowsy but still awake. Some babies may not cry at all or may cry for 10 minutes and konk out. Others may cry intensely, stop for a few minutes, then cry some more before falling asleep, he says. Keep an eye on your baby monitor, so you can be sure nothing is wrong. "After about three nights with this method, most infants won't bother with a crying session and will go to sleep on their own," says Dr. Kaweblum. Stick it out, and you'll end up with a happier baby and a lifetime of good sleep -- for the whole family.

You're thrilled when your sweetie figures out how to sit up by herself, a milestone she'll likely knock out between 6 and 10 months. But then comes the aftermath, when she inevitably gets stuck, can't figure out how to lie herself back down, and ends up screaming for help. When you have to perform middle-of-the-night rescues, her exciting mobility move seems a lot less charming.

Sitting Up and Getting Stuck

Most of your infant's big moments in motor development, including sitting up, rolling over, pulling to a stand, crawling, and walking, are rooted in discontent. She wants to see the world, grab that toy, get to Mama, and darn it, she just can't -- yet. It's these desires that motivate your baby to push herself to master physical milestones. Trouble is, once she figures out a new skill, she may want to practice it 24-7 for a few weeks. "As babies learn new skills, they may do them without trying, such as rolling over while sleeping," says Sandy Chung, M.D., a Fairfax, Virginia, pediatrician and author of Dr. Sandy's Top to Bottom Guide to Your Newborn. Because they haven't mastered the whole process, though, they may be able to sit up but not lie back down -- hence the 1 a.m. emergency call.

Look on the bright side: Being uncomfortable is another great motivator, and your baby's wee-hours freak-out is annoying enough to her that she'll want to figure out how to lie down again, fast. In the meantime, lower her crib mattress and help her practice lying down from a sitting position during the daytime, so she'll be better equipped to learn the moves on her own. Until she does, lie Baby back down when you hear her cry, but don't get into the routine of picking her up. "Otherwise, your baby will want that every night," warns Dr. Chung. Also try not to turn on lights or make a lot of noise -- you want to drive home the point that this is not the right time to be up and alert.

When separation anxiety hits, usually between 8 and 14 months, your baby can get frantic when you walk into the next room, let alone out the door -- even if he's been with the same day-care provider since his newborn days. And when you hire a Saturday-night sitter, the freaked-out wails you hear as you leave may make you reconsider your plans. Will your baby survive the night? Will you?

Having a Babysitter

Relax. One-on-one time with nonparent adults, like babysitters and day-care providers, may not always be comfortable, but it gives Baby the flexibility to cope with different personality quirks and routines (like the sitter's never-before-heard bedtime lullabies), and it shows him that people outside the family can provide comfort and love, too. Plus, learning to live without you is a major developmental milestone. "It's important for Baby to see that you can be separate from him and he can be separate from you," says Robert Brooks, Ph.D., a psychologist on the faculty of Harvard Medical School and coauthor of Raising Resilient Children. "It teaches your baby, 'My parents still love me, and there are other people who care for me.'" You can ease the transition by inviting a new sitter to show up early for a get-to-know-you play session before you leave, so your little one can get comfortable in her presence.

Even if you have a holster for easy access to hand sanitizer, eventually Baby will get sick -- usually anywhere from 2 to 10 times in her first year. Knowing that it's normal doesn't necessarily make it easier. "One of the hardest things is when one of my kids gets a cold and can't breathe through his nose," says Jessie Charles, of Charlottesville, Virginia. "He can't breastfeed or sleep well, and it's miserable all around."

Feeling Under the Weather

"Healthy babies who get viruses and infections in the first two years build stronger immune systems by the time they're older than do babies who are kept in a bubble," Dr. Kaweblum says. In other words, more colds now should mean fewer colds in kindergarten. If your sick baby is listless or not drinking, call your pediatrician. A fever of over 100.3 degrees F could indicate that something's wrong, especially in babies 3 months and younger.

From birth to 18 months, your baby will need 26 vaccines, all of which provide life-saving protection against incurable diseases. Still, it's hard to watch your unsuspecting newborn get poked and prodded. "My husband and I cried harder than our son Max when he got his shots at his 2-month appointment," says Kate Flores, of Santa Fe Springs, California. "We were so pathetic that the doctor gave us a lollipop."

Getting Those First Shots

The tears (yours and your baby's) are worth it, explains Dr. Chung. "Keep in mind the big picture: A few minutes of pain or discomfort will provide a lifetime of protection." Babies who follow the standard immunization schedule are safe from devastating diseases like polio, measles, pertussis, smallpox, mumps, and diphtheria. Plus, your baby's short-term memory will reset the second the pain vanishes, so he won't hold a grudge against you or his pediatrician. By 15 or 18 months, toddlers remember the doctor's office and know what might happen while they're there, Dr. Chung says. But for now, enjoy the fact that your cutie pie will quickly forget about these jabs during well-visits. One study also found that swaddling, shushing, and offering something to suck on immediately after getting
a vaccine helped babies stop crying faster than infants who didn't receive this kind of soothing. For all of these rough milestones coming up, hang in there, Mom. You will be serving up a big slice of birthday cake to your confident and happy 1-year-old before you know it.

Is your baby rocking back and forth on her knees? She might be ready to take off, and crawl!

Originally published in the May 2015 issue of American Baby magazine.

American Baby

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