During our 40 years of parenting eight kids and our 35 years of caring for new families in my pediatric practice, my wife, Martha, and I have learned a lot about what it takes to raise a happy, healthy child -- and how to enjoy the ride yourself. When our Babytalk editors recently challenged us with the question "What are the top pieces of advice you think every new parent should receive?" we came up with a list of eight basic childcare principles that we've found help bring out the best in Mom, Dad, and the baby. May they do the same for your family!
1. Get connected.
In our early years of pediatric practice (Martha worked as an office nurse), we noticed that some moms seemed more tuned in to their babies and felt happier in general about being parents. We coined a name for their babycare style -- attachment parenting -- and took note of their habits, which we call the "Baby B's":
Birth bonding. Ask to be with your baby as much as you want to in the hospital, from birth to discharge.
Breastfeeding. Besides all the health benefits it bestows on both infants and their moms, nursing helps mothers and newborns get to know each other more quickly.
Babywearing. Babies who are held and carried close to a caregiver (in arms, a sling, or other carrier) fuss less and often seem more content than babies who aren't. Try to "wear" your baby as often as is comfortable.
Believing in your baby's cries. Crying is your child's language; she uses it to communicate, not manipulate.
2.Don't forget your well-being.
A few years later, we added another "Baby B" to the above attachment tools: balance. In your zeal to meet your baby's needs, it's easy to neglect your own and those of your marriage. Just remember: A happy mother equals a happy child, so never feel guilty about taking time for yourself. The first question I ask parents when they come in for their baby's checkups is: "How are you doing?" If Mom and Dad are doing fine, their baby is likely going to be fine, too.
Babytalk contributing editors William Sears, M.D., and Martha Sears, R.N., are the authors of more than 35 books.
See your baby's POV
3. Get behind the eyes of your baby.
One day during morning rush hour in our busy home, our 18-month-old, Lauren, was having a temper tantrum -- and I was getting angrier by the second. But my wife, with a calm voice and just a few words, settled Lauren within seconds. When I asked her how she did it, Martha came back with this bit of motherly wisdom: "I got behind her eyes and asked myself how I'd want my mom to respond if I were her." You'll have to make many on-the-spot parenting decisions. Take a few seconds to get behind your baby's eyes first; you'll be amazed how your reaction quells sensitive situations rather than escalates them, as getting angry can do. Many of the normal urges to yell at or slap your child (yes, there will be those times) can be avoided.
4. Surround yourself with support.
Once you have a baby, you will be deluged with conflicting advice from well-meaning friends, relatives, and other self-proclaimed baby experts, including baby trainers who might urge you to let your baby "cry it out" before she's developmentally ready to self-soothe. These baby-training advisors may even tell you that you're spoiling your baby. But as Martha and I always say: We train pets, we parent babies. The truth is, you are the expert on your child, so surround yourself with like-minded parents and pros who support rather than judge your chosen parenting style.
Become Dr. Mom
5. Partner with your pediatrician.
Try to think of your child's doctor as a partner rather than an authority figure. The first step to becoming Dr. Mom is getting to know your baby when he's well so that any change in his looks or behavior sets off a concern. Write his symptoms down and log whether they're getting better, worse, or staying the same, and don't be afraid to offer up your opinion; pediatricians should rely on a mother's instinct. I learned that lesson early on in my career, when I saw a 1-month-old with typical colic symptoms. I was about to deliver my diagnosis when the mother interrupted me. "Dr. Bill, my baby hurts somewhere, and I'm going to camp out in your office until you find out why," she said. The mom was right; on further investigation, I realized her baby had a severe case of reflux. Once we altered the child's diet and put her on medication, her symptoms went away, and my whole viewpoint on colic changed.
6. Rethink "fussy."
Our first three children were relatively "easy" infants. They slept well and had a predictable feeding routine, and their needs were easy to identify and satisfy. Then came Hayden, our fourth. The first clue that she was different came shortly after she was born when Martha kept saying, "I can't put her down." The only time Hayden was content was when we were holding her. We used language like "she wants to be held more," and "she needs more nursing." Hayden just seemed to have higher needs in general. That's when we coined the term "high-need baby." We learned it wasn't our fault that Hayden behaved the way she did; she fussed because of her temperament, not because of our parenting abilities. Once we saw her as a personality to be nurtured rather than a behavior problem to be fixed, life got easier. The lesson: Redefine your high-need child in positive terms rather than negative ones like "fussy" or "difficult," and focus on her wonderful qualities rather than her exhausting ones.
Foster healthy eating and sleeping
7. Shape young tastes.
For me, one of the most exciting pediatric developments of the past few years has been the emerging field of nutrigenetics, which examines how nutrition affects the way a baby's genes behave. Someday soon, I believe, we'll be able to analyze an infant's genes, see if he has any genetic tendencies toward certain illnesses, and then prescribe a preventive diet that could stop those quirky genes from expressing themselves. The science behind this theory is still new, but the underlying message -- that early nutrition can have a lasting impact on your child's health -- is unquestionable.
The keys to taste-shaping are simple:
1. Breastfeed if you can, and 2. Once your baby starts table foods, serve as many "pure" foods (those prepared without added artificial sweeteners, high-fructose corn syrup, trans fats, colorings, or preservatives) as you can. Some of my favorites: avocados, beans, blueberries, eggs, oats, tofu, tomatoes, yogurt, and salmon. Trust me, your child will grow up craving these foods!
8. Foster healthy sleep attitudes.
Help your baby learn that sleep is a pleasant state to enter and a fearless state to remain in. This means developing a sleeping arrangement that works for the whole family. Where should your baby sleep? Answer: Wherever it leads to the best night's rest for everyone. Personally, I believe that the younger the baby, the closer he needs to sleep to his parents. In the early months, this could mean in a crib or bassinet in your room, in a sleeper attached to your bed, or nestled next to Mom. (If you do choose to co-sleep, follow the guidelines on my website, AskDrSears.com.) Realistically, you will juggle various sleeping arrangements until you arrive at one that works for you and your baby.