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6 Surprising Things Your Baby Needs

Even the most devoted moms and dads often overlook some of these  -- or feel that they're the opposite of what a loving parent should do. But each is important in its own way. Here's why you should give your baby...

...more sleep
Quick: How much shut-eye does the average baby need? Many parents guess it's 8 to 12 hours per day, but it's actually more like 14 to 16, including naps, for infants up to age 1, says Juan Martinez, M.D., director of the sleep lab at Joe DiMaggio Children's Hospital, in Hollywood, Florida. This misunderstanding can lead to babies who are as sleep-deprived as the rest of us.

Sure, it's tempting to try to keep that dozing cutie awake for his aunt's visit. But helping your child to snooze without interruption as often as possible is worth it. Jennifer Winn of Spring Lake, New Jersey, sometimes has to cancel her 2-year-old's playdate if her 10-month-old is overtired. "It's not easy, but I think it's really important that he have his rest," she says.

She's right. A child must be well rested to be receptive to new experiences. So know the signs that your baby needs more shut-eye. "Instead of acting drowsy, he may be irritable and hyper," Dr. Martinez says.

Setting a sleep schedule, especially once your child is at least 6 months old, is a good way to make sure he's getting enough rest. Make naptimes and bedtimes as consistent as possible, and build in a cushion of time beforehand to help him unwind-you can try showing him a book, rocking him, or giving him a warm bath before bed.

Deborah Skolnik, a mom of two girls, ages 6 and 2, is senior articles editor at Parenting.

...daddy-style play

Trisha Myers of Lee's Summit, Missouri, plays peekaboo and patty-cake with her 6-month-old daughter, Rease. When her husband arrives on the scene, it's steamroller time. "He makes the bed shake, and she laughs and flaps her arms," says Myers.

Chances are your husband has some game that's similar, whether it's lifting your baby up in the air or hoisting her over his shoulder. At moments like these, no matter how much your little peanut is giggling, you've probably wished you had a defibrillator handy (for you!). Watching the child you treat like a Fabergè egg get tossed around like a football can be distinctly unnerving.

But a little bit of rough-and-tumble play (provided your baby's 6 months or older) "is actually a great thing for your child," says Michael Wasserman, M.D., a pediatrician at Ochsner Clinical Foundation, in New Orleans. Going for a horsey ride on Dad's shoulders, for example, can provide a novel perspective on the world that's dynamite for her visual development. Bouncing around up there is a good exercise for her large muscles, too, and helps develop her sense of balance and coordination.

...beginners' discipline
Experts say you can't spoil a baby who's under 6 months old. But how about after that? Be too much of a softy and you may end up with a diapered dictator on your hands.

Being firm and setting safety guidelines early on is the caring thing to do. "The easy part about loving someone is telling them yes, but it's equally important, if you really love them, to say no sometimes," Dr. Wasserman explains. By establishing boundaries, you introduce your child to the realities of the world, which has no shortage of rules. And a healthy respect for what Mom and Dad say will make it easier to enforce crucial limits later.

Of course, you should never discipline your baby in a physical way  -- no hitting, shaking, or anything of the sort. But it's okay to speak firmly if the situation calls for it, even if your child cries. Sometimes that's the only way to get through. Go ahead and put him in the crib, shut the door behind you as you go, then stay away for a few seconds or a minute. There's a certain amount of theater involved.

Finally, be sure you and your partner hammer out some basic discipline guidelines. Decide what kind of misbehavior must always be corrected  -- say, hitting a sibling or deliberately touching the oven door. Unless you're consistent, your child will divide and conquer  -- another reason good discipline makes families stronger.

...some time alone
When you see your baby lying in his crib, staring at his mobile, your first instinct may be to grab a rattle and entertain him. Don't. He sometimes likes to be left alone for a bit, same as his mom and dad.

Although it might seem strange that he needs to unwind from a morning of hugging his Elmo doll, his day's experiences are, to him, every bit as challenging as your own. His version of getting away from it all is to just lie there quietly.

A baby also learns valuable lessons from downtime, like how to entertain and soothe himself. And you might reap a few benefits, too. Michelle Adams of Georgetown, South Carolina, puts her 11-month-old in his play yard with some toys for about 20 minutes. Then she catches up on the mail, cleans, or just simply relaxes.

...the chance to experience frustration

You'll come to know your baby's "help me, Mommy," wail  -- it's an angry, urgent sound. If she makes it when she's got her foot caught in the vacuum-cleaner cord, come running. But what if she's trying to turn the pages of a book?

"Even if they aren't happy about it, sometimes babies need to struggle a bit. It's the only way they develop independence," says Punam Kashyap, M.D., a developmental pediatrician at the Institute for Child Development at Hackensack University Medical Center, in Hackensack, New Jersey. Say your child's trying to reach a teddy that's a foot or so out of her reach. If you simply hand it to her, she'll have no motivation to figure out how to wriggle across to it.

Whatever she's trying to do, cheer her on and, if necessary, make it a little easier for her (position the bear so she can grab his leg; give her toddler-friendly books with easy-to-turn pages). You'll both be better off.

...not-so-bland foods
Unseasoned purees are a smart way to introduce a baby to solids, but if you get more adventurous after a few months, you might be pleasantly surprised. "If you want your child to eat a variety of foods, exposing him to different tastes and textures by the time he's a year old is very important," says Dr. Kashyap.

You may not realize it, but your baby was exposed to a sampler of your favorite foods even before birth  -- tastes from what you ate mixed into the amniotic fluid he was floating in. And he may have gotten another pass at your "taste" in food if you nursed him, since breast milk picks up hints of whatever you nosh on.

No one's suggesting you heap your baby's serving tray with spicy chicken wings, but there's no harm in mashing up a little lasagna or your legendary sloppy joes. Even if he spits them out, don't assume he dislikes them; he could just be exploring the texture. Give foods two or three tries over several weeks, and if he doesn't take to them, offer them again in another month or two.

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