When I was pregnant with my first child, I was obsessed with articles on difficult babies. It would be just my luck to get a screamer, I thought, so I vowed to be prepared. When Matilda was born, she did the usual amount of fussing and crying, but she quickly became quite congenial; at 5 months, she was sleeping through the night.
Two years later, about to give birth again, I worried even more. I couldn't be lucky twice, and it would be worse to have a cranky baby plus a toddler. Well, Anthony made his sister look like a handful. Baby number three, Charlie, was fussy for a month, then turned into a clone of his siblings.
Certainly genetics has some role here, yet I can't help but think maybe I've been doing something right. And experts would agree: "While temperament is important, parents can learn to recognize their baby's needs before they get upset," says pediatrician Norbert Herschkowitz, M.D., coauthor with his wife, Elinore Chapman Herschkowitz, of A Good Start in Life.
So even if your baby is more prone to crankiness than cooing, the better you get to know each other, the easier it will be to make him feel secure -- and content. Here's how to help make your child's first 12 months a more pleasant experience for everyone:
1. Keep your cool. Studies show that when parents grow frustrated with their baby's behavior, the infant picks up on that tension and reacts. Then it becomes a cycle that can be really hard to break.
Keeping your wits about you -- though not always as easy as it sounds -- also helps you recognize what your child needs. Mornings in my house became highly stressful last year when I had to get Matilda, 7, and Anthony, 5, out the door and on the school bus. The more I began to sweat, the more 7-month-old Charlie would whine and demand to be held. I couldn't figure out what it was -- he'd just had a bottle -- until one day I put him in the high chair and gave him a few bites of his brother's pancakes. Eating with his siblings delighted him. Now it's our regular routine.
There's definitely a learning curve when it comes to raising kids, but it's easier to keep perspective if you know what you want. "I always tell parents, 'If you're unhappy about a specific situation with your child, you can change it,'" says Amy Flynn, director of the Bank Street Family Center in New York City and mom of a 2-year-old. You can also sidestep certain things before they become issues, says Flynn. "I knew I wanted my daughter to sleep in her own crib and not in my bed, so I avoided that situation from the beginning."
Stephanie Wood is a contributing editor for Babytalk.
2. Re-create the womb.Why are some newborns overly fussy? They miss their first home, so simulating their amniotic environment may help calm them, according to Harvey Karp, M.D., assistant professor of pediatrics at UCLA and author of The Happiest Baby on the Block. He recommends trying some traditional soothing techniques: swaddling your baby very snugly in a blanket with her arms down; holding her while she's on her side or stomach rather than her back; using white noise; jiggling her quickly but gently; and providing a pacifier or finger to suck on.
"It's a myth that infants need quiet," says Dr. Karp, who's a parent himself. "The sound inside the womb is a constant, pulsing 'whoosh' that's louder than a vacuum cleaner. This is why infants do better with long periods of rhythmic, hypnotic stimulation, rather than the alternating stillness and chaos of our world."
3. Get with a program. "Schedules" has become a dirty word in recent years, but there's a good reason they were once so popular: They worked. "Babies depend on their parents to create an overarching structure. They know what's coming, and that gives them a sense of security," says Flynn.
Creating a routine also makes things easier for you. "Once I had Alexis on a schedule, I found I could figure out what she wanted before she got to the point of crying," Marina Soto of Los Angeles says of her 3-month-old. "Now I hear an occasional whimper when she's tired or hungry, but other than that, our days run smoothly. And we're not clock-watchers, either."
Basically, all you need to do is be aware of some fundamentals -- how long your baby's been awake, when he last ate, and even how long he's been staring at the mobile. Many babies can't handle being up more than three consecutive hours during the day, for instance, so if yours starts to get fussy at that point, there's a good chance he's telling you he wants a nap.
Within your infant's routine, do your best to keep certain activities sacred, such as feeding him in the rocking chair only when it's nap- or nighttime so he gets the message that he's supposed to sleep. Jeanne Abi-Nader of Cliffside Park, New Jersey, uses music to cue her 10-month-old, Georgette, that it's bedtime. She begins with a bathtime CD that has a faster, playful pace, then winds down to mellower classical music while the baby has her bedtime bottle.
4. Keep in touch.Physical contact tends to breed a close emotional relationship between you and your infant as well. Preemies usually thrive on human touch, and wearing a baby in a front carrier -- whether she's premature or full term -- may reduce the amount of crying. Lolita Carrico of Los Angeles believes that 10-month-old Jaden's easygoing nature is partly due to the fact that "from the day he was born, Jaden has napped in our arms or very close to us. People told us this would just make him needy, but we've found the opposite is true. He's content when we have to leave him, and he's thrilled to see us when we return."
That doesn't mean you have to spend all day toting your little one around in your arms to satisfy his need for human contact. Find other ways: During diaper changes, for instance, spend some time massaging his arms, tummy, and legs if you think he'll like it. Or take a bath together.
5. Know when to talk (and when to shut up). "What happens in the twelve inches of space between your face and your infant's is the key to both contentment and learning," says Flynn. So go ahead: Look into your baby's eyes, talk about what the two of you are doing, and play peekaboo. Says Abi-Nader, "I've always been very chatty with Georgette, from the time she was born. I tell her what I'm dressing her in, where we're going, what flowers we see on walks. It's comforting to her. When she's getting a little anxious, all I have to do is say something and she's immediately okay."
Of course, all babies need some downtime, and recognizing the signs that yours has had enough is another important part of the parent-child dance. Don't take it personally when she turns her head away or squirms after a few minutes of play. By paying attention to her cues, you can help her learn to control the tension and joy in her life.
6. Don't feel bad when you're busy.While human interaction is critical in an infant's world, teaching yours to amuse himself is an equally important developmental lesson. Even a newborn can keep himself content for short periods by watching a mobile or gazing at the fabric on your bedspread. Keep an eye out for captivating visuals around your house -- like your husband's polka-dot tie or the view from your living-room window -- and move your baby when he starts to whimper.
Christina Stoever of Reno, Nevada, made a conscious effort to teach her son, Jackson, how to amuse himself: "For instance, we always made sure he was facing a window when we put him in his bouncy seat," she says. "During the day, the view mesmerized him, and in the evening, when we were fixing dinner, he enjoyed looking at his own reflection."
7. Don't be afraid to experiment. Soto had a rough couple of weeks when breastfeeding didn't work out and formula upset her daughter's tummy and made her unhappy. "Alexis would cry and fuss, and I didn't realize it was gas," she says. But once her pediatrician told her how to try different brands, she found a formula that worked and Alexis settled down.
Breastfeeding proved to be equally challenging for me. I went into it thinking I had to follow all the rules from the get-go -- don't introduce an artificial nipple too soon, don't pump right away -- and ended up exhausted and ready to call it quits. That is, until I talked to a friend who said her husband had given both their daughters nighttime bottles with no ill effects. I decided to give it a shot, and Anthony went back and forth effortlessly between bottle and breast.
If it all seems overwhelming, remember, time is on your side. You're the one who lives with your baby -- not your doctor, your mom, or your buddies -- so there's an awful lot you'll figure out on your own. "Some infants adapt well; others need some patience before they settle into a pattern," says Dr. Herschkowitz. The sooner you begin to gently mold that routine, the sooner you and your baby will get in sync. And that's when you'll find out how much fun motherhood can be.