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Baby Steps: Revved Up

Q. I have a friend who has a tremendously high-strung 10-month-old son. Thomas exhibits frequent screaming and wailing that is not comforted by the usual options: feeding, changing, burping, a change of environment. His parents are anxious people who are new to the area, and his behavior is clearly putting stress on them and their marriage. They've become really negative to each other and to him. In fact, I don't think I've heard the dad say one good thing about the baby that wasn't followed by a complaint. Their pediatrician says some babies are more difficult than others, but I don't think she really gets how difficult Thomas is. Is there anything I can do?

Their doctor is right; some babies are more difficult than others. Yet this is little consolation to parents with a difficult infant, who are left asking what they've done to merit a screecher while the family next door has a baby who coos and entertains himself for hours. But the fact is that we all come hardwired with different temperaments. Ask any parent with more than one child and they can tell you the fundamental ways in which their children differ, independent of anything they have done. Just as we can't take too much credit for our easy babies' personalities, we should not blame ourselves for the difficult ones.

This does not, of course, mean that we as parents have no role in shaping our babies' personalities -- just that there are certain parameters in which we must work. For Thomas and his family, this might mean tempering his stimulation and searching for special ways of soothing him. Music often works well for agitated babies, particularly simple tunes like lullabies and Barney songs. If the grown-ups can't cope with Barney, classical music also works. I'm not a huge advocate of television, but sometimes curling up on the couch with a gentle video, a parent, and a soft blanket can do wonders. It gives the child the opportunity to zone out for a few minutes, and it does not have to stay on for long -- you can segue into a book or other quiet activity from there.

A big part of calming a baby is keeping calm yourself, and, as you point out, Thomas's parents are under stress, which compromises their coping abilities. This is a perfect example of how nature and nurture interact: Thomas's parents are inherently anxious, making him more anxious, and then, on top of that, their anxiety toward him makes things worse, leaving him even less capable of regulating his emotions. The trick, then, is for the parents to find ways to calm themselves, so they can respond to their baby in a soothing way. By working with Thomas's temperament, his parents can equip him with strategies to cope with his emotions throughout his life.

Parents can manifest their calmness by using a soft voice and offering distractions gently and slowly. Babies take time to notice a change, so offering a rapid series of toys may be more distressing than diverting. Better to offer one thing, like a book, and then to sit quietly with him, speaking in a soothing voice, for five minutes rather than assuming it's not working and switching right away to something new.

You can help Thomas and his parents by quelling their anxiety, and the way to do that is to show them how to accept their baby for who he is. That means that you need to focus on the positive aspects of this baby whenever you are with the family. Thomas's father's expressions of frustration might represent a need to vent; you can allow him that without encouraging him to wallow in criticism of his child. Encourage Thomas's mother and father to join a parents' group where they can meet other people and share experiences. This might also relieve some of the isolation they may be experiencing as newcomers to the area.

Lastly, you should all give Thomas time: Difficult behaviors like screeching can diminish when words arrive and children develop strategies for getting their needs met. If Thomas does not settle down as he advances into toddlerhood, his pediatrician might refer him to a psychologist for an evaluation. Many school districts offer free early intervention services for toddlers and preschoolers; Thomas may benefit from such services one day if the need remains.