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Boost Your Baby's Confidence

During their baby's one-week checkup, I asked first-time parents Ellen and Brian* what they wished for their child. They replied, "We want her to be self-confident." It's hard to think of a newborn as being "confident," but Ellen and Brian had the right idea.

Confidence requires that you believe in your own abilities. And while it may seem that tiny babies have no abilities at all  -- they can't feed themselves, get around, or talk  -- newborns actually possess tremendous power, evident already at birth. The wide-open gaze of a quietly alert infant, only minutes old, mesmerizes her mom and dad. Held skin-to-skin with her mother, the newly born baby turns her head from side to side, squirming and opening her mouth as she actively seeks the breast for the food and comfort she needs. Her cries make things happen as new parents run to reassure their little one.

These amazing newborn abilities are the bedrock on which parents can begin to build their baby's confidence. Here's how you can be a confidence-booster  -- and not a confidence-buster  -- for your growing infant.

  *Some names have been changed.

Respond To Your Baby's Cues

I once attended a medical meeting where the topic was building infants' self-confidence. After reviewing all of the scientific studies, the presenters concluded that the single most important building block of self-esteem is the responsiveness of the caregivers to the cues of the infant. The caregivers' reactions give meaning and importance to babies' impulses.

Here's how it works: A baby fusses and looks for a nipple, mouth open wide, and his mother responds by offering a feeding. Once this action and reaction are repeated many times in the first days and weeks of life, the baby grows confident that the reality of a hungry tummy is connected to the satisfaction that comes with nursing. He trusts his environment (and his parents are his environment) to take care of him. He also learns to trust his own needs: "Mom fed me  -- I must have been hungry! And that noise I made  -- that's why she picked me up!"

Over and over again, a baby finds that her signals make something happen and that her actions have value; that she has value. Plus, she learns that she can help herself by getting her parents' attention.

So the next time a well-meaning friend says, "Let her cry it out" or "She has to learn to comfort herself," don't be fooled into thinking that the best way to help your baby develop confidence is to force her to cope with problems by herself. Yes, there are times in life when older children or adults do grow in self-confidence because they surmount difficulties on their own. But babies left to cry it out don't learn to trust their own resources. The personal resource they rely on when they are in distress is the ability to cry to get a caregiver's attention. If no one comes, that implies no one cares, and their self-confidence suffers.

My wife Martha and I carried our babies a lot and responded quickly to each cry. Despite all those warnings about creating clingy, spoiled babies, we now proudly accept every compliment about how self-assured our kids are. I believe that because we met their needs early on, they are now able to move away from us with absolute confidence.

Try Not To Hover

While responsiveness is the buzz word in building baby's self-confidence, responding appropriately is even more important. I have seen mothers in my practice who are so intent on being perfect mothers of perfect babies that they almost pounce on their infant's every whimper to spare their children even momentary frustration, for fear it will lead to long-term emotional damage. These babies pick up on their moms' anxiety  -- definitely a confidence-buster.

How do you know when to swoop your baby up into your arms for comfort and when to give him some space to solve a problem on his own? There are no hard and fast rules  -- it depends on the baby and the situation.

Diane, a sensitive and responsive mother, brought her 8-month-old, Trevor, into my office for a high-need baby consult. As I talked with her I noticed she always picked Trevor up within a millisecond of his first peep with an anxious look on her face. Watching them, it was clear to me that the baby's anxiety triggered his mother's anxiety, which in turn made Trevor feel more anxious. In this case, the mother's strong desire to do the best for her baby was working against her. I asked her to try what I dubbed "The Caribbean Approach." As soon as Trevor began to fuss I asked her to catch his eye, shrug her shoulders a bit, and let her relaxed smile convey, "No problem, baby, you can handle this. Mama is here!" Soon Trevor began to fuss less and play more. Diane's presence and her body language conveyed to her baby that she had the confidence that he could handle playing around for a few minutes while he wanted to be picked up. Her self-confidence made Trevor more confident himself.

As with much of parenting, you have to think on your feet. If you have been sensitive and responsive to your baby's cries since birth, your own intuition will tell you when to come running and when to take the "no problem" approach. You may not make the right call every time, but remember, babies don't need perfect parents  -- just responsive ones.

Promote Positive Feelings

Parents want their babies to feel good, if not all of the time (which would be unrealistic), then at least most of the time. A calm, happy baby is more of a joy to parent. Plus, a baby who feels good most of the time learns to feel good about himself and thus, more confident.

So how do you keep your baby content and happy? You can't make anyone, even a baby, always be happy or at peace, but as a parent you can set the conditions that make it easier for your baby to face the world calmly and with self-esteem. Responding to your baby's cues, as described above, will help him deal with distress. Going beyond this and anticipating his needs will help him gain confidence in his ability to communicate without sounding an all-out noisy red-alert.

Many parents tell me that "wearing" their child in a baby sling much of the day helps them feel more closely attuned to their babies' wants and needs. "Sling babies," as I call them, feel they are VIPs because they are often in the arms of someone who cares. When you wear your baby or carry her much of the time, you can take advantage of endless opportunities to teach, support, and comfort her  -- and build her confidence. If you notice your 1-month-old gazing at the lights in the dining room chandelier, you can ooh and aah to reinforce her wonder at what she's seeing. If your 4-month-old is leery of getting close to the neighbor's rambunctious puppy, he can still have a positive experience as he watches the dog's antics from your arms, reassured by your presence.

Be A Cheerleader

Another way to build valuable confidence is by being a facilitator for your infant. A facilitator doesn't do things for a baby, but rather sets the conditions that make it easier for him to do them on his own. Suppose your beginning climber is halfway up the couch when he gets stuck and starts to fuss. Instead of immediately rescuing him from his jam, adjust the cushions to help him safely and confidently complete his adventure. Or, if your 1-year-old is struggling with one of her toys, trying to put the square pegs in round holes, gently take her hand and guide it to the square openings. Likewise, if your beginning walker takes some steps and falls, stand a few feet away and cheer him on. Hearing you say "You can do it!" sets the stage for toddler self-confidence, and you will soon hear those three magic words, "Me do it!," in response.

Exude Confidence Yourself

Babies are remarkably sensitive creatures. They pick up on parents' moods and emotions. If you want your baby to feel confident, you must nurture your own self-esteem.

Your child sees himself reflected in your face and body language. If you're tense and overtired, your baby probably won't feel right either. He'll fuss or cry, which will only add to your stress level. But if your baby sees a confident, relaxed face when he looks to you for help, he'll relax too.

Of course, worrying and being tired are an inevitable part of the responsibilities of parenthood. That's why it's so important for mothers to make taking care of themselves a priority. One day when our sixth child, Matthew, was a couple months old, Martha was stressed out. (Too many kids perhaps?) During one of Matthew's fussier days, Martha said, "I don't even have time to take a shower, because Matthew needs me so much." In addition to increasing my share of babycare, I put a sign on Martha's bathroom mirror: "Each day remind yourself that what our baby needs most is a happy, rested mother."

Use your baby's nap time to do something that you enjoy. Hand the baby off to Dad and go take a walk. Find a support group of other mothers of babies. Sharing your new-mom worries helps keep them manageable and makes it easier for you to mirror confidence to your baby.

Respect Baby's Temperament

Temperament refers to a baby's inborn personality characteristics. Some people have brains that are wired to be quiet and cautious; others are outgoing and impulsive. You can't change your baby's temperament, but by accepting him for who he is, you can help him be the best, most confident person he can be.

This may require you to make some mental adjustments. Framing your baby in positive terms makes it easier for you to mirror positive attitudes to him. A crawling baby who gets into everything is not "a menace," he's "inquisitive" or "curious." The baby who sleeps little is "alert and aware." The baby who fusses a lot is one who is "smart enough to ask for what he needs."

Play Together

A baby's self-assurance grows when she feels that people respect her, care about her, and want to be with her. Play with your baby as much as possible. Playtime gives your infant the message "You are worth my time; you are a very valuable person. I like being with you." The focused attention lets your baby know that she is important.

Let your child set the pace for your play. If you overwhelm her with your adult agenda, she won't experience her own ability to make things happen. When you talk or play with a young baby, watch for her to "talk" back. Tune your responses to her frequency. If she's feeling laid-back, don't rush in with loads of stimulation. Watch your baby's cues, and let the fun build gradually.

You'll find that you are able to hold your baby's attention longer when you let her direct the play. Giving her a chance to lead builds her confidence: "Mom likes to do the same things I do. I must be pretty cool!"

  Contributing editor William Sears, M.D., is the author of 30 books on childcare, including The Successful Child.