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The 8 Golden Rules of Parenting

Until the birth of our fourth baby, Martha and I really thought we knew everything it took to be good parents. After all, we were already raising three boys, and their needs had always been easy to identify and satisfy. In fact, I was starting to suspect that parents in my pediatric practice who complained about their demanding, temperamental babies were exaggerating.

Then came Hayden. With her, our job descriptions as parents were turned upside down. If Hayden wasn't constantly in-arms or at-breast, she was crying. We tried all of our old tricks—nothing worked. "I can't put her down" became Martha's mantra. What quickly became clear was that this baby needed constant connection in order to be happy. Our old parenting style just wasn't going to cut it. By forcing us to reevaluate and reshape our ideas of parenthood, Hayden taught us what being a parent is really all about. And it all comes down to just eight golden rules.

Respond With Abandon

Like many parents, we harbored that horrible fear of spoiling our children. But it wasn't until we had Hayden that we were really put to the test. She needed so much more attention than any of the boys ever did, and we worried that Hayden might be manipulating us. Were we slowly losing control each time we picked her up or responded to her cries? We consulted books, a useless exercise. There were no chapters on her. Yet, here we were, two experienced adults whose lives were being taken over by a 10-pound infant.

What finally got us through was realizing that Hayden did know what she needed and would keep telling us until we understood. She was too small to manipulate us—she was just trying to communicate. By consistently responding to her, we learned how to soothe and comfort her, and, even more important, we fostered a very strong sense of security within her. One time a child-psychologist friend who was visiting us commented that Hayden's cries were not angry and demanding, but rather expectant, as if she knew that she would be heard. And that's exactly what all babies need—to know that you'll listen. So whether your baby fusses 1 time a day or 20, pick her up, sing to her, snuggle with her—whatever she likes. Being there for your child will only make her strong.

Understand that Sometimes Babies Just Cry

You've checked the diaper, offered food, checked his temperature, and yet you can't find anything wrong. Before you beat yourself up, remember this: You don't cause your baby's cries, and you don't have to stop them. Babies cry because of their own inner needs and their individual temperaments. Some cry more and harder than others, even when they are in loving arms. They do this not because their parents are less capable, but because some babies are wired that way. Your responsibility is to support your child until he feels better. The rest—including when the crying will stop—is up to the baby.

One note: If you've done your best to comfort your child but feel like your head will explode with one more wail, call in another baby holder (your partner, your mom, a sensitive friend) immediately and take a break. When you're relaxed, Baby will feel more relaxed too.

Get Behind Your Baby's Eyes

One of the most important things our daughter taught us was to imagine situations from her viewpoint. One night, when Hayden was only a few weeks old, Martha was so exhausted from getting up to go to her crib and nurse her that she picked her up and brought her into our bed. I still remember Martha saying, "I don't care what the books say; I've got to get some sleep." The nursing pair slept happily together thereafter until Hayden was weaned. As I lay there watching my two sleeping beauties, I got behind Hayden's eyes. If I were her, would I rather sleep alone, or nestled next to my favorite person in the whole wide world? Granted, co-sleeping isn't an option for all families, but it made a difference for us.

Seeing things from the baby's viewpoint also helped us tremendously with Hayden's younger siblings. For instance, when our son Matt was a toddler, he'd get very involved in his play. If we interrupted him, he'd often throw a tantrum. By putting ourselves in his position, we saw that he needed time to switch his focus. Instead of saying, "It's time to clean up," we'd give him a warning: "In five minutes, we'll have to say bye-bye to the toys and to the girls and boys." He felt better, and so did we.

And one night when Lauren, our youngest, was 2, she pulled open the refrigerator, grabbed the milk carton, and not surprisingly, spilled it on the floor. We were already late for an appointment, and I started to get aggravated. But Martha calmly put her hand on Lauren's shoulder and talked to her. Lauren slowly relaxed and stopped crying. When I asked Martha how she remained so in control, she said, "I just asked myself how I would have wanted my mother to react in this situation." Lauren was already punished enough—she knew she made a mistake. But Martha was able to really tune in and offer the support that Lauren needed.

Celebrate The Positive

The ultimate goal of parenting is to help babies thrive physically, intellectually, and emotionally. In order to do that, parents need to understand the need-level concept. Every child comes wired with a certain level of need, and if her needs are met, she'll develop to her maximum potential. Hayden, for example, needed to be held a lot in order to thrive. Unfortunately, babies who require constant touch time are often called demanding, fussy or difficult. And those who don't are often blessed with positive labels, such as easy, content, and pleasant.

We didn't know what to call Hayden: She really wasn't a "fussy" baby, as long as we held her and attended to her needs. "Demanding" was just another way of saying "spoiled," which she wasn't. "Colicky" didn't seem to fit since she clearly wasn't in pain. Nor did "difficult" ring true—being near a baby to whom we were becoming so attached was not all that burdensome. Besides, these labels were too negative for this little person who seemed to know so positively what she needed and how to get it. After talking with other parents of babies like Hayden, we realized we had a "high-need child."

In my pediatric practice, I discovered that this term "high-need child" was P.C.: psychologically correct. By the time drained parents came to me for counseling about their "demanding" baby, they had already been on the receiving end of a barrage of negatives: "You hold her too much." "It must be your milk." "She's controlling you." All this advice left parents with the underlying message of "bad baby because of bad parenting." They felt that it was somehow their fault their baby acted this way. As soon as I offered the description "high-need child," I could see a look of relief on the parents' faces. Finally, someone had something nice to say about their baby. "High-need" sounds special, intelligent, and unique, and it shifts the focus to the baby's personality, relieving parents of the fear that they did something wrong. Further, "high-need" suggests that there is something parents can do to help their baby. It underscores that these babies simply need more: more touch, more understanding, more sensitivity, more creative parenting. These babies are exquisitely sensitive—they feel deeply—and research shows they often turn into creative people. (Hayden just graduated from college with a degree in—you guessed it—drama.)

The bottom line is that all children (and adults) have behaviors and traits that are difficult to deal with sometimes. However, if you consistently define your child in positive terms, it will be much easier to focus on her exciting qualities rather than on her inconvenient ones.

Shape, Don't Control

One of the earliest teachings that Martha learned as a nurse and I learned as a physician was "First, do no harm." It helped us realize that if we tried to squelch Hayden's personality, we would hurt, and possibly cripple, her development. Our job was not to change Hayden into a behavioral clone of every other baby. Instead, we widened our expectations and accepted Hayden the way she was, not the way we wished she was. We thought of ourselves as gardeners: We couldn't change the color of the flower or the time of the year it bloomed, but we could pull the weeds and prune the plant so that it blossomed more beautifully. Our role was to channel Hayden's behavior and nurture her special qualities so these inborn traits would later work to her advantage—and not be liabilities.

Seek Support

Raising a baby is hard work, and sometimes we all just need to vent. However, we found that we needed to be selective in choosing those with whom we commiserated. When we discussed our parenting dilemmas with friends, we often came away feeling as if Hayden were the only baby who couldn't satisfy herself without our help. We concluded that no one could understand Hayden unless they'd had a baby like Hayden. We didn't abandon our old friends, but we did stop complaining to people who didn't have a similarly challenging child.

Just Say No

In our zeal to give children everything they need, sometimes it's easy to give them everything they want. Parents of high-need infants often find it difficult to say "no" because they're used to being so giving. However, it's crucial that all parents learn when to give and when to hold back, especially when their child grows out of the baby stage. For instance, when Hayden was a toddler, she had a problem with waiting, which really isn't that unusual. When she wanted something—or someone—she wanted it now. Instead of giving in to her impatience, we had to stand our ground. If she wanted to play when Martha was on the phone, Hayden was told that her mother was busy and that she'd have to wait until she was off. When Hayden was a little older and wanted the latest neighborhood fad, again, we often said no. Because we had already given so much of ourselves, it was easier to say no to "stuff." She did learn early on that other people's needs must sometimes come before hers, and—the more crucial lesson—that you don't always get what you want.

Because she was already a solid and secure child, Hayden could handle being thwarted and not having all her needs instantly gratified. This is important: A high-need child's persistent personality sets her up for frustration, so she has to learn how to handle setbacks as soon as possible. Our job was not to prevent frustrations in Hayden's life, but rather to help her learn how to manage them.

Take Care of Yourself

By the time Hayden was 6 months old, we realized that parenting a high-need child could have a detrimental effect on our relationship as husband and wife—such an infant can easily dominate the home. One warning sign of impending burnout was when Martha said, "I don't even have time to take a shower because Hayden needs me so much." For Martha's sake, and ultimately for the sanity of the whole family, I had to remind her, "What Hayden needs most is a happy, rested mother." But it wasn't enough to preach. Besides pitching in more around the house and with the older children, I took over with Hayden whenever I could. I would take her for a walk so that she would be out of Martha's sight and earshot. What's more, having a high-need child reinforced that we had to make time for ourselves. We knew that if our relationship wasn't strong, the family would fall apart. For us, that meant continuing with our weekly date night, high-need baby or not.

Yes, when Hayden was an infant there were times when I wondered if all our efforts would ever pay off. But now, looking back as Hayden is about to be married, I realize we've been receiving the return on our investment all along. Caring for Hayden stretched us as parents and opened our eyes to the individual spirits in our eight children. Each taught us a different lesson, whether it was profound patience from Hayden or a deep sense of empathy from our son Stephen, who was born with Down syndrome. But what's probably the best reward of these golden rules is that in the end, you'll have raised confident, independent, and giving children. What more can any parent ask for?