Relax with Your Baby
Remember the principle of relaxation and design your baby’s room to be as low maintenance as possible. Imagine the toddler’s curiosity, not the cute little bundle with matching everything. Large storage bins allow toddlers to put their toys away without special skills or manual dexterity. A warm place for massage gives the baby a place both you and she associate with relaxation and to which she can go for massages or naps as she grows older. Easy-to-clean surfaces help save you time that you can then give to your baby. Forget the knickknacks and clutter; help your baby connect with the natural world rather than the commercial world with its endless array of things that are forced upon the child by media and culture.
I’ve always thought, as the Taoists believe, that the best mobile is leaves dancing on the branch of a tree. The best toys are large wooden spoons, plastic bowls from the kitchen, water, a cardboard box, or puppets made from socks. I went to a moving-products place and bought, for pennies, a large box for moving clothing that was hung by a bar. I ditched the bar, put the box on its side, and had a great little “cave” that could be decorated; I cut little “windows” and let the kids take their toys, pillows, blankets, etc. inside. My kids would go for these simple things over the colorful and noisy commercial toys, even though when (as they got older) they saw the commercial toys on television or in the toy store, they wanted them with the kind of greed stimulated by modern advertising — even as toddlers. They had some of each, with an emphasis on the simpler things. They didn’t grow up mentally deficient in the least. In fact, they both have the creativity of thought and heart that can come from such an upbringing.
The first few months with a new baby in the house can be magical and also challenging. Consider all the factors at play: a new lifestyle, with perhaps one parent at home with the baby and the other working hard to keep the finances in balance; a new mother’s hormones, which rearrange themselves daily; and sleep deprivation, which affect the parents’ emotions, patience, and ability to concentrate — particularly the mother if she is breast-feeding and getting up often at night to do so. Each stage the baby goes through brings up a whole set of needs in terms of paraphernalia — carseats, baby wearing, bathtubs, changing tables, strollers, etc.
If it is possible, I suggest both partners go over their parenting mission statement together once a month, talking about the issues that come up during the previous month, resolving areas of stress before they become long-held resentments. Both parents must realize they are bing called upon to stretch the boundaries of what they previously considered to be their limits. Parents who work outside the home may no longer be able to come home and just relax and have a quiet meal. Those who stay home with the baby may suffer loneliness for other adults, may miss recognition in their jobs, and self-esteem may suffer if they don’t get enough recognition and support for the difficult job they’ve volunteered to do without a paycheck.
Time-Out for the Full-Time Parent
I remember when my husband walked in the door at five o’clock or so, I’d practically throw the baby at him and run toward a hot bath, yelling, “Your turn! I need a break! Leave me alone!” He needed a break too, but was willing and eager to do his part. Finally we worked out a system. He would arrive home from work, sit down for fifteen minutes with the newspaper or whatever, as I kept myself and my temper under wraps. Then I would give the baby to him, take my hot bath or a walk, breathe, relax, and meditate. When I returned he had changed the baby, and if I hadn’t had a chance to begin dinner, he strapped on the front pack and started the meal. Then we’d all sit down to eat together, literally, as my baby was a demanding breastfeeder who wanted to nurse whenever he smelled food. There were times I’d use my hot-bath time to cry or to write my stress away; other times I’d take a book with me for inspiration or entertainment during the first and only time all day I could call my own.
My husband took charge of bedtime while I used the time to clean up the house, do dishes, and so on. Our roles fell into place. I had to do most of the nighttime getting up, since we were nursing, but having a large “family bed” helped me get much needed rest in the meantime. At night when the baby was inconsolable from colic, often my husband would get up and massage the baby to relieve colic and then lull him to sleep in the front pack, walking the living room floor. I’d wake in the morning to see them both asleep on our giant beanbag chair, the baby snuggled into the pack on my husband’s chest. The gratitude I felt at those moments is beyond words.
Part of our mission was to bring our children up in a relaxed, easy-going household in which they were loved, valued, respected, and “spoiled” in the best sense of the word. That is, they would be given all the love and understanding we could possibly muster, and we would release, at least temporarily, the need for the kind of control that leads to tension (such as needing the house to be perfect). One father I knew, whose wife had died, said he thought he had been very involved with his children before. But he said, “I didn’t know how removed I was until I had to do all the thousands of things it takes to raise a child.”
When the Baby Keeps Crying
When the baby cries and you feel you can’t handle it any more, if possible ask someone else to hold the baby while you do your relaxation exercises (the Controlled Belly Breathing discussed in the last post). Even five minutes of Controlled Belly Breathing can bring you back to center and get your mental faculties working again. Think of an affirmative thought, such as, “I release fear and tension and go with love to comfort my baby. Crying is just crying.”
Like all of us, babies have many different reasons to cry. Most of the time, it is the only means of communication they have, and because they can’t talk about it they cry. Unfortunately, we have lost much of our capacity to intuit their thoughts and feelings. Most people are able to recognize a sharp cry of pain, but our interpretation of other cries and fusses are filtered through the veil of our own insecurities and projections. It may be easier to adopt a mechanistic philosophy, whereby we always respond in the same way — either to ignore or to hush. But babies are not interested in philosophy and are unable to attend to their parents’ or anyone else’s comfort. They need the response of clear thinking, caring, centered adults to help them find a way through this world of unknowns.
A trip to the store or a friend’s house can bring on a crying spell after the baby is home and “safe”. Allowing some venting and responding with compassion and not alarm is the best and easiest way to let your child release the stress these new encounters can induce. Gradually, the baby gets the message: it’s okay to cry, it’s no big deal. I am still loved, and I feel better now. What is required of parents is a conscious effort to raise their own stimulation threshold, to tolerate more noise, and to take it easy.
If infants can be helped to raise their own stimulation threshold and to use relaxation as a way to slowly vent stress instead of letting it build to explosion, they can carry these ideas with them into childhood. Massage time, in the beginning, may not be all smiles and sleepiness; many babies fuss through their massage, venting the stress that has built up in their bodies. After a massage, however, their sleep is deeper. Gradually fussing diminishes as the stimulation threshold increases and the baby’s body learns how to release stress gradually throughout the day rather than having it build up.
What Crying Means to You
To begin to develop a more centered awareness, observe yourself when your baby (or someone else’s) cries. When you understand your reactions, you will be able to understand the baby. Notice what a crying baby stimulates in you. Breathe deeply, relax your body, do your exercise. If it is someone else’s baby, imagine that it is you, and picture yourself, as an adult, soothing (not hushing) yourself as an infant. It is not necessary to overanalyze yourself or your baby. Just take some time to think about how you respond to your baby’s cues. Eventually you will find the intuitive bond growing between you and your infant, and your confidence in understanding his needs increasing day by day.
Daily massage can be a tremendous aid in this process, because it helps you to literally keep in touch with your baby’s body language and nonverbal signals. It also helps you to slow down and relax. It teaches your baby to learn how to relax and that relaxation is an important part of life. I can’t emphasize enough how helpful the first six moths of massage can be in developing your lifelong relationship of relaxation, communication, and openness with your child. Feeding is another time when Controlled Belly Breathing can help both you and your baby slow down and relax.
Babies Need to be Heard
Infants need to be heard as much as anyone. I have seen many remarkable instances in which a baby’s responsiveness and general disposition has completely changed after being truly heard.
Doctors Eileen and Tom Paris contend that part of creating a healthy relationship with our children is owning our feelings and expressing them as our own. They say, “For example, telling a startled newborn, with kindness, ‘I see you were startled when Mommy and Daddy yelled and had a fight. Grownups get angry sometimes, especially when we are tired. You’re okay, we love you,’ mitigates the effect of the fighting.” You may think, ‘how is a newborn going to understand that?.’ They do! Most of our communication is in the tone of our voice, our body language, and our intention. These are communicated very clearly to your baby. Even though it is true that adult fighting stresses children (even in utero), never feeling angry is an unreasonable expectation for either ourselves or our children.
We begin, as soon as our baby is born (and even before) to show him the respect he deserves and an individual human being with his own feelings, memories, and experiences. We can help and teach our babies to “talk out” their stress and thus enjoy a more relaxed and productive life.
I was demonstrating some massage strokes on a baby in one of my seminars. The baby had been premature and had undergone the additional trauma of an injury to the skin of her chest that caused some scarring. Her mother said that she enjoyed being massaged, except she could not tolerate having her chest touched.
The baby responded well and accepted the massage for her legs, feet, and stomach. But when I reached the chest area, she began to cry. Rather than stopping and shushing her, I continued to gently mold my hands to her chest in what I call “Resting Hands.” I started to actively listen to what she might be saying through her tears. “Yes, you’ve really been through a lot of pain,” I said. “Tell me all about it, I’m listening.” She cried hard. Her mother looked at me and with a look, I asked her to let me stay with the baby. After a moment, the baby’s mouth began taking on a different quality. She moved her mouth as if talking, though she was crying. She looked at me intensely, as if she was trying to tell me something very important.
“You were very brave, and I know your mommy is very proud of you,” I said, “and when you’re ready to let go of that pain, she’s here to help. We all love you very much.” I continued to gently hold her chest as she cried, and let her know I was listening to her. After several minutes, her cries decreased and her mother picked her up to comfort her.
The next day her mother brought her again for a demonstration. This time, when I began massaging her chest, she opened her arms and smiled at me. Her mother turned to me with tears in her eyes, saying this was the first time the baby had ever been able to accept someone touching her chest. Later, the baby’s mother reported that she loved being touched and fully accepted a complete massage.
Actively and compassionately listening to an infant isn’t much different than listening to a child or an adult. It requires empathy, genuine love, and respect for the infant’s experience. I believe that the reason it is so difficult for us to listen to our babies is that our own infancies may have been full of frustration and unheard feelings. When we hear our babies cry, rather than truly listening to what they say, we superimpose our own “inner infant.” Our overwhelming impulse is to quiet that baby.
How to Listen to a Baby
I go through a three-step process when a baby I’m with begins to talk, to fuss, or to cry. First, I take a long, slow, deep breath and relax my whole body. This directly counteracts the tendency to hold my breath and tighten up.
Second, I set aside my own “inner infant” for a moment, recognizing that in order to truly hear this baby, I must relax and clear myself.
Third, I connect with the baby, making eye contact if possible. If the baby avoids eye contact, I place my hands gently but firmly on her body and connect through my hands. I let my energy go to the baby, and tell her with my voice, my eyes, and my hands that I would like to hear what she has to say.
Then I stay with the baby, keeping myself in a very relaxed and receptive state. I listen and respond, and observe the baby’s body language. I watch her mouth and what she says with her eyes. I have noticed over and over again that, when a baby is intently listened to in this way, her crying or “babbling” takes on a different quality. The baby’s mouth will begin to move as if she is talking, moving expressively. The baby’s eye contact may become very focused, as if she intensely wants to communicate. When I am sure the baby feels heard and has said most of what she has to say, I or her caregiver offer to help her get sensorially organized again by walking, patting, bouncing. Invariably, a baby who feels heard will sleep more deeply afterward and will further extend herself in trust the next time I see her.
You may be thinking this is “poppycock.” I assure you, after working with babies for many years, I experienced the same things over and over again. If I can connect with any baby in this way, your efforts as a parent will be surprisingly successful. Release any skepticism and give it a try.