Written by: Cally Worden
As a mum-of-two, I wouldn’t say that either of my kids were ‘difficult’ babies. Sure, we had the colic, the weaning issues and a few sleep blips, but broadly I feel that I got off fairly lightly. For some parents their reality seems very different. From the outset their babies are restless, fussy, and difficult to please. I felt for the women in the room next to mine when I gave birth to my son – while I spent my days gazing in wonder at my precious bundle, my nights dozing peacefully between feeds, my neighbour’s newborn just howled. Like, all the time. Poor loves.
What is a ‘Difficult’ Baby?
Experts tend to agree that around 10% of all babies fall into this category. The term ‘Difficult’ is perhaps a little unfair – it smacks of intent on the part of the child and clearly that’s not the case. The term is generally used to describe those infants who cry and fuss most of the time no matter what, and/or those who are clingy and fearful and demand near constant contact if they are to settle.
The Nature vs Nurture Argument
A newborn baby is pretty much a blank canvas in terms of its life experience. I say ‘pretty much’ because there is a school of thought that says, a baby’s life experiences begin in the womb. It may be a valid point. Babies hear and feel things inside Mum’s tum. In the same way as calming music can soothe an internal wriggler, a loud argument and the resultant stress hormones released in the mother can make a baby restless in-utero. Truth is, we’ll never really know how the pregnancy months will impact on the temperament of a newborn. So, assuming the ‘blank canvas’ as our best starting point for any child, why do some babies immediately demonstrate more fractious behaviour than others?
This is where the Nature vs Nurture argument begins. The ‘Nature’ camp would argue that a newborn has not had the time to be influenced (or nurtured) to any great extent. And so they conclude that fussy behaviour is the natural temperament of a difficult baby. Scientific research lends weight to this argument – to a point. What is in question is the extent to which that natural temperament is flexible and can be moulded into something new.
Those in the nurture camp argue that from the moment a baby enters the world his experience begins, even the smallest, most insignificant of events plays a part in shaping the behaviour of an individual child. Science acknowledges this view as valid, but as a standalone argument it is flawed. The research proof for a pre-existing temperament is, apparently, very strong.
How Best to Deal with a Difficult Baby?
Understanding the reasons behind a baby’s distress may be half the battle of dealing with it, but how does it help to know that your baby is maybe ‘just born that way’? In fact this helps a lot. Because acknowledging this reality creates a freedom from blame and guilt, this allows parents to focus on doing something about it, rather than festering on why it is this way in the first place. Moving forward there are some practical things that can help:
- Promote attachment – it has been shown in various studies that fussy infants respond very positively to deliberate acts of attachment. This can be achieved through physical contact such as wearing baby in a sling or co-sleeping, smiley responses when the baby cries for attention, maintaining contact with the baby until a fussy episode has passed, however long that may be. It shows the child you are not giving up on them
- Stay Calm – not always easy, especially when you’re exhausted. But this is crucial in creating a safe space for your baby to be distressed. If necessary, put the baby down for a few minutes and leave the room to calm yourself down, before returning to continue your nurturing support
- Have Faith in Yourself – it’s easy for doubts to creep in when nothing you do seems to work. But know that provided you are present and calm for your baby, he will eventually settle and will do so feeling secure and loved for who he is
- Get Support – it may be tempting to hole-up at home when your baby is difficult. Who wants to spend time in the company of a perpetually screaming infant? But getting out and about, sharing time with family, friends, and other parents can help relieve some of the pressure you may be feeling. You do not have to face this alone
- Ignore the Haters – there will always be someone ready to criticise and cast judgement. A difficult baby does not mean you are a bad parent. You are a parent who needs support, anyone who looks down on you in that state is not worth brain time. Ignore them. They know nothing of your story
- Love your Baby – each child is unique, an amazing individual. Embrace the person your baby is with all the love and care that you would a non-fussy child. The world would be a boring place if every personality was the same
As a final note I’d like to shift your focus away from your baby and back to you, the parent, for a moment. Dealing with a difficult child is as much about you as a person as it is about them. Their behaviour does not define you. You are not doing anything wrong. Be proud of yourself for being a thinking parent. Be kind to yourself too.