Last month we discussed the Relationship Account. That focused on how mom and dad have positive connections that add to the happiness and success of their marriage.
This month the goal is to have positive connections with your baby or small child. In this article, I want to show how we turn towards our children and how to recover when we have let them get over-stimulated.
Just as we have to recognize our mate’s approaches, we must see our baby’s and child’s approaches to us. Tears and wails are not your baby’s only appeals for connection. When your baby turns to look at you or reaches out with a wave to you or babbles, they seek connection.
As our children grow, we must recognize the different ways they reach out for our attention. Toddlers and preschoolers try to get our attention in many ways. Yelling, fighting with a sibling, and throwing something may be their last resort after trying many other subtler ways to connect with us. Seeing our children’s changing needs and responding in positive ways keep the relationship account growing.
Like our response to our spouse’s approaches, we must respond to our little one’s desire for connection. The best connections happen when we stop what we are doing and give our baby the attention they need. Eye contact, bathing, changing, and feeding all reassure a baby that they are loved. These are little deposits many times a day that build our relationship account with them.
On the other hand, we make withdrawals from the account just like we can with our spouse. Who among us has never ignored a cry, rolled her eyes and sighed heavily, or yelled at that darling child? It is a common experience. We love our child and want to be cheerful and always talk sweetly to them. But we live in a pressure cooker of time restraints, noise, and activity that wear us out.
Bonding and Building
We are made in such a way that we bond well with our baby as long as nothing interferes with the normal process. Bonding is the beginning of building a life-long relationship between parents and child.
To build on this foundation, parents need to consistently meet their child’s need for attention, affection, and care. Much is written about how to respond when a baby cries. Some say to never let a baby cry and others believe we should let a baby ‘cry it out.’ Gottman Institute research “shows that ignoring the child will only make the child insecure, hungry for affection, and clingy. The way to create a secure child is with responsive parenting.”
Extremes damage and distort. Petting and sweet talk when a child willfully disobeys teaches the wrong lesson. And never allowing baby to cry at all short circuits baby learning that when they express a need, it is met. We need a balance in our approach.
To connect and build our parent/child bond, we want to play with our baby. This is good, but they are not always ready to play when we have the time to play. Babies will respond best to your approach when they are more alert. It is good to learn your baby’s cues to know the best times to play. (If you didn’t see the article on States of Consciousness, this would be a good time to review.)
Baby loves to play. And so much is learned about how the world works and about trust and independence through play. Play the game your baby is enjoying as long as he likes it. But when we try too hard or want to play with our baby when they are not ready, we can cause over-stimulation.
Babies give 100% attention and they have a very short attention span. These two factors mean they can quickly get overstimulated. So it is your responsibility to notice your baby’s signs of over-stimulation and help your baby self-soothe.
Baby Signals he has had enough
Baby signals he has had enough by looking away from whatever is in front of him. If you miss that, he may try to cover his face with his hands or try to push away. He will bunch up his forehead, arch his back and tense his whole body. A cry with a long wind-up before the wail is his strongest message that he is over stimulated.
It is not unusual for babies to get over-stimulated from time to time. It becomes a problem if it lasts for a long time or happens too frequently.
Recovering from over-stimulation
As soon as you notice signs of over-stimulation, help your child to calm down. Be a good example. Take a deep breath and relax yourself. Speak more gently with a lower pitch and volume. Back away from whatever was over-stimulating. If there was too much noise, gently pick her up and go to a quieter room. If there was too much light, dim the lights. If it was just too much play, stop and let her calm down.
Sometimes, especially if you noticed quickly and gave a break, your baby will look back at you or the toy very soon. He will make eye contact and may even smile. You will notice his eyes are alert and open, his breathing is normal, and his body is relaxed. This is the signal he is ready to play again. Don’t start again until you see he is ready.
When you help your baby calm down from being over-stimulated, you are teaching self-soothing. This is an important skill to learn. So even though your child occasionally is over-stimulated, good will come from it as they learn to self-soothe.
Take some time to talk with your spouse about over-stimulation.
- Have you seen this happen with your baby or child?
- Can you see any pattern to when it happens?
- Is there something you could do to prevent it?
- What helps your baby most to self-soothe?
- Is your child able to recover more quickly now than when younger?
- Make plans how to handle over-stimulation when it happens next time.
Another warning: Look for solutions and progress. Don’t use this as a topic for an argument. Work together to build your relationship with your baby. You are a team.