Protecting your Infant

By Beth Russell PhD (C)

Listening to your baby cry can be heart-wrenching. We are brought up to feel not just responsible for our children, but also to relate to their emotions, and when they cry we can get sucked into their distress. Researchers call this emotional contagion and it is an important part of how humans relate to one another, especially in infancy. However, it is hard to stay focused on caring for the baby well when you can so closely feel your baby’s despair – it is hard when your heart rate is climbing, your stomach is turning, and your mind is speeding through all the questions that come with an inconsolably crying baby:

  • Are you hungry, baby?
  • Do you hurt?
  • What’s wrong?
  • Why are you crying?
  • Why won’t you stop?

The best thing that caretakers can do is stay calm. It may sound simple, but it can be hard to do when you are tired, frazzled, and worried about your baby. Taking care of a crying infant is a lot of work, and feeling frustrated, drained, and a little desperate is a normal reaction to a hard situation. It is okay to feel those things; the trick is to not let your feelings shape how you treat your baby. Keeping your emotions in check – staying calm – is important for your own sake, but also for your baby. It is harder to calm your baby when you are upset. When you can soothe your crying baby without adding your own distress to the mix, the baby gets the message that you are confident, collected, and can ride out the storm right there with them. Your calmness is reassuring, in fact it can be contagious, and is far more helpful to a crying baby than the alternative.



girl with purple horse

Parenting Well When Emotions Run High by Beth Russell PhD (C)

Myths About Good Parenting by Beth Russell PhD (C)

Tips to Deal with Frustration and Anger by Marilyn Barr, Founder/Executive Director

Links from our friends at the National Center for Shaken Baby Syndrome.





Selecting Someone to Care for Your Baby from the National Center for Shaken Baby Syndrome

What to Expect from a Child Care Provider from the National Center for Shaken Baby Syndrome

Child Care Providers Expectations of You from the National Center for Shaken Baby Syndrome

Commonly Asked Questions from the National Center on Shaken Baby Syndrome

Is it OK to show sadness or frustration around my baby?

Yes, babies need to see the full range of emotions and how to express them safely and appropriately. Masking our emotions is helpful when we don’t trust ourselves to show how we feel in an appropriate way, but for the most part, children should know that feeling sad is okay and that they can express their sadness without fearing punishment or judgment. Parents set the stage for their child’s healthy emotional expression by showing their own emotions, even negative feelings like sadness and frustration. You can also use negative feelings to show your child how to recover their more positive moods, too, by modeling coping skills yourself and talking about coping as your child gets older.

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I have yelled when I get angry my whole life, how do I learn to control my anger after so long?

We learn how to show our emotions from a very young age, but that doesn’t mean that the patterns we settle in are fixed or permanent. Just like any habit, we can learn new behavior with enough practice and support from the environment. It is hard to change our ways when we don’t have the support of people around us, so talk to your family and friends about the changes you’d like to make they may be willing to brainstorm ways to help you avoid situations that typically trigger your temper. The best path to avoiding anger flare-ups is to cut off the build up from irritability, to frustration, anger, and rage and this means paying attention to how you feel even when you feel good. When you notice your emotions starting to heat up, take steps to calm down starting with noticing what is bothering you and trying to disengage from the situation. Similarly, pay attention to the times when you feel in control of your temper by noticing the situation around you and how the day has gone. Trying to structure your days to include things that put you in a good mood and avoid things that irritate you is the most basic step we can take to controlling our emotions (rather than being controlled by them). Avoiding everything that frustrates or angers you may not be possible, but being able to anticipate situations that you will find more challenging is a necessary beginning to developing better emotional control.

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Can I Spoil my baby by responding to every cry?

No, it is impossible to spoil a baby by going to them when they cry. To spoil means to ruin or to damage, and despite common wisdom about how children develop, more damage is done to a child’s sense of security and trust in their caretakers by not responding to them than by responding too often. Particularly in the first six months, the most crucial psychological task babies accomplish is building a sense of safety with their caretakers. It isn’t necessary to respond instantly to the baby’s cries, but parents should respond every time consistency is the key to building security.

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For how long can I leave my baby alone?

A good rule of thumb is 10 to 15 minutes between quick check-ins. Make sure you have a baby monitor or can hear the baby while you take a break (whether you take a break in order to grab a quick shower, take an important phone call, or just to clear your head). Crying cannot hurt your baby, in fact, some babies develop better skills at soothing themselves when they are given the space alone to practice self-soothing.

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How old will my baby be before she learns to soothe herself?

The ability to soothe is one part of a baby’s innate personality, or temperament, and can vary greatly from one child to another. Some babies are born with good self-soothing skills and some just need practice and may always need a little more support from their caretakers even into their school-age years. Just like any skill, practice can make a difference. Children who are never given the opportunity to sort through their feelings on their own will never learn to soothe themselves because there is no need for the skill. During infancy, the most common self-soothing techniques are sucking on a thumb or pacifier and distraction (watching a mobile or listening to music, for example), so making sure a baby can get to his or her hands and has something to watch or listen to will encourage self-soothing. As your baby develops language skills (starting around 18 months), talking to them about their feelings and what they can do to calm down can also encourage self-soothing.

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