How often do you hear people asking “Is he a good baby?” I wonder what they’d do if you replied “Sure he’s great – it’s his parents who are difficult!” Seriously, what are parents supposed to say? You can’t describe a baby as good or bad, they’re not even complete when they are born. Some writers even refer to them as ‘external foetuses’ because whilst some of their systems are up and running so they can breathe, cry, eat and sleep, they are far from ‘all systems go’! They need input from other humans to develop – usually from their parents.
What happens when the baby is born into an environment that has a negative effect on this development?
I’m not saying it is the parents’ fault. Depression, anxiety, mental and other illnesses happen and often there’s no warning. Sleep deprivation and feeling out of your depth can diminish your coping skills and leave you in despair.
What I am saying is that we now know these things and other negative situations impact greatly on a growing baby so let’s do as much as we can as a community to help new parents cope. Whether it’s offering to help a new family in their home or hosting a new parents’ morning tea so they can meet new friends who are experiencing similar things. If you’ve raised your own children, surely you remember the difficulties you may have had and the help you wished you’d had. Offer this to a new Mother you know today. It’s amazing what a cuppa and a chat can do for a stressed Mum and Dad.
If a Mother is managing well, her baby will come to expect gentle responses to his feelings and cries that help to bring his intense feelings back to a more comfortable state. This responsiveness helps him learn to cope for himself.
Experiences early in life have a great impact on the baby’s physiological systems. In particular the biochemical system can be set in an unhelpful way if early experiences are problematic, affecting:
- stress response
- emotional system
- growth of the brain
As a baby learns more and more about the world around him, he starts to recognise images, smells and sounds and then patterns start to emerge. If he cries and his Mother comes to sooth him with a smile or peaceful look on her face, he will expect pleasure from her. If it is a hostile face that approaches, he may learn to expect a negative, even painful, experience.
So it seems that the question shouldn’t be:- “Is he a good baby?”
A baby may in fact have difficult’ parents or – the way I prefer to see it- parents who are having difficulties and need SUPPORT not CRITICISM.
“The point is, however, that the outcome depends far more on the mother and father than on the baby. Researchers have found that even the most difficult and irritable babies do fine with responsive parents, who adapt to their needs………….Difficult babies may be difficult in response to their parents’ emotional unavailability to them (Egeland and Sroufe 1981). In any case, difficult temperaments do not predict poor outcomes (Belsky et al. 1998), although the more sensitive type of baby may be at greater risk of developing poorly if his parents fail to adapt to his particular needs.”