I am at Target, trying to pick up a few simple office supplies, and find myself drifting over to the infant section to look at baby bath toys. At that particular moment I do not want any baby bath toys. I don't even need any baby bath toys. In fact, I hardly even bathe my baby at all. At three months, he smells so sweet without any help from me that I can hardly stand it.
I look at my baby. He is sleeping peacefully. I sigh. I bury my face in the curve of his neck"”quietly, so I don't wake him. I stare at him. I think many minutes pass, but I'm not sure. I come back to Earth and wonder, "What am I supposed to be doing right now?" Oh yeah! I am giving my baby a graphic display of motherly affection! But I am supposed to be buying a stapler!
This moment stands in stark contrast to others. The ones when I am trying desperately to accomplish a small task, like making a phone call, and I cannot get it done because the aforementioned baby"”the one with the sweet smell and cute neck"”has just woken up for the fourth time in the middle of what I'm calling a nap, and is crying for me to come do something about it.
I look at my baby. He is miserable. I pick him up. To make my phone call I'll have to totally give up on it. That way the tension I'm feeling will disappear and my baby will fall back asleep in my arms. I know it. He needs me to put him first. It's driving me crazy, but I do it.
Years ago the self-appointed baby "experts" would have had me convinced that this was a definite "no" in the world of good parenting. Picking up my baby would have spoiled him. I would have been letting him think that he could control me.
Today, research backs up what many parents and caregivers already instinctively know"”that babies cry for one reason only, a need to be comforted, and that picking up a crying baby is a good thing.
According to Amy Susman Stillman, an infant development researcher at the University of Minnesota and Director of the Irving B. Harris Center, crying also means, "I need you now until I feel more comfortable later on," not "I'm always going to need you to be this close to me." Understanding this can be a big relief to a parent or relative worried that babies will never learn independence if consistently picked up when crying.
Consistently comforting a crying baby also does more for her than soothe her for the moment. Researchers in the field have learned that when parents and caregivers consistently respond to a baby's need for comfort, they let the baby know that they will be there for her when life gets tough. With a "secure base", the baby then feels safe and confident exploring through play and social interactions. The more a baby plays and interacts, the more she learns. The more she learns the smarter and more confident she becomes. Researchers sometimes call this "optimal brain development."
However, I think we should use a more parent-friendly term"”one that gives us an ego boost and especially useful for the times when we are feeling stressed out and not particularly thrilled to be providing opportunities for "optimal brain development." We ought to call the whole "responding to our babies' needs thereby helping them feel confident thereby leading to smart kids" routine, "the awesome parent factor."