Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Understimulation for the Win

Picture it if you dare: a fussy baby who will not be consoled.  The baby is healthy and comfortable if perhaps a bit tired, but nevertheless, she will not stop crying.

She’s been rocked and jiggled and danced.  Lullabies have been sung, positions have been changed, and blinking toys have been dangled.  Each new distraction or change in motion comes with the certainty that this is what the baby wants.  Surely enough repetition or diversion will calm the baby down, right? 
But still, nothing works. 
It’s a frightening scenario. 
Especially if you can remember it happening to your own baby, the thought of inconsolability has the power to bring many parents to a cowering huddle.  The helplessness we’re confronted with is overwhelming.
Being in this particular phase of parenting right now, with an infant of my own, I’ve been frequently reminded of the confusion that often assaults the parents of a crying baby.  But I’ve also been reminded of one helpful way to get them feeling better quickly. 
And it’s nothing even remotely complicated. 
It is simply this: leave the baby alone.
Very often, babies are assumed to only be in want of a distraction if fussiness occurs, when what they might actually need is less stimulation.  Their ability to focus on noise and light and attention is not endless.  In fact, most very small babies can only be comfortably exposed to activity in short bursts of time.  Their developing brains, eye muscles, and sleep systems are more easily overwhelmed and irritated than we realize. 
If all other options are covered – the baby is warm, dry, full, and rested – try laying her down on her own for a few minutes.  The stillness and lack of commotion might be just what she needs to relax. 
And as true as this is for infants, it’s become clear as my older children have grown that over-stimulation is a common enough terror to any age group.  Consider the tantrum-throwing toddler after a vacation day full of sightseeing and entertainment: he’s been exposed to so much awesomeness that he can’t quite bring himself to calm down.  Or consider the melting-down preschooler after a loud, hyper, bouncy-house birthday party: she’s been given giant doses of attention and noise and motion and she isn’t in control of her brain’s need for down time.
Also, consider yourself after a holiday weekend full of travel and laughter and obligations: you’ve been going, going, going.  You’re exhausted, and the first person to trigger your frustration might live to regret it. 
Over-stimulation is present for all of us.  The only cure – for adults, teenagers, toddlers, and infants – is downtime.  Quiet, calm, slow, downtime.  It might not be a nap, and it might not be completely alone, but the ability to be un-messed-with for a period of time provides many of us with some amount of restoration.
Next time your baby (or your teenager or your grumpy aunt Sherry) is fussing at nothing in general, instead of swinging a blinking toy in their direction, try leaving them alone.  Offer them a lack of stimulation, and see what happens. 
You may realize that you’ve discovered a secret baby-taming tactic that will assist you in your parenting navigation through many years of confusion.

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