Life as Clay

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Advice for new fathers: Your child probably is overstimulated

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Both new mothers and new fathers want to provide a maximum level of comfort for their child. In the first few weeks, this is relatively simple: feed, change diapers, clean (if necessary), lightly entertain, swaddle, protect, etc. Newborns, to a large extent, are passive in these processes. They feed so often that mom’s breast usually both is appropriate and all that is required to pacify them.

After 4-6 weeks, however, babies frequently enter a “fussy period” that can last for several weeks or months. Brazelton writes about this period and says that he warns new parents about it. The warning is because many parents internalize the fussiness and think that it is due to their shortcomings as parents. This probably isn’t the case.

Infants develop a sense for their surroundings pretty quickly, and as their neurons fire, their brains develop, and their physical coordination emerges, their awareness increases dramatically. Most infants have pretty good head and neck control by 6 weeks of age; they look around and soak in many new sights and sounds each day.

The “fussy period” is somewhat like clockwork. Each day, usually in the evening, an infant will begin to cry. There seemingly is nothing that you can do, as a parent, to quiet the child. Brazelton describes this as basically an overflow of stimulation. Your child’s nervous system has absorbed all that it can for the day and the fussy period is a reaction to reaching capacity. These episodes of crying frequently happen around dinner time, sometimes referred to as “the witching hour.”

Here’s what you can do:

  1. You need to make sure that your child’s needs are met. Feed her, change her diaper, and make sure that she is not too warm or cold.
  2. Take your baby into a quiet and dark room, to remove as much stimulation as possible. Be quiet, don’t shake, bounce, walk, sing, etc… you’re trying to remove stimulation, not add more. We frequently think that we’re helping to console babies when, in fact, we are overstimulating them.
  3. Your baby may have gas. Crying can make the gas worse, since infants tend to swallow air when they are screaming. Burp your child (even if she hasn’t recently eaten) and help her work gas out of her belly. There are techniques for this in various books and on the Internet. Get some infant gas drops at the pharmacy — they really seem to help at times.
  4. Hold your child for a few minutes and try to console her. She may continue to scream in your ear.
  5. Swaddle your child — make it snug, but not too tight. I strongly suggest watching the video associated with “The Happiest Baby on the Block.” There are techniques for holding your swaddled infant that will quiet her immediately. Helping her calm down will help you put her down.
  6. After she’s calmed a bit, hold her against your chest, swaddled, and gently pat her on the back and tell her that it’s time to be quiet.
  7. When she’s quiet, put her in her crib (or co-sleeper, bassinet, moses basket, etc…) gently. She may begin to cry again immediately. If she does, repeat step 6. If that doesn’t quiet her, then repeat the sideways swaddle hold from step 5 and then proceed to step 6.
  8. Repeat this process until she remains quiet and/or goes to sleep. It may take 10-15 tries, or even more.
  9. Quietly exit the room. You probably just bought yourself up to 20 minutes of quiet time. Use it. Eat dinner, relax… but be prepared for her to begin to scream again. When she does, you probably need to start at step 2 again, unless she hasn’t eaten for a while or you know that she needs a diaper change.

This can go on for 3-4 hours, sometime longer. You have to remain patient here, however. Neither you nor the baby’s mother are doing anything wrong: it’s just that a normal day of normal life with normal stimulation is a little too much for your baby to handle at this point.

It’s handy to have a pacifier nearby. One thing that you can do is to run it under warm water before giving it to your child. I’ve found that our daughter takes one more readily if it is warm and slightly wet. She usually doesn’t like it, but sometimes, when she is upset, it is the ONLY thing that will calm her down.

The final thing to do here is to reassure the baby’s mother that she’s doing everything properly and is doing a good job of it. Mothers have far stronger hormonal connections to their infants than fathers do. As a father, while you may be able to tolerate crying for extended periods of time, the child’s mother may become really upset by it after seconds or a minute. This is when you need to step in and reassure her that she is doing well and to take some of the burden of caring for the child away from her.


Written by Clay

February 7, 2011 at 09:29

Advice for new fathers: A word about patience

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Late night infant care is challenging for many reasons. It is jarring to care for a < 10 lb baby who is shrieking in your ear at 3am. During the day, we have time to notice early feeding cues — rooting, “boob diving” (as I like to call it), and fussiness. During the night, we usually aren’t woken by our infants until they are very hungry and crying loudly. If your wife is exclusively breastfeeding the baby, then, as a father, you may not have much to do during the night.

Our daughter was born a little small, so she received bottles of fortified breast milk several times each day. Doctors suggested giving her these bottles during the night so that mama can get a little sleep. The result is that I’ve fed our child many times during the night.

Books and doctors recommend developing a dialogue with your child during feeding and while changing diapers. If you’re like me, it’s difficult to make cooing noises or even come up with a single coherent sentence at 3am.

Bottle feeding during the night also is frustrating because your child wakes you up with shrieks of hunger, yet you still have to prepare the bottle — warm it up, etc.

Here are a few things to keep in mind if you find yourself frustrated during night feedings:

  1. Your infant does not have control over her limbs. She will flail them around (just like during the day), sometimes impeding your efforts to feed her. Controlling her arms for her frequently will help her calm down a little bit; that’s the whole theory behind swaddling.
  2. Prepare your night feeding and changing areas. Put something near the diaper station that you can read from while changing diapers, if you find yourself having a hard time self-initiating a 3am dialogue. This can even be the ingredients list from a bottle of baby shampoo or something; just speak it in a baby friendly tone to help reassure your child while changing her. Other possibilities: read sports scores, an article from a magazine, sing a song, etc.
  3. Changing your baby’s diaper tends to wake her up a little bit, so if she’s already screaming and the bottle is ready, try feeding her before changing the diaper.
  4. Prepare a blanket or activity mat near the feeding area for use during the night. You may find yourself needing both of your hands during night sessions. You can place your child on the mat for a little supervised tummy time while you use your hands to prepare a bottle, etc.
  5. Prepare bottles before going to bed. I usually have two of them ready to go in the fridge.
  6. Make sure that all other supplies you need are nearby: a burp cloth, diapers, diaper wipes, a swaddle blanket, etc.
  7. Infants are more awake during the night than during the day, frequently. While daytime feedings frequently immediately precede a nap, your child may remain awake for hours after a night feeding. You can use the aforementioned activity mat or blanket for some tummy time while you wait for your child to sleep. Have a few toys or books nearby that you can use to engage your child.
  8. Take time to learn the techniques from The Happiest Baby on the Block. There are some cool swaddle holds that you can use to instantly quiet your crying baby. It’s like magic. Sometimes all you need in order to get through these feedings is a little bit of quiet.
  9. Remember that over stimulation can make your baby fussy. Sometimes your child needs to be left alone (not patted, touched, cooed at, etc.) in order to find peace.
  10. Infants are not able to understand punishment. Do not punish your infant for any reason. The burden is on you to handle the difficulties presented during night feedings.

Finally, regardless of how patient you are or all of the wonderful things that you wish for your child through a glorious life, a screaming baby will test that patience during the night. Learn to recognize your limits. If you get too frustrated you are likely to blame the child for your own frustration. This can lead to anger. When you find yourself approaching the limit, try some hands-off tummy time for a few minutes. If that doesn’t work, wake up your partner and tell her that you need help. Tell her that you are frustrated and having a difficult time.

You sometimes will feel that your well of patience is empty when you are sleep deprived and trying to figure out how to console an inconsolable infant. Put the child down, take a few deep breaths, relax, and move forward with your established process. These can be challenging times and it is up to you to find the strength to endure them peacefully.

Written by Clay

January 14, 2011 at 11:19

Advice for new fathers: Read about breastfeeding

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I’m a new father. My daughter, Blythe, was born 3 weeks early, on 28 December 2010. She’s a beautiful girl and my wife and I are having a blast getting to know her and trying to make sense of her nonsensical sleep patterns. :)

Prior to her birth, I asked a lot of friends whether they had any specific parenting advice for new fathers. Most of the books and material in our (American) society focuses on preparing the mother for child rearing duties. I presumed that there were some specific bits of info that would really help me, as a father, prepare for Blythe’s arrival. None of my friends had much to say specific to fathers. Most nonchalantly suggested I just read the same books and support my wife as much as possible.

They were right about that. Reading the books is important. I’m learning, however, that there are steps that fathers can take to prepare for fatherhood, ease anxiety, and provide better support. I’m going to occasionally post my own lessons learned. Here’s the first:

Become a breastfeeding expert; an ad hoc lactation consultant

I flipped through a lot of books prior to Blythe’s arrival, focusing mainly on issues related to pregnancy, bathing infants, etc. In spite of an active interest in helping my wife with anything possible, I always skipped the chapters on breastfeeding because I assumed that there wasn’t much that I could do to help her with that. I was very wrong.

Blythe arrived a little early and was delivered via C-section (for medical reasons). My wife read several pregnancy books prior to her arrival, but both she and I were caught off guard by the anxiety caused by the first 2 weeks of breastfeeding. Most books claim that a new mother’s milk will arrive 4-5 days after the birth of the child, but in the case of a C-section, it is more like 7-9 days after birth. This is a very stressful period.

During the ~6-7 days that it took my wife’s milk to arrive, she consistently was pushed by the hospital staff to use a breast pump regularly. We found ourselves using small TB syringes to collect the tiniest drops of colostrum from pump pieces that seemed sized for cattle. On a “good” day, during the first week, we were able to collect 1-2 mL of colostrum. We could have had an army of lactation consultants reassuring us that her milk would come in, but it surely didn’t feel that way. My wife, during this time, was too busy recovering from surgery, visiting Blythe in the nursery, and using a breast pump to read about breast feeding.

Troubles with “latching on” are as anxiety-provoking as the lack of milk and the worries compound with the knowledge that, even if Blythe did latch on, she was only getting a drop or two of milk. I was tired. If you find yourself in a similar situation, you will be tired. Take my advice, however, and use this time (if you haven’t done so earlier) to become a household expert on breastfeeding. I strongly recommend the book “Breastfeeding Made Simple: Seven Natural Laws for Nursing Mothers,” by Mohrbacher. (link)

The effort that you put into understanding how breasts work and the knowledge that you gain about proper positioning, latching-on techniques, and milk production will allow you to fill in the gaps in your partner’s knowledge that lead to anxiety. With a pair of educated hands, you will be able to help her properly position the baby, shape the nipple, and get it into the child’s mouth for latching-on. The moment of first latch-on is a victory for everybody involved. When your partner’s milk comes in and your baby latches onto her nipple — when you can see the baby actively swallowing milk from the breast… this is a moment of triumph for all three of you.

Your partner’s knowledge of breastfeeding quickly will surpass yours, as she develops a feeding pattern and your child gains motor control. Your assistance in achieving this relationship can lower the anxiety greatly, improve the efficiency of feeding, and importantly, make you feel like an active participant in the process.

Written by Clay

January 11, 2011 at 12:56