Q: I have a one-month-old baby. All she wants to do is eat or be held. Is it normal for a child to need such constant attention?

Your new baby is making a big adjustment to her new world. What a different world it is than the one she was in for the last nine months!

She is adjusting to new feels, sounds, sights, smells and tastes and learning that the world is a safe and responsive place where she will get her needs met. She is working on becoming familiar with the faces, voices, smells and sounds of her important people and is figuring out how to communicate her needs to you.

She doesn’t understand her communication system any better than you do, but the two of you are working together to understand each other. You are learning to understand her different signals and she is learning to refine them so she can communicate her needs more specifically. As you learn each other’s signals, it is important to spend time together touching, talking, holding and making eye contact. Through this closeness you learn about your baby’s needs and signals and your baby learns to trust in your presence. One of the main sources of communication babies use is crying. Crying is probably the clue she is currently giving you that she wants to be held or fed.

It’s often challenging for new parents to figure out how to respond to their baby’s cries. A baby’s crying falls into two main categories: crying you can do something about and crying you can’t do much about.

Crying that you can do something about stems from hunger, cold or fatigue. Some babies cry because their diaper is wet and will stop if you change it.

Crying that you can’t do much about is crying that babies do to release tension or to express their emerging feelings. This kind of crying is not “fixable” by making a physical change for the baby. However, you can still help your baby when they are doing this kind of crying by staying close, calm, relaxed, attentive and reassuring. You can also observe carefully during this kind of crying to see if your baby gives you a signal that there is something else you can do to help. We are often tempted during this kind of crying to shake or pat a baby vigorously to get them to stop. This can be disturbing and even dangerous for a baby. It is important to remember that it is not your responsibility to “stop” your baby’s crying. It is, however, important that you try to be as attentive and responsive to your baby’s feelings as possible.

While it sounds like it would be relatively easy to figure out which of these two kinds of crying is happening, it is often not clear until you try several different responses. You don’t need to expect yourself to know right away which kind of crying your baby is doing. One of your best strategies is simply educated guessing or “trial and error.”

The other challenge for new parents is that they often feel exhausted and overwhelmed. They have just made a major life change and are most likely doing it on limited and interrupted sleep. Their days are taken up with all of the details of caring for and getting to know a new baby. It is difficult to decode your baby’s communication system on top of all that.

Here are some things you can do to help your baby develop a sense of trust that don’t always involve holding and feeding:

Respond to her cries in a variety of ways.

Often a parent discovers one way of responding that makes the baby stop crying and then they continue to use only that method every time the crying starts. Infant specialist Magda Gerber reminds us that when a baby is crying, you can ask the baby what the crying is about. Obviously, babies won’t be able to tell you in words, but by really paying attention to the baby’s signals and trying different responses you can eventually figure it out.

Since babies cry for different reasons, the same solution won’t be appropriate each time. Interestingly, if you just respond one way (for instance, by feeding your child) your child may come to believe that food is what she is crying for and may learn to use food as a way to comfort herself anytime in her life that she is upset.

Give your baby some space to move.

Try giving your baby plenty of time when she is not in any carrier or other confined space. Put her on her belly (when awake and active) on a blanket and let her experience moving. Some babies really enjoy doing this without clothes and diaper.

Talk to her.

If she fusses, come close and in a gentle voice talk to your baby and reassure her. You can also sing to her or play some music.

Touch her.

You can touch your baby without always picking her up. If she is on a blanket on the floor, you can sit or lay down next to her and gently touch or rub her body.

Wrap her up.

Alternately, some babies prefer to be wrapped snugly in a blanket. You can even try wrapping them with their arms inside the blanket (swaddling). Young babies still don’t have full control of their bodies and may startle themselves by waving their arms around and kicking their feet. You can experiment with this and see what your baby’s preferences are.

Change her location.

Sometimes changing a baby’s location will help her settle. Many babies love to be outside. If you can find a protected place outside — with a comfortable temperature — you can move her blanket and go to sit with her outdoors. For young babies, be wary of windy days. Younger babies have a reflexive response when wind hits their face and they begin to startle and gasp.

Try a sling or other front carrier.

You can experiment to see if you and she enjoy being close in the baby pack for part of the day.

Observe what she does to comfort herself.

Often even very young babies develop tools to calm and comfort themselves. Most commonly, babies will find their fist, fingers, or thumb to suck on. While historically, thumb-sucking has been discouraged, it is in fact a very resourceful strategy for a child. It provides a ready alternative when she really needs to suck but isn’t really hungry. You can also try pacifiers, if you are more comfortable with them.

Try to get a break for yourself.

If possible, regularly arrange a few minutes (or more) to take care of yourself. Do you have a good friend, family member or child care person who can watch your baby for a while so you can get a short nap, a massage, a walk, some exercise, a few minutes to read, or time to write in your journal? Keeping yourself refreshed will help you be the resourceful parent you want to be.

You can’t spoil a baby.

When in doubt, err on the side of giving your baby too much attention. It is a limited time period that she will need you so completely. In a few short years, she is not going to be very interested in having you hold her all the time. Responding to her cries and requests now helps her develop confidence and hopefulness that the world and the people in it are trustworthy.

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