My first baby was…well, a little high maintenance. One thing about him though — he let you know exactly how he felt. By about four months, Riley chortled, bounced and grinned as enthusiastically as he cried.
His younger cousin was quite different. Where Riley tended to hurtle between delight and misery, Keegan seemed to experience more moderate states like contented and disgruntled. Quieter in her responses, she was also harder to read if you didn’t know her well. A tickle song that would make my son giggle might win me an intent, solemn stare. Was that an interested, do-it-again stare, or a get-out-of-my- face stare?
Less demonstrative babies
These less demonstrative babies are not so unusual, says Chaya Kulkarni, a child development and parenting expert at Invest in Kids in Toronto. Often, she says, it’s simply a question of temperament: “Their cues are a little more subtle.” Sometimes they are described by their parents as “easy” babies, like Jenna Sleziuk’s second son, Noah. “He is super laid-back. Noah hardly ever cries or fusses, and he is easy to calm down when he does get upset.”
But sometimes a baby strikes her parents as not so much laid-back, but actually difficult to connect with. Diane Philipp, a psychiatrist with Toronto’s Hincks-Dellcrest Institute who specializes in infant and preschool mental health, says the baby may seem “uncuddly” and may not respond happily to her parents’ efforts to interact with her. This baby, she says, may have sensory integration difficulties — meaning that her nervous system is maturing more slowly and sensory input that feels neutral or pleasurable to us may be overwhelming, disorienting or grating to her.
It’s important not to take the baby’s response (or lack of it) personally, says Philipp. “Some parents feel rejected and react by trying harder to do the same things they’ve been doing — but they are too intrusive for this particular baby. It can turn into a vicious circle.”
Whether your baby simply has a less demonstrative personality or has sensory integration issues, it’s important to be responsive to his needs, Kulkarni stresses. “When you have a quiet baby who isn’t demanding, you need to respond promptly when he does ask for something,” she says. “The most important thing you can do for a baby is to let him know you’re there, to learn and to respond to his cues. And even the most reserved baby still needs interaction and playtime and touch.”
If the baby seems to be oversensitive to stimulation, says Philipp, parents need to learn a different style of connecting. “North American parents are particularly hyperstimulating of their babies. We’re just over the top a lot of the time. Your baby may need more time and physical space.”
How to connect
So how can you connect with a less demonstrative baby without overwhelming her? Some things to try:
• Observe your baby. Notice what she’s looking at; learn the facial expressions or movements that signal distress or happiness. “She may not have a huge smile,” says Philipp, “but you’ll see signs of pleasure: a sparkle in her eye, a little smile, the desire to keep engaging with something.”
• Try different ways of holding or positioning an “uncuddly” baby. Face-to-face and held close may be too much, says Philipp. Try holding the baby facing outward, with his back and head resting against you. Or have a nice face-to-face chat with the baby in a bouncy chair, so there’s a bit of distance.
• If your baby doesn’t respond much to that raspberry nuzzle on his tummy, you might be tempted to do it louder and longer. But he might actually prefer a lighter touch, suggests Philipp — perhaps a quiet song with a fingertip stroke from forehead to nose.
While a quieter baby may not be as openly affectionate as a more demonstrative one, she’ll still show you signs of your connection. At about eight months, says Philipp, look for social referencing, which will tell you just how important you are to your serious baby. “That’s when the baby is playing with or exploring something, then she looks to you and then back at the object, and then to you again and back at the object. She’s saying, ‘I’m with you — I want to know how you feel about this.’ The baby is deeply engaged with you — she just may not be as bubbly about it.”
Consult with your doctor if your baby:
• does not respond to the sound of your voice
• does not seem to watch what goes on around him or track objects visually
• very rarely smiles at all
• rarely tries to make contact with you — by eye contact, whimpering or crying, or reaching toward you.