Parental quirks

Why we act daffy around babies...and why that's (mostly) a good thing

Coming late to motherhood, I had too many chances to snigger when my college-educated buddies devolved into baby-talking simpletons as, one by one, they became parents. Naturally, I got my comeuppance. I started cooing to my “suuuweeet baaaybeee” the moment I lifted her into my arms. And the first night home from the hospital, I sang my way through every frightful and materialistic lullaby I had sworn never to utter — from babies falling out of treetops to papas buying them diamond rings.

Then came the afternoon when I cracked open the first jar of baby food. My husband walked in just as I was offering a spoonful. Snorting with laughter, he compared the expression on my face to that of an oxygen-starved guppy. “You try it, buster,” I countered. Extend spoon, drop jaw. It’s impossible to do one without the other.

Mercifully for those of us clinging to some shred of dignity, researchers have begun to understand what’s behind our parental madness. Much of it spans the world’s cultures and, in fact, appears to be biologically programmed.

Here’s a look at six classic parental behaviours, why babies love them, and when to rein them in.

Goo-goo talk

To non-parents, it can be grating — that high-pitched and exaggerated singsong chatter. Early childhood development experts call it “infant-directed speech.” No one who gets close to a baby is immune.

Why it’s important A baby’s developing auditory system picks up high-pitched notes better than low-register sounds, explains child psychologist Janet F. Werker, director of the University of British Columbia’s Infant Studies Centre. Research also shows that babies pay more attention to modulated, or singsong, language than to ordinary speech. They find the variation more engaging, Werker says.

The exaggerated vowels? They may help infants learn the sounds of what will become their native tongue. And the slow and exaggerated pronunciation helps babies discern words. Simply put, evolution may have hard-wired us to talk to babies in ways that help them acquire language, Werker says. “But I think there’s more to it,” she adds. “There’s a gentleness and lovingness in infant-directed speech.” And this emotional message may be the most important part of baby talk for very young infants.

When it’s too much So there you are having a wonderful time chatting with your newborn, when suddenly he bursts into inconsolable crying. What happened?

Babies have various ways of signalling “enough” when they can’t handle any more stimulation, including conversation, Werker explains, but parents sometimes miss the signals. One of the most common is avoiding your gaze. Others can include arching away, flailing or even drooling. So, learn your baby’s signals and let her be the guide.
Funny faces

Even more universal than goo-goo talk is the tendency to interact with babies by contorting our faces into wide-eyed, open-mouth expressions — often within a few inches of an infant’s face. An older child or adult would find it obnoxious. But babies eat it up.

Why it’s important In the first months of life, babies have pretty crummy vision. Specifically, they can’t focus on objects farther than eight to 10 inches away. Our exaggerated mugging helps babies make out our features against the blur of the surrounding world, notes Sarah Landy, a leading Canadian authority on infant development who is currently working at the Princess Margaret Hospital in Perth, Australia.

When it’s too much Babies differ in how much mugging they enjoy. “Some infants may need more exaggerated gestures to get them involved, while others may be somewhat overwhelmed by too much activity,” Landy explains. So here, as with goo-goo talk, it’s important to back off when a baby signals “enough” by looking away or becoming fussy.

Mimicry

A baby smiles, and we beam back. A baby cries, and we pucker our mouths and furrow our brows in mirror-image sympathy. Conversely, babies mimic our expressions, even sticking out their tongues if we stick out ours. Landy calls it “the dance of face-to-face interaction.”

Why it’s important Back-and-forth mimicry fosters what child psychologists call “attunement” — a synchrony between parent and child that leads to secure attachment. By contrast, babies become distressed when, in research studies, mothers deliberately keep their faces still and non-responsive for as little as three minutes.

Responsiveness teaches babies that their actions produce results and are important enough to engage our attention, Landy says. And, yes, this back-and-forth imitation is a handy way to get babies to open their mouths at dinnertime.

When it’s too much Generally, parents don’t need to worry about overdoing mimicry so long as they let babies take the lead. Child psychologists are far more concerned when parents fail to match the child’s level of emotion, or respond inappropriately — a frown for a smile or even vice versa.
Swinging and swaying

Hand anyone a fussy baby and chances are good the person will start swaying or gently jiggling.

Why it’s important Gentle rhythmic motion activates a baby’s vestibular system — the complex sense that lets us know where we are in space. “Very young babies lose their equilibrium easily,” Werker explains, “and when they do, they begin to fuss and cry.” It doesn’t matter whether the motion is side to side, rocking, or up and down so long as it’s slow and gentle.

When it’s too much Sometimes babies just cry — inconsolably — for hours. And parents can get frustrated — perhaps even feel the temptation to turn a jiggle into a shake. Before that comes close to happening, it’s important to place a crying baby safely in her crib and walk away. “Shaken baby syndrome is real and the damage is terrible — brain damage for life or even death,” says Werker. So know when you’re approaching your limit and give yourself a break.

Lullaby lunacy

Something about rocking a baby brings back the lullabies from our own early childhood. For me, this even included a German song my mother sang — though I hadn’t a clue what it meant.

Why it’s important Once again, it’s all in the rhythm. Across cultures, traditional lullabies embody slow, simple, rhythmic melodies. The lyrics, however nonsensical, may not matter at all, Landy assures.

When it’s too much Sometimes babies — especially sleeping babies — need quiet. Rather than set the “Baby Lullaby” CD on all-night replay, switch it off once your infant has fallen asleep, Landy says. And consider waiting till your child is older before sharing your love of, say, Miles Davis or the Red Hot Chili Peppers. While infants need a rich sensory diet, elaborate rhythms, driving rock music, even a full orchestra can prove overwhelming. Once again, let your infant be your guide. Ferocity

I’ll never forget the night I stood in an intensive care unit, blocking a paediatric resident who’d spent an hour poking my newborn’s tiny veins in his struggle to insert an intravenous line. We both knew the needed antibiotic could be administered with a quick injection. But he had been ordered to master IV insertion. His supervising physician was tough. But I was tougher — despite a C-section the night before.

Why it’s important Primal instinct positions us between our babies and potential danger. Psychologists have long known that certain baby features, especially those big eyes and button nose, trigger a powerful combination of attraction and protectiveness in adults. Advertisers love to exploit this instinct (think Telus and all those baby animals). But it’s also what prompts us to sacrifice for our babies — whether risking our lives or getting up for another 2 a.m. feeding.

When it’s too much It’s hard to be too protective of a newborn. But as babies get older, they need to explore their environment and learn to deal with frustration. That means reining in your protectiveness if it begins to hamper normal baby activities, such as toddling and, yes, occasionally falling on a safe surface.

Of course, many of us can look forward to at least 18 years of gradually weaning ourselves of sometimes overwhelming impulses to cuddle and coddle.

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