So how do they do it, those calm, collected parents? How do they make it through weeks of sleeplessness with a crying baby and stay in control of their emotions? Every family is different, and what works for one parent will not work for another. The important thing is to try a few different ways of dealing with your emotions until you find a way to cope that feels best for you. Here are some pointers to getting started:
Reassure YourselfReassure yourself that the baby is okay. Once you have gone through your mental list of things to do when the baby cries (and run through it again and again – including getting the pediatrician's perspective), you can reassure yourself the baby is okay. It is scary to think that something is wrong with your baby and taking a deep breath and really noticing that the baby is physically fine is a good way to keep yourself from panicking over the list of worst-case scenarios. The baby is obviously not happy, but this may be one of those times the baby just needs to cry. A baby crying inconsolably for hours each night is not making a statement about the caretaker. Parents' insecurity about parenting is reflected in the common way parents anticipate the judgment of their children – we tend to be unsure of ourselves as parents and fear that we won't be good enough, so we sometimes pick up on criticism that is not actually there. When nerves are rubbed raw, it can be easy for parents to feel personal failure when their baby cries. Do not take the crying personally, inconsolable crying is not fun, but it is normal for some babies.
Eat Well and Be ActiveIt is hard to stay calm when you haven't slept much, and sleep is hard to come by in the first few months of a baby's life. So while you might not be able to fit a few power naps into your day, you can do a lot for your energy levels by eating healthy and exercising. Avoiding caffeine might seem impossible given how little sleep you may be getting, but try to moderate coffee and soda intake – crashing down from a large dose of caffeine is a sure recipe for irritability and impatience, just as eating processed foods high in sugars will leave you running on empty, too. Aim for a diet that balances satisfying items with slow-burning fuels like proteins and fiber, these choices have a low glycemic index and do not cause the huge swings in blood sugar that perk us up but then For exercise, a neighborhood walk with the baby in a stroller or cruising the local indoor mall is a great way to get out of the house and to work towards the Center for Disease Control's recommended 25 minutes per day of activity.
Tag TeamIf you have a partner, use them. If you don't, find one – not necessarily a spouse or live-in partner, but so long as you trust them to safely watch after a baby, your best friend, a parent, a sibling, or a neighbor can all be helpful. The research on the importance of social support for parents is clear: parenting alone is stressful, regardless of educational experience, income level, or age. In other words, when we compare parents from the same background, one with a partner and one without, the single parent experiences significantly more stress. Parents with partners regularly reduce their stress levels during this rough time by tag-teaming each day. Allowing someone else to care for the baby for short periods of time – not necessarily at the most stressful times, and not just when the baby cries - is a helpful way to clear your head. Just the few minutes to take a hot shower or getting out of the house to run a few errands can make a big difference in one's frame of mind.
Safe Spot for Your BabyA crucial part of staying calm is the ability to take a break; but parenting a young baby makes taking breaks difficult. A long-term solution to making sure everyone can take a break – parent and child alike – is to set up safe places in your home. For the baby, this is straightforward: A dim room with a crib or playpen with no pillows, stuffed animals, or other suffocation hazards will work perfectly. Make sure there are no window blind cords or other safety hazards nearby and set up a baby monitor. You now have a space to safely set the baby for a few minutes while you take care of yourself – and remember, even babies need space for themselves every now and then; you may be surprised to find an infant can soothe him or herself with practice. Using a baby monitor will allow you to get some distance from your baby, but still know how he or she is doing. Stepping away from a crying baby is a hard thing for most caretakers, but it is important. The next suggestion offers tips on how to take a break from a crying baby gradually, so that both baby and parent feel comfortable with this strategy.
Find a Place for YouMany parents chose places that they find soothing – a bedroom, workout space, or workshop. Some prefer the bathroom – there is something comforting about closing the door and knowing that no one will disturb you, not in this most private of places. The key is to find a place that offers you a momentary distraction from your baby's cries. Do you find reading relaxing? Working out on a treadmill? Listening to music? Watching television? Maybe taking a quick shower is your key to letting go of tension. Use these everyday parts of your routine to help keep a level head and not be caught up in your baby's distress. Keep telling yourself you deserve time, too. Just knowing there is a place for you to go and something you can do for a few minutes can help, learning when and how to do so responsibly comes next.
Take a BreakThis is a tough concept for some parents to embrace because putting a crying baby down to take a few minutes for yourself can feel insensitive. Some people believe that a crying baby needs their parents more than at any other time. The problem with that line of thinking is that it assumes that a crying baby with their parent is always a safe baby, and while most of the time this is true, the one time the baby is not safe, when the parent loses control of their emotions, the consequences may be life threatening for the baby. Taking a tag-team approach for short periods of time reassures parents that taking everyday moments to get a fresh perspective is good for them, and good for their time with their baby. Doing this will help parents become more comfortable taking a break when it really counts – when they are feeling the pressures of caring for a crying baby. Tag teaming may not always be possible when both parents are stressed, or when a parent is on their own, and here, too, taking a break is one solution. Setting up safe spots is another important precursor to taking a break when the pressure is on; doing this ensures that that when a parent or a baby needs a break, there is no anxiety about where to go or what to do. The hardest part of taking a break is doing it when the situation is more challenging, when emotions are running high.
Most people are not aware of their emotions before they reach a boiling point because low grade emotions (ones that aren't very intense) are easy to ignore or push to the side of our awareness. When our frustration levels are low we are usually capable of letting that frustration sit in the back of our minds while we focus on the activity at hand, whether it is driving to the post office or cleaning up after dinner. Most of us allow these emotions to stay in the background and we often miss them altogether, and mostly we can actually recover from these mid-range emotions because distractions can be an effective coping strategy - even without the intention of calming down. But when the intensity keeps building, when frustration or irritability go from manageable to explosive, just going about our usual activity is not likely to help – we need more than distraction, we need a plan.
Prevention is worth its weight in gold when it comes to coping with emotions like irritability, frustration, and anger. It is easier to calm down from a mid-range intensity emotion than from a high intensity emotion because when emotions run high we often lose the ability to slow down, monitor our impulses, and take steps to disengage from the difficult situation. It is hard to think straight when we are at the end of our emotional rope. People in high stress circumstances – like the sleepless nights of raising a baby – are in the perfect situation to practice regular emotion check-ins. The quickest way to do this is to ask yourself how you feel and to use emotion words to answer. “How am I? Angry? Sad? Jittery? Happy? Calm? Joyful?” Do not settle for the easy answer “fine” - we want to form the habit of using words that encourage us to be honest so that we can act to improve the situation, and “fine” doesn't give you any sense of what you feel. Build this quick check-in into the baby's 2 or 3 hour cycle of feeding and sleeping. After a feeding or diaper change, check in with yourself and if the intensity of your emotions is rising, it's time to take a break.
Start slowly if taking a break doesn't sit well with you: Put the baby in the safe spot you have set up and take just a couple of steps back – stay close enough to see the baby and far enough away that he or she is out of reach. Pull up a chair or sit on the floor, and stay there for one minute. Close your eyes and take long, deep breaths (there are other calming exercises, but focusing your attention on a few deep breaths without any other visual distraction is a good start). After one minute, pick the baby back up. Each time you take a break you can increase the distance between yourself and baby, waiting for slightly longer each time, until you are comfortable taking a few minutes for yourself in your own safe spot. Remember to take the baby monitor with you once you have gotten far enough that you can't see each other anymore.
If taking a break from the baby comes more easily to you, here are a few tips to keep in mind: Keep the baby monitor with you, and check in on the baby with a quick visit every 10 to 15 minutes or so until you feel calm enough to pick him or her up. Many parents find headphones helpful for staying a bit more removed from an inconsolable cry – the baby won't mind if you are listening to something while you rock, walk, and go about trying to soothe him or her. Giving yourself a little bit of mental space with this distraction can help reduce the piercing quality of your baby's cry and keep emotions at a low to moderate intensity, which will help you need fewer breaks and less time to calm down when you do need to put the baby down.
Parenting a young baby is hard work. As parents, we spend a lot of time trying to sort out what the baby needs from moment to moment – without much help from the baby, who can't tell us what's wrong or how to make things better. We get much, much better at understanding our babies' needs and schedule over time – by the time the baby is a month old, each parent is much more confident and capable than they were in the first few days after the baby was born. These skills are put to the test when the baby cries for long periods of time and sometimes there is nothing a parent can do to soothe them (remember, inconsolable crying is normal for some babies). When parents find themselves in this tough situation, the real test is not whether they can comfort the baby, but whether they can take care of themselves and support the baby safely at the same time. It may take a little time and effort, but just like any skill, making it through an inconsolable cry gets easier with practice.