That sounds a bit harsh doesn’t it? You’re exhausted. I’m not. Why won’t I just give you a break?
Here’s the thing. You may have been holding, rocking, and trying to soothe your crying baby for hours. You might be exhausted, lacking in confidence, and feeling broken. You might be thinking: ‘What is wrong with me?’ ‘What is wrong with my baby?’. But I (or anyone else for that matter) won’t solve your problem. Here’s why holding your baby for you is disempowering…
You and your baby are bound to each other. It’s as if someone took a piece of your heart and placed it in your arms. You need each other. You belong together. Giving someone else your heart doesn’t sound like a sensible strategy. While you may be exhausted and in need of a break, taking your baby is not (usually) the right way to help you.
Let’s think about the intricacies. There is a complex way of explaining this, but it boils down to attunement, emotion contagion and co-regulation.
This is the connection you have with your baby. The ability you inherently possess to be able to accurately interpret what your baby is feeling and needing. It might look simple – your baby cries, and you instinctively know he needs to be held the other way around. Or she wriggles and you know instantly that she needs her nappy changed. He fusses and whines and you sense he needs a nap. Attunement is the almost miraculous ability to interpret these non-verbal signs and cues and turn them into meaningful calls to action. You hear your baby’s request and act on it. You change your behaviour, action, emotional state or caregiving in response to your baby’s needs. When your baby is upset, it causes a stress response that triggers us to do something, change something, or provide something.
A lack of attunement means that we are not able to accurately interpret the signs our child gives us. This might be because our child’s cues are difficult to read. Or it might be because we rely too heavily on prescriptive books that try to teach a standard response to behaviours, or prescribe a schedule for feeding or sleep. These kinds of prescriptive books remove that instinct and deny the opportunity for attunement. The same can happen when someone else interprets our child’s cues for us, instead of helping us to interpret and observe them for ourselves.
Taking your baby away misses an opportunity for attunement.
This is the ability we all have to pick up on and match the feelings and emotions of others. Have you ever been looking forward to going out with a large group of friends, or maybe even your partner, and eagerly anticipated the event? Imagine getting ready, choosing what you will wear… making an effort. You know how it goes. Then, you arrive, and everyone is in a whining mood.
Someone is moaning about their day, another person is complaining about their partner. Someone else is frustrated by their work situation. Or maybe your partner is tired and not on good form.
What happens to your mood? You crumple, right? You might start matching your conversation to the general tone.
What about if you’re feeling a bit down, but then you meet a very upbeat friend? This affects you too doesn’t it? They’re able to pick you up and make you feel better.
You can influence your baby in the same way. The trouble is, sometimes your baby may stress you out. It’s not always easy listening to your little one crying, or having a difficult day. This is hard (understatement of the century!) and may provoke a stress-response.
So, if your baby is upset about something – anything, and you (understandably) find it stressful when you can’t make it all better, then you and your baby unwittingly start stressing each other out. Your baby is dysregulating you, and you are not in a position to regulate your baby, so your baby does not calm down either.
This is one of those situations that I must stress is really common! I’ve been there, and so have millions of other parents. It would be easy to misinterpret what I just wrote, and think that I am trying to say that you are bad for your baby. Not true at all.
Two ways to handle this
But here is where there are two ways of handling this. A supportive way, and a disempowering way.
If someone else, who is not stressed out and exhausted comes along and offers to take your baby, your baby may calm down. It’s pretty obvious really -they project their calm state onto your baby, and thus are able to co-regulate your baby’s emotional state back to calm again. However – this removes the immense power you have to do this for yourself. You are in fact, disempowered. Denied the opportunity to calm your baby using yourself.
Here’s another scenario though – same stressed parent and baby. Same calm, well-rested support person. This time, the support person empathises with how hard this situation is. The calm person puts an arm around the parent, offers to make them a hot drink, cracks a joke, tells them what a great job they’re doing. Perhaps they make a suggestion about how to calm down, encourage some slow deep breaths. Maybe they normalize this situation and assure the parent that it will pass. This time, instead of the support person removing the power, they are giving the power back to the parent to be the person to calm their child down.
Taking your baby away misses an opportunity for emotional regulation and growth.
So, back to why I won’t hold your child for you…
If someone else does something for us, it shuts down the opportunity for us to help ourselves. We feel like that person is ‘better’ at it than us. That our baby ‘prefers’ them. That we are ‘not good enough’. None of this is true – it’s just that the other person had a trump card – their sense of calm. I have heard people talking as if they were some kind of baby guru, able to mystically settle any baby, leaving everyone else feeling inadequate, and simultaneously bolstering someone else’s ego. This is not ok. Those people do not have magical powers. They do not somehow know your baby better than you do. They do not have extra-ordinary gifting in baby settling. They’re just not stressed out.
Sure, there are some techniques, some positions to hold babies in that might be very soothing, or some tricks they can teach you. But I maintain that a better strategy is to teach those tools to you, rather than take your baby away and utilize them without explaining what is going on. Sometimes a particular position or hold needs to be demonstrated – in fact, this is why I carry a doll with me to every visit. But it may in some circumstances be appropriate to demonstrate with your baby, or even handle your baby. If I ever need to do that, I’ll always explain what I’m doing, and teach you the tools I use that might work.
Of course, if someone can articulate this issue clearly, and if they have a trusting relationship with you, then it is possible for them to take your baby to give you a break and allow you to have a break. But please know that your baby does not prefer them. I promise.
Just taking your baby away misses an opportunity for teaching skills and empowering you.
If I won’t hold your baby, what will I do?
Clearly, I’m not just going to refuse to help you, and nor should others! First of all, this information needs to be shared. Secondly, the support model I promote is like a triangle. You, your baby and your support person. Here’s what happens if you and your baby are dysregulated:
Your baby dysregulates you and you are not able to regulate your baby. But look what happens when we add the third person into the situation:
With the third person in place, you’re able to become calm, and can therefore regulate your baby yourself. But what tools might work? Here are some ideas:
- Having someone to offload on can really help
- Try listening to some music and dancing around with your baby
- Try verbalizing what you think your baby might be feeling: for example, ‘I hear you, you’re sad/mad/tired’ – or whatever. Just saying it out aloud might help
- Talk to your baby about how you feel: for example, ‘Wow – we’re not having an easy morning huh? I’m feeling a bit grumpy too, but I’m here for you’
- Try listening to a guided relaxation on your headphones
- Tell yourself a positive affirmation: for example, ‘I am a calm, competent, compassionate parent and this, like all phases, will pass’.
- Try taking 10 slow, deep breaths, with your out-breath longer than your in-breath. Focus all your awareness on your breath, and think of nothing else
- Try going outside – sometimes a change of scene really helps
- Try some alternate nostril breathing – you cover your left nostril, and then exhale through your right. Then inhale through your right and hold the breath. Now cover your right nostril, and exhale that breath through your left nostril. Inhale through your left, and then you’ve completed the sequence. Repeat this for about 5 minutes if you can – it’s clinically proven to lower blood pressure, heart rate and breathing rate and can make you feel much calmer.
- Try an oxytocin pressure point. Oxytocin is your anti-stress secret weapon! Anything that increases oxytocin (massage, skin to skin, breastfeeding etc) will lower stress and make you feel better
When I might hold your baby for you
Clearly, there are times when someone offers to hold your little one, so you can have a break. You might be in a sleep crisis, or just desperate for a break. You might be touched out or burnt out. Accepting help is ok – as long as you know this first! If you’re happy that nobody possesses better abilities to soothe and settle your baby then go for it. They may know of more tools – but these can be taught. You are always the best person for your baby. Always. Never doubt that.
And just to be clear: I will hold YOU. I will hold space for you. I will hold your emotional outpourings. I will hold you in my thoughts. I just don’t want to disempower you.
Lyndsey Hookway is a paediatric nurse, health visitor, IBCLC, holistic sleep coach, PhD researcher, international speaker and author of 3 books. Lyndsey is also the Co-founder and Clinical Director of the Holistic Sleep Coaching Program, co-founder of the Thought Rebellion, and founder of the Breastfeeding the Brave project. Check Lyndsey’s speaker bio and talk brochure, as well as book her to speak at your event by visiting this page. All Lyndsey’s books, digital guides, courses and webinars can be purchased here, and you can also sign up for her free monthly newsletter here.