Thursday, August 6, 2009

What Makes a Difficult Baby?

We all label some babies as "difficult" and some as "easy". I didn't think twice about describing my tiny daughter as difficult. I was all too aware of how she failed to measure up to my previous expectations of babies: she would not sleep without me lying beside her; she almost always woke when I tried to put her down asleep; she would not lie in a bouncy chair; she cried whenever she was not feeding, in a carrier or in a pram; she fed hourly through the night.

If I knew then what I know now I would have put her in a sling from the moment I woke up to the moment we went to bed and I would not have hesitated to co-sleep with her from the day she was born. But, back then, I took some solace in the fact that things were so very hard because I had a particularly demanding baby to care for.

As Cave Baby has grown up and I have talked to more and more mums about their "difficult" babies I have come to realise how little I valued her "good" traits. I was so preoccupied with her sleeping problems that I never realised how fortunate I was that she breastfed well from the very first attempt; that I never suffered particularly sore nipples; that she kept her milk down and brought burps up easily; that she could lie beside me all night without ever needing to be winded; that she fell asleep when the lights went out without fail, and was content to lie in bed with me until late in the morning. Even if she had been the best sleeper in the world, I would probably have still called her "difficult" if she come up short in some other department.

Reading Our Babies, Ourselves by Meredith Small has given me a different perspective on difficult babies. I now realise that "difficulty" is always relative to the culture in which the baby lives. If I had been part of a culture that customarily co-slept and carried its young then Cave Baby's "difficulties" would not even have shown up. Perhaps in such a culture it would be the babies who fidgeted excessively in a sling, or who wriggled at night, that would be considered "difficult".

And there is another side of "difficulty". My baby's reuctance to sleep alone and her insistence on human contact were simply her ways of telling me what she needed to grow and thrive. All babies know what is good for them, but the "difficult" ones are just a bit more determined to get it. There is an interesting anecdote about this in Meredith Small's book. In the 1970s a researcher named Marten de Vries followed some Masai infants and identified the ten "easiest" and the ten "most difficult". When he returned three months later, only thirteen of thh babies were left, the rest having moved on. Over the next three months of famine, seven of these babies died: six "easy" babies and only one "difficult" baby. Perhaps it was their "difficulty", their determination to have their needs met, that helped the "difficult" babies to stay alive.

I will share a couple more bits from Our Babies, Ourselves but in the meantime you might like to read Hobo Mama's review of it.


clareybabble said...

I like the word 'challenging'! All babies have 'easy' and 'difficult' traits, it's how we perceive and cope with them that is the main thing. Although I know that's very difficult when you have a baby who won't sleep, I've been there!

Liz said...

I'm glad you're enjoying Meredith Small, I thought you would! I also had a 'challenging' baby, although I still found her a challenge even though we did do all the attachment stuff from the beginning, but I also found that bit in the book about the survival of more challenging babies really encouraging.

allgrownup said...

Like you, I so wish I'd have known about slings and co-sleeping before the baby came. This time, my sling is in my hospital bag (4 weeks to go!) and the midwives are well aware of my intentions to co-sleep, and respect my decision as an educated woman,

Joe said...

Thank you for this post. I had one of "those" babies too, and I do think that their being labelled "difficult" does come from our culture, with high expectation on independence and "easy" babies. As soon as you stop fighting them, and start working with them, it all becomes a whole lot easier.

I also wish I knew then some of the things I know now - I would have also kept her in the sling all day and been more proactive on the co-sleeping. But I remind myself that the reason why I know more now is precisely because I have DD - I would have not had the platform to look into some of these things without her. I guess this is what they mean when they say our children teach us so much :D

Amanda said...

I love this post. Perspective is so true of anything in life, especially when dealing with our children. My difficult baby is growing into a wild and wonderful, demanding little man. But he's also the most polite, thoughtful, tender, wacky almost-three-year-old who loves ginger candies, herbs straight from the garden, and just about any vegetable you put in front of him (a bowl of wilted greens are his favorite). He's also the only pre-schooler I know who pretends to be David Bowie and can sing all the words to Queen's We Will Rock You. He is definitely a survivor--with damn good taste if I do say so myself. We with the challenging ones...We're the lucky mamas!

Cave Mother said...

Hey thanks for ALL these comments - I loe them all. I agree that we are (kind of) lucky to have these "challenging" babies who open our eyes to so much. If I had not been so "challenged" I would have missed out on so much learning. I love babywearing and to think I wouldn't have done that if Cave Baby hadn't needed it to stop her crying. And I have become so passionate about breastfeeding and more gentle, baby-friendly ways to parent.

Joe, you are right - I owe it to my baby for teaching me how she wanted to be treated.

Liz - I have really enjoyed the book, and I did get it on your recommendation!

Jessica said...

A good friend of mine had her baby with her from day 1, lots of breastfeeding, co-sleeping, the works, and yet her son never slept alone. EVER. And rarely for more than a few minutes at a time. For well over a year.

Family and friends thought she was just a young mother who was exaggerating, but she wasn't. He literally wouldn't sleep if he wasn't with his mother and would only cat nap.

He's 9 now and rambunctious and lovely and wicked smart and has a great relationship with his mother, because even though he wrung her out a thousand ways she never called him difficult, never said anything but, "I guess this is what my baby needs."

She said to me just the other day, "I don't think attachment parenting makes a difference, it's just all hard wiring and temperment" and she an AP advocate. My response was, imagine what he would have been like if you hadn't done all that!

(As a side note, they waited EIGHT years to try for another because they weren't up for another no-sleep-baby hahah Turns out #2 is a dreamy and very sleepy baby haha)

Laura said...

This post so could have been written by me! lol. My daughter was 'difficult' too and hence we found attachment parenting. So so glad we did! I wouldn't have it any other way now. She's still tricky - she's a 'highly sensitice child' - but I am now confident that we're doing the best for her - cosleeping, still breastfeeding (at 2.5 yrs), parenting her gently etc.
Love your blog, and thank you for your comment on mine. :)