By Heather Wegerzyn
Think, if you will, of the sound of a crying baby. What is your gut reaction? Agitation? Stress? Fear? Does the need to quickly rescue the child strike you to your core? Would you smile, take a deep breath, and relax? If you move to soothe the baby, what methods would you use? Would you pick the baby up, and repeat, “You’re okay, you’re okay”? Maybe bounce them, and make a shushing sound? Distract them with a toy? Or would you be able to stay calm, and just breathe with the baby until they were able to calm down? Would you interpret the baby’s cry as a sign of distress or the need to learn how to destress?
The first three years are critical years in which we develop a mental model of relationships, a mental model of self, stress management, the ability to pay attention, and the motivation to achieve. The relationships we create and cultivate with infants and toddlers are the key to optimal development, and the precursor to how children learn to cope when the world does not go their way.
Try this: The next time your child is upset take a moment to Smile, Take a deep breath, And Relax (Remember to be a S.T.A.R.) before approaching. As you take your relaxing breaths, repeat to yourself, “I can handle this.” Then pick up your baby, hold them over your left shoulder, and just breathe. After a few deep breaths say, “You’re safe.”
Seem crazy? Consider the following: By distracting a crying infant with food or toys we teach them that their emotional state can be assuaged by things or by food. Have you ever been upset and then bought something you didn’t need? How about quelling an emotional day with a big piece of chocolate cake? Sure, from time to time these solutions are exactly what we need, but the ability to acknowledge and regulate your emotions is a skill that most adults would benefit from. What if we could gift this skill to our youngest infants? How will they be able to handle their emotions when they reach adulthood?
Conscious Discipline for Infants and Toddlers require us, as parents and caretakers, to rethink the ways in which we react and respond to infants and toddlers. In fact, it necessitates an enormous shift in thinking. We know that our brain state dictates the child’s brain state. If we approach an infant while we are agitated or distressed we “download” our emotional state to the infant reinforcing the idea, “You are not safe!” By shifting our reaction to intentionally calm ourselves before we even approach a crying child we are able to lend them our emotional state. Depending on the established relationship with the child, and the individual child’s temperament this process may vary in length, but it does work!
The ability to remain in a calm state, along with the relationships we establish and maintain, is the foundation for success when it comes to optimal development for infants and toddlers. When an infant or toddler feels safe and connected they are able to explore and interact in their environment. When it comes to conflict they are more able to problem solve and find solutions independently. A connected child is more likely to follow directions, and stay focused on their task. These skills taught at the most early stages prepare children for school readiness more authentically than any flashcard or the newest “Teach Your Baby to Read!” gimmick.
So...that crying baby. Take a moment. Smile, it will lift your spirits even if you are faking it at first. Take a deep breath, and relax. Approach the child, and say, “I am going to pick you up.” Pick the child up, and hold them over your left shoulder (so the child can feel your heart beat). Continue to breathe until the child is calm. Look into their eyes, and say, “There you are”. You can say, “You seem hungry (or tired or sad)” or even “I don’t know why you are upset, but we can figure it out together.”
We can all benefit by being a S.T.A.R.! Remember we are all in this together, and we are here to help if you need additional support.