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Irritable Babies and Mother’s Love

by The Kid's Doctor Staff

A new study suggests that irritable babies who have a secure attachment with their mothers are more sociable in the future. An infant that cries persistently and is irritable is enormously stressful for a new mother, but if mom is comforting and reassuring, babies will learn to respond more positively to unfamiliar people and situations as they grow.

The study included 84 infants who were followed from birth to age 2. Irritability was assessed within a month of birth and was based on the infants’ reactions to a series of tests, including being undressed and hearing a bell ringing. About one third of the infants were rated highly irritable and two-thirds as moderately irritable.

Attachment to the infant’s mother was assessed at 12 months. It was based on the behavior of the mother with the infant. Infants who had a safe and dependable relationship with their mother turned toward them when they felt distressed. Insecure infants did not.

At ages 18 to 24 months, the University of Maryland researchers assessed the children’s reactions to unfamiliar adults, and toys. Not surprisingly toddlers, who were highly irritable as newborns, were the most social if they had a secure attachment with their mother, but less sociable if a secure bond had not developed. Also noted in the study, toddlers who felt securely attached were more likely to explore the world around them, than insecure toddlers. The quality of attachment did not affect either the sociability or exploration of toddlers who were moderately irritable as newborns.

Researchers said the findings suggest that mothers of irritable infants reach out and find ways to promote a feeling of security and love to their newborns. Although most mothers might say that they do that anyway, a constantly irritable baby can make having those feelings difficult to express. The study was published in Child and Development. has a list of “myths and facts” about bonding and secure attachment. Understanding the differences can really help.

- A secure attachment and love are the same thing.

Bonding and attachment happen instinctively between mothers and babies, but, unfortunately, loving your baby doesn’t automatically result in secure attachment. Secure attachment develops from your ability to manage stress, respond to your baby’s cues, and successfully soothe your infant.

- My baby is not securely attached if I can’t figure out what he or she wants.

It is not necessary to meet your baby’s needs one hundred percent of the time in order to develop a secure attachment bond – one third of the time or more is enough to lead to secure attachment. As you get to know your baby and your parenting experience grows, you should feel more confident about reading your baby’s cues and signals.

- Always responding to their needs will make babies spoiled.

On the contrary, the more responsive you are to an infant’s needs, the less “spoiled” the baby will be as they get older. Bonding creates trust, and children with secure attachments tend to be more independent, not less.

- Secure attachment is impossible because I’m a working mother and can’t respond to my baby’s needs 24 hours a day.

You do not have to be with your baby 24 hours a day to develop a secure attachment bond. What matters is maximizing the quality of the time that you do have, and ensuring that your baby has a caregiver who also realizes the importance of bonding and attachment.

So what are some ways to calm an irritable infant?

The first step is to eliminate any obvious causes for irritability like hunger, extreme temperatures or a wet or soiled diaper. Next, check out your baby’s environment. Are there things that are too stimulating surrounding your baby?

For techniques that can help calm an irritable baby, you can try Dr. Harvey Karp, author of “The Happiest Baby on the Block” 5 S’s:

- Swaddling. Wrap your baby tightly in a receiving blanket to duplicate the feelings of warmth and protection, and the “tight fit,” in the womb. Swaddling also stops your baby’s uncontrolled arm and leg flailing that can contribute to hysterical wailing. Karp says your baby will be calmer if she’s swaddled 12-20 hours a day in the beginning. “Twelve hours may seem like a lot from our point of view, but to the newborn, it’s already a 50% cutback on the 24-hour-a-day ’snuggling’ in the uterus,” he explains.

- Side/stomach soothing. Lay your baby on her side or stomach, which Karp believes shuts down the baby’s “Moro reflex,” or a sensation of falling, and thus helps keep her calm. (He adds, however, that a baby should never be put to sleep on her stomach, since this may increase the risk of SIDS, or sudden infant death syndrome).

- “Shhhing” sounds. There is a whooshing noise within the womb, caused by blood flowing through the mother’s arteries. You can recreate this sound with a “white noise” machine, a tape or CD with these “white noise” sounds, a dishwasher, a car ride, or a hair dryer.

- Swinging. Rhythmic movements in an infant swing, hammock, moving automobile, or baby carrier can keep your baby content.

- Sucking. Occupy your baby with a pacifier, infant bottle, or a mother’s nipple.

I think all parents discover that there is no magical – sure thing- way to always calm an irritable baby. Sometimes a crying infant just will not be soothed until they cry it all out, but making the effort and relaying your love and compassion for their distress will eventually help your child to adjust to life in this new environment. Remember that he or she was in a controlled, safe, warm and secure womb before being born into this loud, exciting and very stimulating world.

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