Marlon is just a few weeks old. Momma nursed him, burped him, and set him in his perfect baby seat. Maybe it was the heat of the day, or the rash on his cheek, or something else; he was fussy. I spoke softly and asked Marlon if he’d like me to hold him as I extended my hands to this little one. Doing this very slowly, where the parents could see, I was demonstrating an effective way to pick up a baby; getting the infant’s attention and letting him know what to expect.
Imagine someone coming along and grabbing you when you weren’t expecting it. We do odd things like this with infants. Sometimes we swoop them up off the ground, from behind. Can you imagine how unnerving this might be?
Dad is 21 and all this is new to him. He shared that they try not to pick Marlon up every time he fusses. "You’ll help his development if you give him lots of attention and meet his needs quickly," I responded. To Dad’s credit, he wanted to understand. So I was able to share some basic information that not all parents know.
Babies Can’t Calm Down on Their Own
Babies have no ability to calm down on their own. Their nervous system is still growing the "calming" parts that lead to self-control. Dad asked; "When are those parts all grown in?" He was surprised when I told him, "Our best, general estimate is about 22 years of age."
Young children (and people of all ages) are soothed through their senses. With infants, the senses involved with suckling, rocking, stroking, and cooing tend to be calming. So does the presence of their trusted caregiver. Your calm presence is absolutely contagious to young children.
There is a huge benefit in comforting and calming children. Getting to and spending time being calm is how nervous systems learn to find a place of calm.
A child whose need is met promptly has the basics for developing a sense of being loved and cared for.
"Momma gets me," is the inside feeling.
What Happens If a Child Is Left to ‘Cry it Out’
The other extreme can make glitches in development. When a child is left to cry him or herself to sleep or is otherwise ignored, the child’s inner feeling becomes, "I don’t matter, nobody cares, nobody understands my need."
Of course, little babies have no words for these feelings. Depending on their personality, they will have varied responses. One common response to this sort of delayed care is anger.
Some angry children end up in my clinic – kicked out of preschool, scaring their parents and siblings with out-of-control behavior, and worst of all, not feeling comfortable in their own skin. Their little systems have not learned how to calm down.
Instead they are developing all too frequently used pathways, and therefore habits, of being out-of-control.
Think of the foundation for a building. If it’s broad and deep, it can handle a great structure. Our lives are similar. A developmental foundation that meets a child’s basic needs makes the child strong and able to take on great challenges in life ahead. When Dad hears his child and responds, the child learns he has a voice that matters and is effectual. He learns he can get help. This is an early step in developing the sense of "I can" in life.
The Nervous System 101
Let’s get a practical sense of how the nervous system works. One way to view the nervous system is in terms of activation and deactivation. Activation is simply getting ready for something, like getting out of bed. The heart beats a little more, sending blood to the muscles, the mind has a plan of where you are going and next thing you know, you are on your feet. Without activation setting this all up, it would be challenging, to say the least.
The other half of activation is deactivation. With the nervous system, this is crucial. In fact, a mature nervous system activates and deactivates, cycle after cycle, round and round. This is integral to our system. The heart beats, activation, and then there is a moment of deactivation. We breathe in, activation, and breathe out in deactivation.
Young children, as I have already mentioned, haven’t yet developed the ability to deactivate.
When we help a child deactivate, we are helping him or her to mature and gain self-control. As pathways of being able to deactivate develop in the system, the body wants to use them again and again. We feel so much better being calm than being out of control.
(Future posts will provide more detail on how to help with deactivation.)
When we are out-of-control we cannot learn; the thinking mind is "offline." When we are in control, activating and deactivating, we are able to gain information from the world around us and interact with each other. Here’s an interesting thing: this isn’t true for only babies. It’s a basis of human behavior and growth.
Developing the ability to calm makes a foundation on which great things can be built.