‘Do you have the Pack n’ Play? Did you remember the pacifier? The diapers?
Stop! We have to turn around, we forgot Pooh-Bear! She won’t be able to sleep at Aunt Sue’s without it!’
The holidays can be a wonderful time of year full of family, friends, and good cheer. But when families must travel, the holidays can be equally magical and stressful at the same time. Once at your destination and greeted with the nostalgia and warmth of familiar faces, food, and more, everything feels cozy and welcoming. But your baby, however, may be having a different experience.
From your baby’s point-of-view everything is new, and what brings comfort to parents, can be a lot for a baby to process. So how can parents help their baby with the excitement of the holidays?
In the first year of life we grow and develop rapidly, faster than any other time in our lives - ask any parent about their baby changing from week to week and they will share their awe and amazement. Within those first 12 months, there are three major developmental milestones that take place and when parents know about these developmental stages, they better understand what their baby is experiencing and, more importantly, how they can help.
As noted by Martha Heineman Pieper, Ph.D. and William J. Pieper, M.D., in Smart Love, “This is the start of an exciting process of getting to know your child and, thereby, becoming an expert at making her happy.”*
Around three months old parents will begin to notice the first major milestone: an engagement with their baby that differs from prior exchanges, and that is - when parents smile at their baby, their baby smiles back. This may seem like a simple and expected part of development, but something big is happening for your baby - she is consciously connecting with you and experiencing happiness - and it’s manifesting in the exchange of smiles. And the joy that this interaction generates through your relationship is what your baby learns to crave.
During this stage, infants are also absorbing a lot of information through their day - the lights, the sounds, the smells - their little and magnificent minds are constantly processing the world around them. Knowing this, it’s easy to see how the holidays can be overstimulating and your baby may act differently at Aunt Sue’s than at home. They may cry more than usual, be unusually ‘fussy’, their sleep may be irregular, or their feedings may be different. All of these behaviors are normal responses for infants when in a new environment. And because Aunt Sue’s home is new in every way, it can cause fatigue and even irritability for your baby. What helps soothe a baby at this age is providing familiarity - staying physically close so she can smell you, feel your familiar cuddles, hear your voice, and even exchange smiles. If your baby is overstimulated, consider going to a quiet room if Aunt Sue’s kitchen is noisy or full of people. When alone with your baby, try to recreate her home by providing her senses with familiar sights, sounds, smells, and objects. This may include a piece of your clothing to snuggle, providing familiar sounds like lullabies or white noise, a light projector, her favorite blanket, and of course your voice and cuddles. Through your actions you alleviate anxiety, deepen your bond, and help nurture their sense of well-being and self-esteem.
“When you soothe your baby, you show him that you want him to feel happy rather than sad.”*
When your baby is around eight months old, you may begin to notice that he is looking at you differently, more intently, as if he is studying your nose, your eyes, your hair, and every pore on your face. He may look from your face to another face and back again with deep concentration. In the months since the previously noted developmental stage, he has continued to grow and develop immensely and is now able to make visual distinction between people’s faces, particularly his parents’. Again, this may not seem significant, but prior to this stage his recognition of his parents was more intuitive. Now he is fully aware who is special to him and who brings him care, comfort, joy, and happiness. This is another major developmental milestone where he is now engaging in a kind of comparison-analysis, and able to identify his parents as his.
As babies continue to grow and develop, overstimulation can still come into play, but with their new ability to visually identify their parent comes another aspect of this stage: ‘stranger anxiety.’ Because your child is working intently at learning mom’s and dad’s faces; when she sees an unfamiliar face - it can be discomforting. When babies respond to stranger anxiety by crying or ‘fussing’ it is completely on par with her development and actually means her responses to ‘strangers’ is healthy and normal. Parents might try to counter this behavior by not indulging in her cries, but if parents instead make themselves available by showing their familiar face, they are providing the comfort the baby needs. When she shows she isn’t happy to see Aunt Sue, this is not a “bad thing” and by no means permanent. So during this stage, stay within close eye sight. If your baby is in a high-chair, turn the chair so that she can see you. If you need to leave the room, bring the baby with you. If she gets upset from family members holding her, respect what she is telling you and hold her yourself. Stay confident in the knowledge that causing unnecessary unhappy feelings is, in fact, unnecessary and only causes anxiety and insecurity.
“Responding lovingly will build rather than corrupt his character.”*
Around his first birthday, your baby is becoming more aware of his world as well as becoming more physically interactive with it. He may be scooting, crawling, rolling, or walking; he may be grasping for toys or objects that look interesting; and even babbling cute responses when he sees his favorite blanket. Babies at this stage are also becoming more aware of how important their caregivers are to them and have a strong desire to be close to them at all times. The joy from playing with his dad, the pleasure from eating with her mom, or the delight from exploring his room with his caregiver - is what your baby most desires.
At this stage, with their increasing ability to explore and discover their world, babies also grow more aware of the physical presence of their parents, also known as ‘separation anxiety.’ When their parents are not physically by them, it causes them distress. A few months prior, parents might have been able to go out of the room for a minute when a relative was with their baby but, during this stage, not anymore. We often hear parents comment ‘he was so happy playing with his toy, I stepped outside his room for a brief moment, and he became so upset!’ The absence of their caregiver causes anxiety, and they feel safest and most comforted when they are physically near their parent. Because babies at this stage are physically active, when you are at Aunt Sue’s try to set-up a baby-proof room where your baby can explore freely. You can also invite family members in to the room so you can be with your child and connect with family at the same time.
“Infants grow into resilient children and adults because they have experienced an abundance of caring and not a history of deprivation. Children who have been responded to generously will, when they are older, surprise everyone with their ability to tolerate the ups and downs of daily living without losing self-esteem and self-confidence… If you freely supply your loving attention, your child gains a storehouse of well-being that will last a lifetime and see him through every disappointment and frustration.”*
Taking your child’s development into consideration while traveling, and preparing yourself with the knowledge of what normal behavior is, will help you and your child enjoy the holiday season.
*Smart Love: The Comprehensive Guide to Understanding, Regulating and Enjoying your Child, by Martha Heineman Pieper, Ph.D. and William J. Pieper, M.D., Smart Love Press, 2011