I Need A Break

Christine Sweeney, LICSW Program Manager, Parent Connection, BIDMC

DECEMBER 15, 2016


New parents hear a lot about the rapid development of babies brains, and the importance of providing baby adequate stimulation. But rarely are parents given guidelines to know how much is enough and how much is too much? Many, many years ago, I remember leading a moms group and one of the moms discussed having recently taking an 8 hour road trip with her husband and their baby. Despite baby being perfectly content, showing no signs of distress, they made sure to stop every two hours, so that they could get out of the car, and stimulate baby.

Hearing that story, I realized that we've become so focused on communicating the importance of stimulation---hard to find a newborn product or toy that doesn't stimulate something---that we've failed to equally inform parents about the importance of allowing baby downtime. It seems so obvious. How would you like someone in your face, talking, singing, or reading to you every waking moment? Yet it's not so obvious at all.

One of my favorite books that describes the language of babies is Your Baby is Speaking to You by Dr. Kevin Nugent, director of the Brazelton Institute at Boston Children's Hospital. It's a beautifully written book with great photos that helps decode the subtle and sometimes not so subtle cues of newborns. In the section on how to recognize signs of distress he writes: "Babies differ greatly in their ability to cope with different kinds of stimulation. Some babies can tolerate and even thrive on high levels of stimulation. Others are less tolerant but simply need time-outs or breaks from interaction with the environment before continuing. Still other babies are easily overwhelmed, even becoming exhausted in the face of continuous stimulation."

Dr. Nugent outlines the following as signs that baby is stressed:

  • baby's skin becomes pale, dusky, very red or blotchy
  • uneven breathing 
  • body becomes rigid, with fingers splaying or in a tight fist with her legs rigidly extended 
  • startles, twitches, and tremors are reliable stress signals 

Others behaviors including the following may also be signals of stress, that baby is overwhelmed or even exhausted:

  • gagging/spitting up 
  • coughing
  • sighing
  • sneezing, hiccupping or yawning

More subtle cues include:

  • frowning,
  • furrowing of the brow,
  • mouthing and tongue extension
  • baby looks away from you, or puts hands in front of her face

Dr. Nugent writes, "These signs are designed to get your attention. You may miss many of them at first, but as you get to know your baby and learn to identify and respond to her distress cues, you will be helping her develop control over her environment. This kind of individualized support will enable your baby to cope with the unpredictable, overstimulating and uncertain events that are commonplace in her new world."

Clearly there's a lot for parents to watch for, but in case you miss the more subtle cues, not to worry, baby will let you know by crying. The key thing to remember is that while baby's thrive on stimulation, they also need down time as well. Don't we all!

Above content provided by Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. For advice about your medical care, consult your doctor.
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