By Dhara Thakar Meghani
Did you know? The amount of crying varies widely among infants, but all babies generally follow a bell-shaped curve in which crying tends to increase after birth, peaks between 6-8 weeks, and typically decreases by the fourth or fifth month.
Veda, age 4, is eagerly anticipating her sister’s birth. She can’t wait to be a big sister and help her mum take care of her, play with her, and dress her up. Soon after Diya is born though, she grumbles, “Diya baby is no fun! All she does is sleep, drink milk, and cry!” Veda’s not so sure anymore about sharing her mum and daddy with Diya…
The earliest months of a newborn’s life are exciting, but can also be effortful and exhausting for the whole family. Sleeping, feeding, and crying often dominate the days with little time available for the “fun stuff” that parents – and older siblings—are looking forward to upon the birth of the baby. The ‘fourth trimester,’ as the first three months are sometimes called, marks an important transition from womb to world.
This term recognizes the vulnerability of human infants at birth; despite coming into the world with many innate skills, there is still much that is underdeveloped¹. While it may feel like babies really are not “doing” very much during this time, their brains and bodies are, in fact, hard at work to set a foundation for healthy development across the lifespan.
As the newborn comes into contact with her external environment, the process of self-regulation takes center stage. Regulation is a term applied to all the efforts that go into stabilizing one’s biological rhythms, emotions, and attention. During early infancy, regulation is primarily physiological, which helps to explain why Diya’s activities are largely limited to sleeping, feeding, and crying, much to her older sister’s disappointment. Understanding the relation of these initial regulatory tasks to later development can help parents successfully endure the whirlwind and tribulations of the first few months.
The sleep-wake cycle looks markedly different in newborns compared to infants who are a bit older (and sleep-deprived parents know this from first-hand experience!). Although young infants typically sleep much longer per 24-hour period than toddlers and older children, their sleep is characterized by frequent awakenings and longer time in the sleep stage of what is called rapid eye movement (“REM”).
REM sleep allows the infant’s visual processes to mature², which will eventually translate into the child’s ability to maintain and shift attention and to make eye contact with others. Have you ever noticed your newborn swallowing, making sucking gestures, or stretching in his sleep? These are behaviors that are also ‘practiced’ during sleep and help facilitate feeding and other motor skills when infants are awake.
The regulation of feeding skills and patterns is not only important for the infant to be able to gain weight and obtain the nutrition necessary for brain development³; feeding is also considered to promote mutual interaction, pleasure, and emotional regulation¹. During feeding, infants are exposed to their first experiences of reciprocity, in which there may be a ‘start and stop’ nature that is a precursor to language: when the infant pauses, the parent may nudge or encourage the infant to have a little more, and the infant will respond either with sucking or signaling she is full. In addition, the brief moments that infants sometimes have to wait before caregivers can respond with a satisfying solution provide opportunities for learning self-control and making it through challenging situations4, which relate to inhibition and impulse control in older children.
Crying is an important signal that helps infants regulate their basic physical and emotional needs. Interestingly, a group of Indian mothers who were asked about reasons that infants cry said that it was primarily due to physical discomforts5. In the early months, regulation of crying occurs through much support from the caregiver. Rocking, holding, swaddling, shushing, singing, and patting are common methods that can help to soothe an infant when a diaper change or feeding are not the answer.
A significant bond is created between the infant and his caregiver during this process of co-regulation, and eventually, the infant begins to trust his body’s ability to be calmed with and without support as he gets older. These early experiences of regulating emotions are the building blocks for frustration tolerance and coping when a child’s expectations are not met, for example, in the classroom or playground.
Physiological regulation of sleeping, feeding, and crying is just the first step toward achieving emotional regulation and ability to focus and attend. Self-regulation is also influenced by infant temperament as well as cultural and parental values. In one study that surveyed a cross-cultural group of parents in the US about their attitudes and values about self-regulation for their preschool-age children, teaching moral behavior and disciplining to steer their children onto the right track were major themes that emerged among South Asian parents who participated6.
Other parents felt strongly about having their children distinguish right from wrong through making mistakes and learning more independently. Your parenting strategy may be similar to, completely different, or some combination of what other parents believe. Regardless of the specific goals you have for your child, well-developed self-regulation skills will cut across all developmental levels and allow you and your child to manage the daily stresses of life with success.
Although they may feel as if they have landed on a new planet, newborns like Diya will eventually learn to trust and regulate their own body’s rhythms with support from parents and caregivers. In time, they will certainly be more ready for interaction in the social world that is anxiously awaiting them.
Dhara Thakar Meghani assures you that self-regulation is a life-long process and often gets tested with each transition in life – the fourth trimester is no exception, for infants and parents alike! Feel free to ask questions at email@example.com.
¹Shonkoff, J. P., & Phillips, D. A. (Eds.). (2000). From neurons to neighborhoods: The science of early childhood development. National Academies Press.
²Peirano, P. D., & Algarín, C. R. (2007). Sleep in brain development. Biol Res,40(4), 471-8.
³Dewey, K. G. (2001). Nutrition, Growth, and Complementary Feeding of The Brestfed Infant. Pediatric Clinics of North America, 48(1), 87-104.
4Gillespie, L.G. & Seibel, N.L. (2006). Self-Regulation: A cornerstone of early childhood development. Young Children on the web. Retrieved October 27, 2013 from http://journal.naeyc.org/btj/200607/Gillespie709BTJ.pdf
5Fussy Baby Network. (2011). Indian families and their perceptions of crying, feeding, and sleeping behavior. [Unpublished PowerPoint slides]. Retrieved from Erikson Institute Fussy Baby Network database.
6Boyer, W. (2013). Getting Back to the Woods: Familial Perspectives on Culture and Preschoolers’ Acquisition of Self- Regulation and Emotion Regulation. Early Childhood Education Journal, 41(2), 153-159.
Original image here.