Q: Will it harm my baby if I leave him alone to cry?
A: For the most part it is not a good idea from a psychological perspective to leave your baby alone to cry. It can cause him severe stress if it happens often or for too long. Stressful experiences during infancy can contribute to life-long patterns of psychological difficulties. Try to respond to your baby’s cries with a feed, rocking, affection and physical closeness. On the other hand, if your baby is driving you mad, if you are depressed, anxious or physically ill, you will have no choice but to leave him to cry at times. If you are extremely angry with your baby and there is no-one to take him from you, it is better for you to leave him to cry rather than cause him physical or emotional harm because of your anger. Try to hand your baby over to someone you trust during those times when you cannot (for whatever reason) be there for him when he cries.
Q: How can I get my baby to sleep through the night?
A: Adjust your expectations. Many, if not most babies do not sleep through the night and it is not realistic to expect them to do so. Babies who feel safe and secure sleep more soundly. Anything that creates tension, stress and upheaval in your home (such as parental conflict, moving house, illness or trauma of any kind) can cause your baby to have disrupted sleep. Separation anxiety is a major cause of infant sleep disturbances. See Babies in Mind (the book) for a detailed discussion of sleep difficulties.
Q: When is the right time for me to go back to work?
A: A maternity leave of at least three months is vital in order for you and your baby to get to know one another and establish a bond. Take as much time off work as you can. Nobody is as invested in your baby as you are. He needs you as much as possible in the first year of his life. If you can take the whole of your baby’s first year off, that is first prize. For many people, however, that is a luxury that they cannot afford. If you have to go back to work, make sure that you find a substitute mother who is consistent, loving, reliable and responsible. The quality of your baby’s caregiver in your absence is crucial. Choose carefully and try to keep the same person so your baby gets to know and trust her.
Q: Should my baby sleep with us or in her own cot?
A: This is your choice, but if your baby seems to struggle being alone in her room, she might be lonely and afraid and needing more closeness to you. Sometimes babies wake frequently during the night if they are sleeping in a different room, away from their parents. Other babies wake more often when they sleep close to their parents. A good option is to let your baby sleep in a cot or a carry cot next to your bed. Please note that research has shown that babies who sleep in the same bed as their parents are more likely to die from SIDS if either parent smokes, takes drugs or consumes large quantities of alcohol.
Q: Should I let my baby suck a dummy?
A: Yes, if she will take a dummy. Don’t force it if she isn’t interested though. Babies are in the oral phase of psychological development. Their focus is primary on their mouth and they get great comfort from sucking. A dummy can preserve your poor breasts in between feeds if you are breast-feeding. Bottle-fed babies might benefit even more from dummies because they can’t use bottles for comfort in the same way as breast-feeding babies. Don’t worry about difficulties giving up the dummy later on. Using a dummy is developmentally appropriate for a baby, but not for a 4 year old. If she battles to relinquish her dummy when she is older, you can cross that bridge when you get there. She will have benefitted psychologically from having had her beloved dummy when she needed it.
Q: Is it better for my baby to feed on demand or according to a fixed schedule?
A: Demand feeding is preferable, especially for the first few months of your baby’s life. When your baby gets older and as you get to know one another better, you and he can find flexible feeding rhythms that suit both of you. Try not to stick too rigidly to the advice of “experts” who dictate to you when and how often your baby should feed. It is much more important to tune into your baby, read your baby’s cues and feed him when he is hungry. That might vary from day to day, or it might not. It depends on your baby’s temperament and on various other factors. Having said that, feeding according to a fixed schedule can have its benefits. If you are extremely anxious, having a predictable feeding schedule might help you to feel more in control. As your baby gets older he will be able to tolerate frustration better and waiting a bit till a scheduled time will be more manageable for him. But try to be flexible and respond to his needs.
Q: Is it a bad thing if my baby doesn’t stick to a routine?
A: No. Try to be guided by your baby and if you can help it, try not to impose your own schedule onto him. Some babies seem to like routine, others don’t. Forcing your reluctant baby into a routine isn’t a good idea from a psychological perspective because it means you aren’t in tune with his needs. If you follow his lead and he appears to fall into the same pattern day after day, then he has happily guided you into his own routine. But some babies never do this. They are predictably unpredictable. There is nothing wrong with that. The mistake would be to try to get him to behave differently.
Q: Is it wrong not to breast-feed?
A: There are significant benefits, both physically and psychologically to breast-feeding your baby. Give it your best shot! Consult with a lactation specialist if you are battling. If you cannot breast-feed (for whatever reason), then bottle feeding provides an excellent substitute. Try to let go of the guilt about not breast-feeding, even when others make judgmental and critical comments about it. The important thing to remember if you are a bottle-feeding mom is that the bottle is not a substitute for you. Although your baby can survive without your breasts, he cannot survive without you. Try to give feeds yourself (where possible) and don’t use the bottle feeding as license to take more time off from your baby than if you were breast-feeding.
Q: How do I know if I have postnatal depression?
A: Postnatal depression is a feeling of sadness for most of the day, every day for a least two weeks. It is severe enough to interfere with normal functioning. Added to this could be a loss of interest or pleasure in anything, disturbances in eating or appetite, sleep disturbances, fatigue and loss of energy, poor concentration and memory, feelings of guilt and worthlessness, thoughts about harming your baby, anxiety and panic attacks, suicidal thoughts or thoughts about death. Babies in Mind (the book) contains self-rating scales that you can do in minutes to assess whether you are suffering from postnatal depression or other serious psychological disturbances.
Q: What should I do if I have a few of the symptoms of postnatal depression?
A: Seek treatment without delay. As a matter of urgency, contact either a psychiatrist, a clinical psychologist or your medical doctor. This condition should not be ignored as it potentially has extremely dangerous consequences.
Q: How can I avoid getting postnatal depression?
A: If you have a previous history of depression or anxiety, find a clinical psychologist or a trained and experienced mental health practitioner and start psychotherapy. You will need extra support during the postnatal time. An involved, supportive spouse, friend or family member and a network of people who you can connect with and rely on is vital for the first year or two of your child’s life. Stay in touch with your feelings and try to eat nutritious meals, sleep whenever you can, get exercise each day and get outdoors if possible. At the first sign of possible postnatal depression, make an appointment with a clinical psychologist or a parent-infant psychotherapist.
Q: When is the right time to have another baby?
A: From a psychological point of view, a minimum of three years between each child is first prize. Babies and young children need more attention from their parents than what can often be given when it has to be shared amongst other babies.