Our baby Marie is the first grandchild in the family and of course she gets lots of wonderful attention when we visit relatives. Unfortunately, she is not fond of being held by very many people other than her parents. (We have a nanny share, and she’s fine with the nanny but doesn’t seem to care for the other parents.) We hoped she would get easier as she got older, but if anything she’s worse. She’s almost 7 months old now. At the last family dinner, she started crying as soon as her grandfather leaned towards her! He says we’re spoiling her by giving her too much attention. I’m starting to dread family events.
A new baby is irresistible to first-time grandparents and any other baby-friendly people who come near. Some babies are naturally adaptable and outgoing. They can be passed around a group of relatives like a bowl of salted peanuts. Other babies are more cautious about the unfamiliar. In new situations they may be reluctant to leave the familiar arms of their parents. As you have discovered, family gatherings can be particularly difficult. The bustling activity and new voices and sights may be so stimulating to an infant that she pulls back and clings even more to the people she knows best.
Grandparents, who are dying to get hands on a new grandchild— especially the first! — may interpret the baby’s pulling away or distress as a personal rejection. If a grandparent doesn’t know how to gently communicate with a baby to win her acceptance, he may simply blame the parents for being overprotective. Your baby’s grandfather is a first-time grandparent, so he does not have much experience in playing with babies who don’t know him well. He may not realize that you don’t have much control over your baby’s initial reactions — they are just who she is right now. His putting blame on you for “spoiling” doesn’t solve the problem and may actually make it worse with Marie sensing his frustration.
Marie’s responses are very common among babies. Every baby has certain characteristics that are inborn, part of her natural temperament. It sounds like Marie is the type of baby who has an initial response of withdrawing from new situations, is somewhat slow to adapt and is sensitive. These temperamental differences are not deficiencies. They are a part of who we are, just like the color of our hair.
Try to explain to your relatives, especially Marie’s grandfather, that Marie seems to be a very discriminating baby who needs time to get comfortable with people. In addition, she is at a stage of development where babies are noticing visual differences. (If a parent shaves off a beard or changes the style and color of her hair, a baby this age may become very upset.) A 7-month-old baby can’t “remember” that these people she sees only occasionally are her relatives who adore her. To her, they are strangers. She needs time, and her relatives need patience.
You can help your father and other relatives to “woo” Marie by trying these ideas:
• Try to arrange visits for times when Marie is rested. A tired baby will be reluctant to let anyone but Mom or Dad hold her.
• When you go to visit or when relatives come to see you, protect Marie from being suddenly surrounded by new faces and voices. She’ll do better if she just sees one new person at a time.
• Hold Marie in your lap and let her watch her grandfather while you talk to him. It’s usually very effective if the “new person” avoids making eye contact with the baby for awhile. Marie can then examine him from a safe place and get used to his voice.
• Ask Marie’s grandfather to speak very quietly. Loud and deep voices can make babies pull back or turn away, while soft and higher pitched voices will cause them to lean forward and become interested.
• Give Marie’s grandfather a brightly colored toy to dangle in front of her to engage her interest. He can talk to you while he does this, letting her watch without being asked to respond. As she starts to focus on the toy, he can gently move it or even playfully pass it back and forth to her. As the two of them begin to engage over the toy, he can begin to say a few words directly to her. The trick is to be slow and low-key.
• If Marie pulls back, her grandfather should follow her cue and sit back as well. If she responds again, he can gently move forward. Engaging a baby is a bit like learning to dance with a new partner — it can take time to figure out the steps and the rhythm.
It can take a while to teach anyone, especially a grandparent, the art of interacting with a baby. Just as grandfathers get nowhere with impatience, you won’t get anywhere that way either. However, if Marie’s relatives are patient enough to learn how to engage with her, their relationship will flourish.
Meg Zweiback is a certified pediatric nurse practitioner and family consultant in Oakland. She is an associate clinical professor of nursing at University of California, San Francisco and posts articles and other resources on her Web site, bringingupkids.com. To possibly have your question included, please send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org