I was in the grocery store today, navigating the aisles, trying to find all I need, and there was a mum and brand new babe doing the same. I’m never profoundly happy while I’m grocery shopping, but this baby was absolutely miserable. She was certainly less than four or five weeks old, and screaming fierce and loud, with that horrible scratchy desperate breathless cry that new babies have when they are really, really badly out of sorts. She screamed her way through a few aisles, and then the two of them ended up in the checkout ahead of me.
Now dudes, oh dudes. I have been where this mum is. I can’t tell you how many terrible trips I have made to the grocery store with a screaming wee thing who really needs to go home or be picked up, and there I am, in the checkout, knowing that I absolutely have only two hands, but absolutely am out of food, and absolutely have to get through this checkout and I’m only one person and the baby is crying and I can’t pick her up but I have to get through this… and really… it gives me a horrible cramp just thinking of it. Those are tough times, so as I watched this mum struggle with a baby screaming beyond hysterical in the stroller and this exhausted mum, who probably hasn’t slept right in weeks, trying to just check the hell out of that place so she could go meet this wee ones needs, right along with her own, I did what I always wished someone would do for me.
I stepped up and said this. "Oh my goodness. You poor things. Can I help you? I can hold your baby while you load groceries, or if that little bairn just needs her mama, I’d be more than happy to load your groceries while you pick her up. I’ve been where you are."
I thought this was pretty good – and for the record, despite what happened next, I want you to know (in case you’re considering doing this yourself) that if anyone had said that to me when I was in that place, I would have taken them up on the grocery loading part in a heartbeat, and then likely kissed them full on the mouth. Instead, this mum glanced at me, then glanced at this little ball of pink heartbreak in the stroller, and said this:
"No, it’s fine. She’s okay, she’s just screaming for attention."
Okay. Brace yourselves.
Here is what is true about babies, and you might have noticed some of this yourself.
They are very small.
They cannot move themselves if they are uncomfortable, they cannot get themselves food if they are hungry, they cannot scratch an itch if they are itchy, they can’t read a book if they are bored and they cannot phone a friend if they are lonely or sad, and they cannot reason if they are frightened, or if their day is just plain sucking arse.
In short, babies are not really well equipped to solve the problems that they face. This is not their fault.
Most importantly, babies have extremely limited powers of communication. A baby has only one way to tell you that they have a big problem – and unfortunately for all of us (including them) this one way is really loud. Babies (except a baby who is hurt) do not just haul off and scream. They complain first. This sort of vague unhappy noise coming from the smallest of humans, is their way of saying "I have a problem, and I would like your help solving it. Man, do I ever wish I could tell you what it is."
If we ignore that, then they up the ante. The noise gets louder. Now the baby is saying "HELP ME. I have a problem and I need help solving it. I’m scared, or uncomfortable or so tired I can’t cope, or really, you wouldn’t believe what’s just happened to me. I was being carried around for nine months in a warm, quiet rocky place, where everything was nice and I never experienced a single moment of hunger or want, and NOW I’M IN A GROCERY STORE THAT MAKES GROWN ADULTS WANT TO CRY AT THE END OF A WORKDAY, HOLY COW I AM SO FREAKED OUT. "
Babies, especially the little ones, cry because they have problems. They cry because they can’t solve them, and they need your help, and before you tell me that they’re manipulative and trying to get what they want, please remember that babies have an undeveloped rational brain. To try and control a parent, a baby needs rational thought and a developed glutamate system in their brain.
They don’t have one. This means that not only aren’t they being manipulative, they aren’t really capable of learning the lesson we trying to teach when we don’t pick them up when they cry.
While we’re at it, let’s look at that lesson. Crying is communication. It is the only way a baby has to tell you that something is going on. A baby crying in a stroller is exactly the same as a nine year old walking up to their mother and saying "Mum, can you help me?" For that matter, it’s the same as your spouse walking into the living room where you’re knitting, and saying "Honey? Hey Honey? Hello? Do you hear me? I’m speaking to you." Now imagine for a moment if a mum was ignoring a nine year old asking for help, or a spouse was ignoring their partner, all because they didn’t want to give them the attention they wanted, because if they did – they might show that loved one that it was okay to ask for help. Would that be reasonable? Would you think it was odd when the kid or the spouse freaked out because they couldn’t be heard or helped?
If crying is communication, and an attempt to flex a learning brain, isn’t ignoring those cries showing a baby that there’s just no point in talking to you? That we’re just not listening, that they don’t matter? Is that what we want to drill into that growing brain? Yes. They’re asking for attention, the same way we all do when we communicate with others, and try to tell them we’re having problems. Everybody does their best. We’re never all going to be able to respond to babies everytime they need us. Sometimes we’re going to be in the shower, or alone in a grocery store, or on our way back from our mothers in a snowstorm with a starving toddler and a five year old who really, really, really has to pee and then the wheel will break off of the stroller and the toddler will drop their gum and get snow in their face and all the while the baby is crying because you totally can’t stop moving because really now you’re a mother of three and you’re a shark man, if you stop swimming you’re going to drown and …. oh. Sorry. Flashback.
My point is that there are going to be times when you can’t do that for the kid. That’s life. Stuff happens, but really… when you can pick them up? When you can stop the crying? When you can show them that they don’t have to do that really horrible scene from the Exorcist to get your attention, that really – asking nicely works better than the whole freakout thing… those times?
Can’t you pick up your baby, and give them the attention they need?
Babies are like fruit. They only spoil when you ignore them.