WHAT’S GOING ON: The world of the newborn or infant is overwhelming. Everything is new. There is so much to learn, so much stuff that has to be figured out. Taking in all of this information can take its toll on your baby – it can be just too much to handle. We call it overstimulation, but really what is going on is that your baby feels out of control. This happens to us as adults too. The way we usually handle it is to step back and take a pause to re-order ourselves. Babies learn how to do this. And this self-regulation, the ability to control yourself, despite what is going on around you, is one of the very first – and perhaps most important – skills they learn.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR: It is pretty exciting to recognize that your infant (and even days-old newborn!) is already learning how to manage their place in what can seem like a chaotic surrounding. (And chaos to a baby may mean lights or lots of talking or even the jerky moves of a diaper change – the routine aspects of life are all so new, that they can seem a little overwhelming until they get used to them.) Watch how your baby reacts to this stimulation. If it is something sudden, like a loud noise, they may blink. If it is something more sustained, you might see them splay out their hands and feet (kind of like when you stretch with a yawn). And if they are really struggling with what’s going on, they may erupt in a crying jag. Sometimes, they can handle the feeling on their own – that’s what the blinking is about or if you see a baby draw its hand to its mouth, that is probably the baby’s attempt at calming himself down. If he is successful, he may be able to get himself to sleep, as if realizing ‘that’s too much, I need to save my energy from dealing with this… time to nap!’
WHAT YOU CAN DO: Sometimes there is just too much going on and the baby needs your help to re-order her emotions… and that is where you come in! Observe the power of your soothing voice or touch in helping them get back to a calm state. I often would place very soft pressure on my daughter’s stomach when she was struggling. It was a technique I saw researchers use on premature babies – who are particularly sensitive to external stimulation because of their under-developed systems. The researchers called it “getting back to base” – gentle pressure on the stomach after any kind of movement would effectively ground the child and allow them to recover from the movement or noise. (If you think about it, it is similar to what we do when we get weighted blankets for ourselves or thunder jackets for our dogs!)
Knowing that you will be there to help when things go beyond your baby’s capabilities is part of his learning process. He really can’t do this alone, and learns that you are there to support him. When you respond and help manage his emotional state, you give him the space to learn how to do it on his own. Without you, there would just be too much overwhelm for him to learn how to effectively control it. And, if you think about it, this is one of the earliest forms of communication between you and your baby. He gives you cues, and then you respond. It’s a fascinating process to watch on several levels!
WHY IS THIS IMPORTANT: Self-regulation is one of the most critical skills in life. It’s at the heart of being able to control your impulses. A child who isn’t able to do this effectively, will have a hard time managing themselves in settings like school and in their relationships.
Now, maybe you’re thinking that eliminating any kind of disruption that might be too overstimulating for your baby would be helpful. If feeling overwhelmed is so taxing, I’ll avoid it by keeping her surroundings super quiet or calm. This seems like you would be getting into helicopter parent territory – eliminating any challenge to their system in an attempt to ‘protect’ your child. On the contrary…most typically-developing children really do need this kind of stimulation because the process of learning how to manage it becomes important as they move through life. The world won’t be controlled for them so they have to gather the tools to control themselves. Learning how to do this really does start in these very earliest of experiences.