Part 3: 8 Things on Raising a Happy Baby and Child (Birth to 12 Months.)
Let your baby figure it out
In the first six months of a baby’s life, it’s important for parents to respond to their infant’s needs. “You can’t spoil a baby,” says Masia-Warner. But after about six months, if you run over at every little hiccup, you’re taking away an important learning opportunity. Masia-Warner says it’s good to let babies cry a little as long as you’re giving them lots of positive affection and attention the rest of the time.
But, you say, I’m supposed to be creating a happy child! Shouldn’t I swoop down and make everything better? Masia-Warner sees this as a big mistake many loving, well-meaning parents make.
“Parents try to make it better for their children all the time, to make them happy all the time. That’s not realistic. Don’t always jump in and try to fix it,” says Masia-Warner. “Children need to learn to tolerate some distress, some unhappiness. Let them struggle, figure out things on their own, because it allows them to learn how to cope.”
In your baby’s first year, he’s learning so many things: to sit up, crawl, grasp objects, walk, and talk. Each accomplishment brings him confidence and satisfaction in his achievement. So don’t hurry to pick up the rattle he just dropped or the teddy bear he’s struggling to reach: Give him some time and encouragement to pick it up himself.
Hallowell agrees that allowing children a range of experiences, even the difficult or frustrating ones, helps build the reservoir of inner strength that leads to happiness. Whether a child’s 7 months old and trying to crawl or 7 years old and struggling with subtraction, Hallowell tells parents, he’ll get better at dealing with adversity simply by grappling with it successfully again and again.
Allow your baby to be sad or mad
When your baby gets older, you can encourage her to label her feelings and express them verbally. Even before she can talk, you can show her pictures of faces and ask her which one is feeling the same way she is.
Young children pick up very quickly on words such as “happy” or “angry.” When they put words to their emotions, it’s easier for them to recognize and regulate their feelings.
However, Masia-Warner warns, you shouldn’t overreact to your child’s negative feelings. “It’s normal for kids to become oversensitive or clingy or nervous at times because of something in their environment, but it’s not unhappiness.”
You’ll find this is especially important as your child grows. When your child pouts in a corner during a birthday party, your natural reaction may be to push her to join in the fun. But it’s important to allow her to be unhappy.
Hallowell is concerned that “some parents worry any time their children suffer a little rejection, they don’t get invited to the birthday party, or they cry because they didn’t get what they wanted.”
Children need to know that it’s okay to be unhappy sometimes — it’s simply part of life. And if you try to squelch any unhappiness, you may send the message that it’s wrong to feel upset. Let your child experience her feelings, including sadness.
Teach your baby to share and care
Research shows that people who have meaning in their lives feel less depressed. As your baby matures, she can be taught — even in small ways — how satisfying it is to help others.
Even as early as 10 months, you can teach your child the satisfaction of give and take. If you give her a bite of banana, let her do the same by feeding you a piece. If you brush her hair, give her a chance to brush yours. Show her how happy her generosity made you feel.
These small moments can nourish a sensibility toward sharing and caring for others. As your baby grows into a toddler, simple household chores, such as putting her dirty clothes in the hamper or setting the table, can help a young child feel that she’s making a contribution.
Be a role model to your baby
According to Dora Wang, assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of New Mexico School of Medicine and mother of 3-year-old Zoe, research shows that you can pass on your temperament to your child — not necessarily through your genes — but through your own behavior and childrearing style.
For better or worse, children pick up on their parents’ moods. Even young babies imitate their parents’ emotional style, which activates specific neural pathways in the brain.
In other words, when you smile, your baby smiles and his brain becomes “wired” for smiling. Similarly, if you have a colicky baby who cries for hours, the best thing for you to do is to stay calm, because babies pick up on their caregivers’ stress.
With a new baby, it’s normal to feel tired, overwhelmed, and even a little blue. But if you find yourself constantly stressed out or depressed, it’s important to seek help.