You’ve probably heard that children respond best to parents and caregivers who are calm and unruffled. This is important for establishing sleep routines, soothing during a difficult time (new daycare, at the doctor), and when setting limits.
You’ve probably also heard that children can tell when you’re faking it. Children are very tuned in to our cues, especially those that are hard to control, like tone of voice, muscle tension, and patterns of eye contact.
So, you need to not just pretend to feel calm and unruffled, you have to actually feel it!
That’s a tall order, isn’t it?
The first step to effectively soothing a baby is to soothe yourself. This is one of the reasons that Magda Gerber advocated approaching a crying baby slowly, to give you time to calm yourself, assess the situation, and prevent your body language from amplifying the baby’s distress.
What do you do when you need to self-soothe in the difficult moment of caregiving? Here are some of my favorite tricks…
Take a breath
When I find myself feeling annoyed or panicked, the first thing I always do is just close my eyes for a second (assuming the baby is safe), take a deep breath, and acknowledge what I’m feeling. Sometimes that’s all it takes.
Put it aside for later
If there is something worrying at me and distracting me from being present, I think, “Wow, if this thing is distracting me so much, it must be important. I will make sure to take some time with this as soon as I can.” Then I imagine carefully putting those worries or thoughts into a nice box, like a present, to open up later and give the attention it deserves. This only works if you actually open the box later!
Go to a happy place
I know, what a cliche! But it does help to spend a few minutes in a lovely imaginary place, surrounded by my things and the people that nurture me. Even just imagining it can have a wonderful effect. If I can let that feeling of safety sink all the way down through my body, then it is easier to focus on caregiving.
Tell the truth
If I’m having a hard time with something, I acknowledge it to the child in some way: “I’m sorry, I didn’t hear what you said. I guess I’m a little distracted today.” Children can tell if you aren’t on your game. Acknowledging this in a brief, age-appropriate sentence or two reassures the child that your feelings aren’t their fault and that they aren’t more than you can handle.
It also sets an excellent example: all people have strong feelings, and this is how someone with more emotional experience than a toddler deals with them.