A colicky baby. A fussy baby. Do those words make you cringe? They should. Though it’s understandable to speak of baby’s more challenging behavior in less-than-glowing terms, negative labeling has its downside.
“There’s a great quote from Shakespeare: ‘There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so,’” says Harvey Karp, M.D., author of the book The Happiest Baby on the Block (video also available from Starlight Home Entertainment). In other words, if you start calling your baby “fussy” and “colicky,” chances are you’ll have a self-fulfilling prophecy in your crib.
“If you’re thinking your child is abnormal, it makes you feel that you’re not capable or that she has a medical problem,” Karp says. In most cases, neither is true, he adds. But such a perception can start off a desperate cycle of visits to the doctor and changes in formula and feeding patterns—none of which are apt to calm the child or the parent.
Avoid negative labels by learning why some babies cry so much. It used to be that colic, or excessive crying, was thought to be caused by digestive discomforts. But according to Karp, only 15 percent of babies who have “colicky episodes” suffer from milk intolerance or gastric reflux. “The vast majority of these babies are just not ready to be in the world yet,” he says. While some cope fine, other, more-sensitive creatures require a few months to develop the resources needed to adapt to the world and avoid sensory overload. Those babies are often labeled “colicky.”
That brings up another reason why negative labels are not useful: They’re not accurate. In his child-rearing books, William Sears, M.D., explains that babies are experts at getting what they need. Therefore, a baby who fusses isn’t “bad,” but rather effective at letting his parents know he needs comforting. When parents understand that, it’s easier to avoid negative terminology and view a child in positive terms. “It’s called ‘reframing,’” Karp says: Look for more accurate, kinder terms to describe your child. Karp likes to call very vocal babies “passionate” or “sensitive.”
“They turn out to be great kids,” he says. “The passionate babies develop into funny and enthusiastic children. And the sensitive kids notice things that others don’t.”
Rather than calling your baby ‘fussy,’ discover and observe, like a detective. If she cries from 5 to 7 p.m., look for the reason: Maybe she only takes catnaps during the day and needs to go to sleep early. Labeling closes down your thinking rather than opening it up.
>>Claire Lerner, L.C.S.W.
child-development specialist, Zero To Three