I studied Human Development & Family Studies in College. That came with a boatload of classes on Child Development. I learned about attachment theory and the work of John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth. I learned all about the hormone oxytocin and how it helps moms and babies attach to each other. I heard terms like “skin to skin” and “kangaroo care.” I learned about the benefits of breastfeeding on attachment. And yet, even though I was armed with an arsenal of knowledge on the importance of building attachment with my newborn baby, I was totally unprepared for the realities of building attachment with a fussy, high needs, colicky baby once I became a mom. Building attachment with a baby who screams all the time is not easy. I thought attachment would just happen naturally without any effort on my part, but I was wrong. If you are dealing with an excessively fussy baby, this post is for you. I want to share with you some tips for building attachment with your fussy baby.
Let’s dive in, shall we? If you haven’t already read this post about Coping with a Colicky Baby , you’ll probably want to.
Not to geek out too much, but I want to share a quick word about attachment. If developmental psychologists and theories really aren’t your thing, you can scroll down a little bit and pick back up when we get to the tips for building attachment with your fussy baby section.
Why is Attachment Important?
Attachment sets the foundation for all of the child’s future relationships in life. It has a huge role in forming the messages the child believes about himself, as well. Erik Erikson, a developmental psychologist, theorized that there are 8 stages of psychosocial development, each with their own unique task of development. The first stage lasts from birth to about 18 months. This is the trust vs. mistrust stage. The infant is learning whether the world is a safe place or not based on whether his or her needs are met on a regular basis.
The Attachment Cycle in a Nutshell
Attachment forms in infancy through a process called the attachment cycle. Baby has a need > baby cries > caregiver meets the need > trust is formed. That cycle happens many, many, many times a day during the baby’s first year of life. The baby learns to trust that the world is a safe place and that his or her needs will be met because the caregiver meets the baby’s needs over and over again.
But What About When the Baby Just Never Stops Crying?
When your baby cries, it increases your level of cortisol, which is your stress hormone. You want to make the crying stop, so you try to meet your baby’s need. It’s part of God’s design for attachment. When you meet your baby’s need, it increases attachment and their sense of trust.
But when you can’t figure out what your baby needs and your baby just won’t stop crying, your cortisol level stays high. It’s super stressful… trust me, I’ve been there.
It can be really hard to attach to a squirming, screaming little person who doesn’t even really seem to like you that much.
7 Tips for Building Attachment with Your Fussy Baby
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1. Know that you are not crazy… parenting a colicky baby really is THAT stressful.
My first baby was a colicky baby. I had several friends and acquaintances who entered motherhood at the same time I did. I saw how happy and relaxed they were and I wondered why my experience seemed so different than theirs. I thought that I was just adjusting to mom life badly. I now know that their babies were just easier.
Call it what you want – colic, high needs, difficult to soothe, exceptionally fussy…. parenting a baby who rarely stops crying is SO stressful. You are not crazy. What you’re doing right now is HARD. Give yourself the grace you need.
2. Make attachment your main focus.
Give yourself a free pass on all the housework, cooking, and any other responsibilities. Accept any help that you’re offered and lower your standards of what “having it together” looks like in this season. If it’s just you and your baby at home, give yourself free license to do nothing but take care of yourself and your baby. Cuddle your baby as much as you can. Rest as much as you can. If you have other kids, this can be tricky. Utilize family and friends, babysitters, the TV… whatever you need to in order to be able to slow down and focus on attaching with your new baby. Building a healthy attachment is your main “job” in this season. Give yourself a free pass on everything else.
3. Practice skin to skin contact.
Being skin to skin with baby releases oxytocin, which is the bonding hormone. If you have other children this may be tough, but after you put them to bed in the evening, head straight to your favorite comfy place and get cozy with some skin to skin time with your baby.
4. Try baby wearing.
As nice and helpful as skin to skin time can be, it’s not a practical way to get stuff done. When you do need to do stuff, baby wearing is the perfect solution. Baby wearing was one of the best tricks for calming my colicky baby, plus it kept him close which was helpful for building attachment for both of us. There are all different types of baby wearing gear out there, but here are a few of my favorites.
Pros: Wraps are soft and probably feel as close to being in the womb as possible.
Cons: Wraps can be trickier and more time consuming to put on properly, but once you figure it out, it can be super comfortable for you & baby!
I love ergonomic carriers because they can be used even for older babies & toddlers. They are also faster to put on (in my experience) and usually have a zipper pocket to hold things like keys, pacifiers, etc. I loved my Ergo Original, but I’ve also used a Boba and if I had to do it again I might go with that one. Although I never used one, some people prefer a carrier where the baby can face outward as well like this one.
Pros: More versatile over a longer period of time. Have a nifty little pocket to put stuff in. Are faster to put on. Can look a little more “manly” (depending on the style you get) so your spouse can get the benefits of baby wearing as well.
Cons: Can be more expensive. Also not quite as soft as wraps.
5. Breastfeed If Possible
I know that this is SUCH a loaded topic, but breastfeeding does release oxytocin which is helpful for both mom and baby’s attachment. That being said, I know first hand how difficult breastfeeding can be. If breastfeeding is excessively stressful, do not let the desire to breastfeed interfere with your process of attaching with your baby. HOWEVER, many times there are very workable solutions to help improve your breastfeeding experience.
The LaLeche League often has local support groups you can check out, and many times they have peer mentors who can talk you through struggles over the phone for free. The hospital where you delivered will also probably have a lactation consultant on staff who will meet with you. If you have WIC benefits, WIC offices usually have lactation consultants on staff as well.
If you’ve tried everything and breastfeeding is still not working out for you, consider trying a combo of nursing and formula. If that isn’t a workable solution for you, then by all means, use formula confidently. While breastfeeding can be a beneficial tool for attachment, your ability to attach with your baby goes well beyond breastfeeding. If breastfeeding was important to you but just isn’t working out, do not carry a sense of guilt or inferiority over your switch to formula. You are doing a great job either way!
6. Do not neglect self care
When you’re caring for a fussy, high needs baby you need to be in tune with how you are doing mentally, emotionally, and physically. Parenting a colicky baby who cries (ahem SCREAMS) a lot is NOT for the faint of heart! You are a WARRIOR! YOU CAN DO THIS! … but in order to do that you have to be taking care of yourself as well.
What does self care really mean? Self care means taking care of body, soul, emotions, and mind so that you have the reservoirs that you need in order to meet the needs of your family. You may also enjoy this post: The Importance of Self Care for Moms
What does self care look like in this season? It may look like hiring a babysitter for a bit. It may look like relying on friends and family for some help. For a list of some really simple self care ideas that you can do even in the midst of the newborn stage, see this post: Simple Self Care Ideas You Can Do Today.
Grab your FREE DOWNLOAD of the new mom support checklist so that you can let your friends and family know how they can support you in this season!
7. Get Professional Help
If you are doing the things above and you’re still having a hard time feeling the “warm fuzzies” and building attachment with your baby, you may want to seek out some assistance from a qualified professional.
It is okay to need some extra help sometimes.
There is nothing wrong with admitting when you need some help. In fact, I think it’s a strength that will benefit you, your baby, and the rest of your family significantly. Your insurance may help cover the cost of counseling, or you may be able to find free resources in your area.
One more super important thing…
One more thing to note as you’re practicing these tips for building attachment with your fussy baby… this is only a season. It will not last forever. It will get better. You will look back on this season one day and it will just be a distant memory. You will get through this. I have faith in you. YOU CAN DO THIS.