Sometimes, parenting feels like one big worry. You ask yourself, "Am I doing this right?" or you look at your baby and think, Is that normal? You ride a roller coaster of anxiety as your baby approaches and achieves each new milestone.
Offering fresh viewpoints and lots of reassurance on the subject of baby-rearing is Baby Meets World: A Journey Through Infancy (St. Martin's Press). Author Nicholas Day looks at new parenthood through the perspectives of history, different cultural customs, scientific research and his own sometimes hilarious experience as a dad of two sons.
Here, Day answers six common -- if a bit quirky -- questions about babies and how to raise them.
Breastfeeding... or Beer?
KMTV: Has breastfeeding always been considered the best way to feed a baby?
ND: No. Throughout history, people have fed their infants in boneheaded ways that to us today seem like extremely bad ideas, including feeding them no milk at all, giving them purees of bread and beer or even allowing babies to nurse from other animals, like goats, sheep, or donkeys. If babies could survive these extreme methods of feeding, it's very likely that most babies today who are loved and nurtured will do just fine whether you give them breast milk or formula. (Editor's note: While formula provides good nutrition for babies, if you can breastfeed your baby, it's healthier -- for both of you.)
KMTV: Why do babies suck your fingers -- and why do they stop?
ND: A newborn baby is a body led around by a mouth. Shortly after being born, a calf can stand, a deer can run. A baby can suck. He can do almost nothing else except suck. Newborns find finger-sucking deeply reassuring. Allowing a baby to suck on your finger can [have the effect of a] narcotic, relaxing your baby and even allowing him to fall asleep.
After a few months, the rest of the world starts to elbow its way into that relationship. The uniquely powerful relationship that sucking has begins to decline in importance as babies find other ways to explore the world, research suggests. At six months, when they're starting to reach, babies still put things in their mouths and "see" something by rotating it around, but that's different than just sucking on it. The circuits that sucking seems to work on -- which are very much like pain-killing opioid circuits -- are alive for a long time. That's why many older babies like to suck on pacifiers; sucking still works to relax and comfort them; it's just something that an older infant needs less often.
Wrap Me Up
KMTV: Why do babies like to be swaddled?
ND: Swaddling infants is like putting them in a straitjacket; you're wrapping their arms and legs in blankets in a way that ensures they can't move them. No wonder that a generation ago, people thought swaddling infants was a cruel thing to do. Today, we know that babies find swaddling very comforting. One possible reason is that their startle reflex is a bit inhibited, so they're less likely to wake themselves up by the movements of their own body.
Another possible reason is that this feeling of being encased reminds babies of the womb. Swaddling may work along similar pathways as being picked up and held by a parent; it is comforting to babies. When adults look at swaddling, we see a baby who is being prevented from doing things. The irony of swaddling is that babies seem to feel more free when they're swaddled because a little of the chaos in the world has been reduced. Swaddling has a way of holding part of the world in check; there are fewer variables to make babies fret. (Editor's note: Swaddling your baby too tightly, especially around the hips and legs, may lean to hip problems later. Find out more in this video and learn the right way to swaddle your child.)
Crawling Is Optional
KMTV: Do babies need to crawl?
ND: The short answer is no. A lot of people worry that if their babies never crawl they might not develop normally, but there have been lots of children over the course of history who never crawled and there are lots of children who don't crawl today and they all do just fine ultimately. Humans are clearly meant to walk, but there are many ways that babies get to walking and the steps on the way to walking do not carry the same importance as walking itself. Some babies just stand up from a sitting position and walk.
Others scoot, roll, crawl backwards or in different directions. Some people believe that crawling has to be done in this hands-and-knees symmetrical style, but in fact, babies crawl in a variety of strange, often hilarious ways and none of them matter one bit.
Early Wakers Aren't Geniuses
KMTV: True or false? The sooner my baby reaches a physical milestone, the more successful he will be.
ND: False. Infant physical development has nothing to do with college admissions. There are no detailed, sophisticated, long-term studies that link early motor milestones with future achievement. There's no scientific reason to think that earlier is better. There's a huge range at which perfectly healthy children get around to doing things. If the average child walks at 13 months and your child walks at nine months, walking at nine months is not better than walking at 13 months, and it's not necessarily better than walking at 17 or 18 months.
Some children don't walk until very late, and in most cases, it's just because they got around to doing it very late, and that doesn't correlate with anything that happens later in life. Some developmental psychologists note that a child who walks at nine months experiences the world in a different way than a child who is still crawling at nine months, but does that difference have long-term consequences? There's no proof that it does. These are very American anxieties. You want your baby to do better than other babies. The truth? There is no "better than the other babies."
KMTV: When do babies smile for real?
ND: Smiling predictably appears in babies between six to eight weeks of age.Very early in infancy, you'll see these spurts of arousal where all of a sudden a beatific smile dawns on your baby's face, often when he is sleeping. But the smiles that appear after six weeks are different. They have to do with social interaction. Research suggests these social smiles come from a positive orientation towards another person, an interest in another person.
There is a wealth of potential meaning in a smile, especially in a baby's smile. It's through smiling at a baby and having a baby smile at us that smiling becomes this rich emotional terrain. Social smiling gives parents a very real role to play in that back and forth that they have with their baby. You're not just sharing that good feeling with your baby; you're helping to create it.
More from KnowMore.tv:
11 Baby Symptoms You Should Never Ignore
3 Common Breastfeeding Mistakes (and How To Undo Them)
5 Baby Skin Problems That Look Worse Than They Really Are
Could a Pacifier Save Your Baby's Life?
Want to Know More? Follow us on Facebook!
Laura Flynn McCarthy is a New Hampshire-based writer who specializes in health and parenting topics. KnowMore.TV is a refreshing, upbeat health and wellness website that features smart, engaging content, plus the tools you need to live healthier and happier lives.