Your Baby’s Ability to Tune the World In - Woodmam

Then doctors talk about your baby’s state, we’re not discussing whether you live in Ohio or Florida. State describes your baby’s level of wakefulness or sleep—in other words, his state of alertness. States range from deep sleep to light sleep to fussiness to full-out screaming. Right in the middle is perhaps the most magical state of all: quiet alertness. It’s easy to tell when your baby is quietly alert: his eyes will be open and bright and his face peacefully relaxed as he surveys the sights around him.

Maintaining a state is one of the earliest jobs your baby’s brain must accomplish. His ability to stop his crying, keep awake, or stay asleep is called his “state control.” I like to think of state control as your baby’s TV remote, which allows him to “keep a channel on” when something is interesting, to “change channels” when he gets bored, and to shut the “TV” off if it starts upsetting him or it’s time to go to bed.

Many young infants have excellent state control. These “I can do it myself” babies focus intensely on something for a while then pull away whenever they want; they easily shift between sleeping, alertness, and crying. These self-calming babies are especially good at protecting themselves from getting overstimulated. When the world gets too chaotic, some stare into space, some rhythmically suck their lower lip, and others turn their heads as if to say, “You excite me sooo much, I just have to look away to catch my breath!”

You may also notice your baby settling himself by using an attention off-switch called “habituation.” It is one of your baby’s best tools for shielding himself from getting too much stimulation. Like a circuit breaker that cuts the electrical flow when the wires overload, habituation allows your baby to shut off his attention when his brain gets overloaded.

Habituation explains the extraordinary “sleep anywhere-anytime-despite-the-noise” ability that infants have. (It’s also the tool baby boys use to help them sleep despite the pain of circumcision.)

You’ll notice that your newborn follows a simple plan during his first few weeks of life: eating and sleeping! Then, as he acclimates to being out of your womb, he’ll spend increasing time in quiet alertness. Unfortunately, many young babies can’t handle the additional excitement that comes with this alertness. These babies are poor self-calmers with immature state control. They have trouble shutting off their alertness, so their circuits often overload. After a few weeks, as they begin to wake up to the world, their state control starts to get overwhelmed and fail.

These babies look exhausted but their eyes keep staring out, unable to close, as if held open by toothpicks. It’s as if their remote control malfunctioned, stranding them on a channel showing a loud, upsetting movie.

One exasperated mom told me her colicky three-month-old, Owen, cried for several hours every day. He clearly needed to sleep, but he wouldn’t close his eyes. She said, “I keep trying to get him off The Crying Channel and help him find the Sleep Station again.”

When your little baby is locked into screaming, please don’t despair. Much better state control will be coming to rescue you both in a few months. In the meantime, the second part of this book will teach you exactly how to soothe him when he’s having a meltdown.

“Help Me … The World Is Too Big!”

How Overstimulation Causes Crying

Avoid overstimulation with toys, lights, and colors; this fatigues the baby’s senses.

Richard Lovell, Essays on Practical Education, 1789

Considering how exciting the world is, it’s a wonder that all babies don’t get overstimulated! Fortunately, most are great at shutting out the world when they need to. However, if your baby has poor state control, even a low activity level may push him into frantic crying. He may begin to sob because of a tiny upset, like a burp or loud noise, but then get so wound up—by his own yelling—that he’s soon raging out of control.

These babies cry because they get overstimulated and then stuck in “cry mode.” If we could translate their shrieks into English, we’d hear something like “Please … help me … the world is too big!”
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