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'90S FAMILY

Oh, Baby!

She'd read the books, planned the birth and was ready for anything. Anything, that is, except reality.

August 11, 1996|DENISE HAMILTON | Special to the Times

I have always enjoyed doing research, so when I became pregnant with our first child at 36, I plunged into the world of babies with gusto, arming myself with a 3-foot stack of infant books to see my husband and me through the first year.

"Listen to this," I would say excitedly in bed to my sleepy mate, explaining to him the finer points of umbilical cord care and colic.

"Fascinating," he would murmur, already dreaming of racing Miguel Indurain in the next Tour de France.

So when our son, Adrian, arrived, red and squalling one balmy day in late spring, I was prepared, my arsenal of literature at the ready.

Or so I thought.

Despite all that homework, I soon realized that caring for a fretful newborn is much harder than the demanding job I had held in a previous lifetime.

Because in the workplace, however cutthroat the competition, there are at least some rules of the game. And even if you work 16 hours in a pressure-cooker atmosphere, you eventually wind up for the day and go home.

This was different. This was 24 hours a day, every day. With very few reliable guideposts to see you through.

Take crying, for example. The books informed me that infants usually cry because they are A) hungry, B) wet, C) sleepy, D) gassy, E) sick, F) bored or angry, G) want to be picked up.

But one day, Adrian just wouldn't stop crying no matter what I did. I went through the checklist. Adrian was healthy. He had just woke up from a nap, nursed and been changed. I didn't hear anything from his nether regions. And I spent a lot of time holding and playing with him, so I didn't think he had a cuddle deficit.

Yet the sobbing continued. Shrill. Miserable. Inconsolable. Begging me, his mother, in the only language he knew, to please do something right now.

I turned to my mother, who sat placidly on our red sofa, watching her fourth grandchild vent.

"Whyyyyy is he cryyyyyyyying," I wailed to her, my pitch beginning to approach Adrian's.

"Denise," said my mother, the wisdom of 76 years and three children etched on her brow, "sometimes babies just cry."

Not my baby, I thought. There must be something wrong that I haven't discovered yet. During Adrian's naps, I thumbed through my books, looking for answers.

As someone who likes precise answers, I found the books maddeningly vague. Many offered contradictory advice.

One of the biggest philosophical divides was over when to pick a baby up and when to let him cry.

"When your child cries, go to him and pick him up," one book advised, explaining that this made babies feel loved and secure and that infants were much too young to manipulate adults.

"Start out by letting your baby cry for five minutes at a time and add a minute each day until you work up to 15 minutes," a magazine recommended, declaring that this was the only way babies would learn to calm down on their own, without Mommy's ever-present arms.

Both suggestions made a lot of sense, so I tried each method over the next few weeks. But there were times when I was too exhausted or busy washing out diaper covers and physically couldn't rush to his side.

Besides, I quickly learned that Adrian could cry for more than 15 minutes, no problem. Who knows what his true sobbing threshold is. I shudder to imagine. In the end, I settled on a compromise of seven minutes before I picked him up, but even that was often sabotaged by my flabby maternal willpower.

Then came the issue of elimination. Every new mother I know is scatalogically obsessed. Looking at a dirty diaper is a little like reading tea leaves, since it reveals a lot about a baby's health and well-being.

But here too was cause for anxiety.

"If your breast-fed baby is having five or more large, mustard-colored bowel movements a day, he's getting enough to eat," one book intoned.

Oh-oh.

Adrian had one, maybe two max.

I immediately started fretting that I wasn't producing enough milk. I was starving my child.

It took another book to reassure me that once a day was fine, and that breast-fed babies even skipped days sometimes. But what if one of the books was wrong?

Even simple, scientific facts were often in dispute.

"Recent research involving 122 babies who were 6 days old showed that they took 50% of the milk from each breast in two minutes and 80%-90% in four minutes," one book told me.

"It is a common misconception that the breast empties in a certain number of minutes, and that a baby should be taken from the breast after those minutes," said another, which sailed across the room as I threw my hands up in despair.

"You have to go by intuition, by what feels right," my sister, who has a 3-year-old, told me. But at that point, I was such a nervous wreck that I didn't trust my own judgment. It didn't help that I spent hours morbidly reading up on all the health and developmental problems a baby could develop and imagining that I saw signs of them in Adrian.

The next time my mother came to baby-sit, we sat in the living room and I asked her to please set me straight on all the confusing information. All that time spent poring over books wasted valuable hours I could have spent catching up on sleep or taking a relaxing walk.

"Denise," my mother responded patiently, "I can't give you a formula that's going to work all the time, because babies aren't machines, they're little humans.

"Caring for a baby isn't a science, it's an art. And it's not always logical. Now put those books aside and listen to me," she added. "Go take a nap or your milk will dry up."

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