When Feeling Annoyed With Your Child Might be a Good Thing
My son was about 6 months old when I read something that made me feel so relieved about my parenting: Feeling annoyed with your child is not only normal, but could be a sign that he or she is ready to gain a new skill and develop. It makes sense when you think about it. Has there been a time when you have felt OK with something—like your child not getting dressed by themselves or waking in the night and then one day you realize you aren't fine with it any longer? Could your annoyance be a sign that your child is ready to progress? Maybe somewhere deep down you realize that they are capable of sleeping through the night or putting on their shoes and you start demanding more of them. As you do that you are helping your child's development.
I originally read about this idea in the book "The Wonder Weeks: How to Stimulate Your Baby's Mental Development and Help Him Turn His 10 Predictable, Great, Fussy Phases into Magical Leaps Forward" by Hetty van de Rijt and Frans X. Plooij. In the book, the author states: "At first parents worry when their baby enters a fussy phase. They get annoyed when they discover nothing is wrong with their baby and, to the contrary, he is in fact ready to be more independent. It is then that they start demanding that their baby do things they feel he is able to do. As a consequence, they promote progress."
I had always felt so guilty when I felt annoyed by my little bundle of joy. Seriously, how could I feel annoyed with such a little person who has brought me every joy in the world? But thinking about it this way helped me so much. My annoyance was simply a symptom of change. It's time to shake things up and move onto the next stage, and with that transition comes temporary chaos before things settle down again. As a mom I was relieved and as a developmental psychologist I was intrigued.
There isn't any research out there that shows that annoyance drives development except for the observations of Van de Rijt and Plooij. They did a series of descriptive studies and found that mothers often report their own irritability and annoyance when their children enter into a growth spurt. It is difficult to pin down something like this in research, because the annoyance we are talking about is mild and relatively fleeting. It is also difficult to study the ups and downs of developmental periods for many reasons — the research is there, but it is sparse.
What We Know About Development
There are some things we do know about development. And as a mom, knowing these things has helped my perspective during those irritable periods so much. While I think I could write a list of about 20 things, I narrowed it down to four:
1. Development is made up of leaps, spurts, bumps and curves. Very rarely does development follow a straight line of progression. It is difficult to catch those growth spurts in research, as most of our statistical techniques are based on straight lines! New techniques have been developed and researchers attempt to map this growth along so many levels– brain, motor development, behavior etc. This is a huge on-going task. So, what do we know about when those growth spurts occur? Van de Rijt and Plooij outlined 10 growth spurts (or as they call them, "leaps") in their descriptive studies and have plotted them out by the age of your baby in weeks. Of those 10 leaps, four have been replicated in other studies: 12 weeks, 17 weeks, 20 weeks and 26 weeks old.
Your baby will likely experience other periods of growth as well, but these weeks are the strongest effects across several infants. This means that most likely the majority of babies will go through growth at these times. Before and during these spurts babies will likely be more fussy and demanding. They are even more likely to get sick during these periods. You may be more annoyed and frazzled. Hang in there, Mama! A period of relatively calm development will follow each one.
2. Major developmental changes = sleep disruption. There are several studies that show a relationship between growth hormones and sleep. The onset of crawling is also linked with temporary sleep disruption. In addition to crawling, infants are also more aware of whether the parent is near or not. Some parents even report that when their child starts standing or crawling for the first time, they will find their child standing in their crib or moving around upset. It is as if the skill is so new that they can't control it and they can't settle. Babies need extra soothing at during these periods. What is the good news? This sleep disruption will pass. Once the new skill is organized and the growth spurt has ended equilibrium will return.
3. Development is part of a larger interaction. Development does not occur on it's own. It is deeply affected by genetic inheritance and the environment. We, as parents, are a huge part of that. Even things like our annoyance might help to propel our children forward. Things like annoyance are difficult to study because they are overpowered by stronger variables. One of those variables is sensitivity.
Time and time again results show that children of sensitive parents have better long-term outcomes. So, while we may feel annoyed here and there — that is OK and it may even help our child progress. But the really important thing is how we handle those periods of instability — how we help soothe and settle until this stage passes. Our children are vulnerable during those periods of instability — their systems are disorganized and their immune system depressed. How we respond may shape the way our children are able to handle periods of stress in the future.
4. Development is a force in its own right. All that I said above about how development doesn't happen on it's own is true, but we often forget about the force of development on it's own. Ever wonder why sleep training should work in no less than a week or two? Well, possibly because they would have gotten through whatever it was anyway. Think about what makes our children grow: their world (relationships and experiences), their genes and the process of development itself. I find this so comforting as a mom.
When your baby stops sleeping through the night, it's most likely a leap — a growth spurt. It's not because of anything you did or didn't do, it most likely isn't a bad habit that you created or that something is wrong — it's just part of the process. Yes, our actions matter, but we should realize that development is a strong force itself. Micro-analyzing every little thing we do (did we rock too long or too short, hold too much or too little, feed too much or not enough) may be all for naught. It may come down to this simple philosophy: This too shall pass. Once it passes you'll see the little person your child has become. Have you ever noticed that? That they seem to be off — cranky, tired and hungry and then all of a sudden that happy little laugh and face is back and you say to yourself– "there he is," but then you notice he is speaking in sentences and better coordinated. He's grown and you simultaneously miss the babyishness and are proud of the newfound skills.
Perhaps, part of the reason transitions are hard is so we don't miss those baby days too much. We feel relieved when they are back to themselves, excited at their newfound skills. Maybe if we didn't feel annoyed sometimes, we wouldn't be able to handle them growing up.
Ashley Soderlund is a child psychologist with a passion for understanding why kids develop the way they do. Now a stay-at-home parent, she writes about child development and parenting at NurtureandThriveBlog.com.
Return to the main Online Baby Center page.