I can be near a baby. Hell, I once even endured the blank stare of a random infant on an airplane without folding into a wormhole of social anxiety (and I’m still extremely proud of myself). But the moment someone asks me to hold their budding bambino — a delicate being that could easily crumble into pieces in my well-meaning arms — my brain turns into a decrepit walnut, only capable of producing a single thought: “Baby scary, no touch.”
I generally have a hard time dealing with babies, which is becoming more and more of an issue as my friends and family continue to reproduce, and continue to invite me to events where the results of their reproduction are present. So, in an effort to show my companions that I care about them and their babies — or at least manage to attend these events long enough to enjoy the free food — I asked parenting experts Rosina McAlpine, CEO of Win Win Parenting, and Alyson Schafer, author of Honey, I Wrecked the Kids, to help me become a normal person around fresh humans.
Hi, my name’s Ian, and I’m not a baby person. Help?
“First and foremost, it’s okay to identify as someone who isn’t comfortable around kids,” Schafer says. “Just own it. Say, ‘It’s not my thing. Sorry. I’m not good at it. They don’t seem to like me. I don’t do well with them. It’s just an agreement we have. I love them, but don’t like them.’ Just owning it is probably going to make you feel more relaxed.”
As an added bonus, Schafer says telling a parent that you’re uncomfortable around their baby is likely to stop them from pushing you to interact with it. “For two reasons,” she explains. “One is that they want to protect their own kid, and the second is that they hopefully have some social sensitivity to not make the assumption that everyone’s like them — that is, that everyone’s comfortable and confident.”
Great, I’m not a baby person. Step one done!
Erm, I still feel weird around babies, though, and now my cousin thinks I hate her child, so…
Is there anything easy I can do to show the parents that I acknowledge their baby without having to do too much work?
“You don’t have to be all in,” Schafer says. “Most people want you to kind of connect, just like you would with any other human being. In other words, just don’t ghost the baby. Right? There’s a difference between not being interested and being afraid that, if you glance over, they’re suddenly going to make you a surrogate uncle.”
Okay, okay, I get it. What do I do, though?
“Make eye contact, be warm and genuine,” Schafer suggests. “It doesn’t have to be for long. Grab a little booty or a finger or whatever and say, ‘Hi, nice to meet you’ in a little sing-songy voice. That’s good enough. You made a little effort. Chances are, the kid’s not going to scream. You can’t botch that up, because that’s universal, acceptable baby talk and interaction. It’s just polite. That’s really what the moms want. They’re not looking for free babysitting.”
“It’s best not to just jump in with a loud voice and a big smile, right in their face,” McAlpine adds. “This could startle the baby and make things worse. Come to the baby slowly and use a quiet, soothing voice. Babies sense if you’re fearful or relaxed, and being relaxed and as calm as possible will help the baby settle. I know you’re nervous, but remember, you’re the adult, and both the baby and the baby’s parent are counting on you. So take deep breaths to try and settle your nerves, and this will help the baby settle, too.”
I think I can manage that, but what if they ask me to hold it? (Oh God, oh God, oh God…)
“That depends on who the person is,” says McAlpine. “If it’s a close friend, work colleague or relative, and if you feel like you can be honest without hurting their feelings or harming the relationship, then sure, tell the truth as ‘sensitively’ as possible: That you don’t feel confident or comfortable holding babies. Many people would understand this and may have felt that themselves before they became parents. My husband certainly felt that way before he became a father.”
“If you feel like it will really hurt their feelings or might harm the relationship and if you don’t want to do that, just smile and do your best,” McAlpine continues. “Why not ask for help, too? Say you haven’t had much experience and don’t know what to do.”
Schafer seconds this approach. “Just because you’re an adult, it’s still a skill that has to be learned, and every new mom, new dad, new pediatrician and new sibling had to learn it, too,” she says. “So you’re not alone. You’re just a newbie. Nobody’s going to judge you for learning, so start the way first-timers do, which is usually with the mother or father beside you while sitting down.”
“There are kind of two classic holds for a baby,” Schafer continues. “Cradle them in the nook of your arm, or hoist them over your shoulder. And you can ask the mom: ‘I’m not good at holding babies. What does your baby like? Help me out. Get ‘em into position.’ Observing, asking and doing it sitting down [preferably, with the mom or dad in view, so that the baby can see them] is going to calm you. Then, sort of say, ‘Don’t go far, because when they start crying, I’m out.’ And they do cry. And they cry even for their own parents, so crying isn’t a sign of failure. I mean, I’m a parenting expert, and it’s like a 50/50 chance of whether infants will come to me.”
You’re saying they’re not crying because they hate me?
“Expect them to cry, because most of their time is spent crying, and it’s not because you’re doing a bad job,” Schafer emphasizes. “It’s usually just gas. It takes quite a while for them to even recognize that a stranger is holding them.”
“Every baby’s different,” McAlpine adds. “Some are more comfortable with strangers, while others aren’t, and babies change their reactions to strangers as they go through different stages of development. Some babies settle more easily, while others cry and cry and cry and almost nothing soothes them, especially if they’re in pain. So be mindful of that when you’re trying to settle a baby. There are some babies that are happier and easier to manage.”
Okay, I can maybe handle that. What other things can I do to keep them entertained?
“Try different positions: Lying down in your arms, or more upright over your shoulder, facing outward — find a comfortable position for you and the baby,” McAlpine says. “Remember, very young babies need you to support their neck and head. It’s very important not to let the baby’s head flop around.”
“Speak softly, smile at the baby gently, and if you’re game, humming or singing can be very soothing,” McAlpine continues. “You can also try simply saying, ‘Shh, shh, shh.’ That can help. Or, you can try distractions and offer toys, or point to things and talk about them. For example, if you’re outside, look at the trees, flowers, sky and other people. If you’re inside, walk around and look at photos, artwork or out the window.”
McAlpine also suggests making use of a pram/stroller if available, which can take some pressure off of holding the baby. “Put the baby in a pram, and push them back and forth or go for a walk, or gently jiggle the pram,” she recommends. “Play some soothing music on your phone softly so the baby can hear it but isn’t startled. If the baby has a pacifier, offer it to them. Play peek-a-boo with the baby. Some babies laugh and laugh at this game time and time again.”
That all sounds alright. Anything else?
“Now we’re moving to a whole new level,” McAlpine says, “but you may need to settle the baby by giving them a bottle if they’re hungry and it’s available, or changing a diaper if it’s full.”
I take back everything I said earlier about being able to do this. How can I avoid dealing with babies altogether?
“Bring a friend with you who loves babies and let them do all the work,” McAlpine suggests. “If you really, truly just can’t be with the babies, don’t go to the family event, or go and leave early. Most people understand that not everyone’s a ‘baby person’ or has had experience with babies. So, go easy on yourself, and don’t stress too much.”