Family,  Little Brother,  Motherhood

Babies Need Boundaries and Limits, Too!

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This post is an unplanned followup to my post, What I’m doing differently with my second baby (based on 5 years of parenting a special needs first baby). As babies grow, we learn more about how to raise them. With this post, I’d like to share more realizations I’ve had about Little Brother, Ezra, myself, and parenting in general.

In 2013, I read the book Boundaries. It was life-changing for me. My eyes were opened to my lack of boundaries, my lack of skill in communicating my own needs to others, and my tendencies for taking responsibility for the emotions of others when that isn’t my burden to carry. Thus began a long and HARD journey of personal growth in which I have set boundaries with the people in my life. This process is not one of perfection, rather more of trial and error. Of knowing when to apologize for your mistakes and when not to apologize for doing what you need to do to take care of yourself.

In short, as an ISFJ, I take on far too much responsibility for others. I have an incredibly hard time with the people around me being upset or discontent. When they are, I internalize this with self-blame and guilt. I make it out to be my fault or failure and take it on as my responsibility to fix. The result? Extreme emotional and physical fatigue. 

And so, I began to work on boundaries, starting with the people furthest removed from myself: my extended family and online relationships. Which is what my month-long Facebook break back in 2012 was all about. In 2014, I focused on setting boundaries and limits on my schedule, my social life, and my online work through my Whitespace campaign.

Now, back to parenting:

When Ezra started behavioral therapy in the fall of 2014, our social worker told me that I had very poor boundaries with Ezra. Her advice went far beyond the trite “you need to be more consistent,” and she showed me how to set appropriate boundaries and limits with him. We had several therapy sessions where I attended the day treatment program with the express purpose of NOT interacting with him and redirecting him back to the therapists to teach him boundaries and Mommy’s need for personal space.

Since then, we have continued working on this with Ezra. Behavioral therapy techniques, exercises in independent playtime, the use of visual boundaries, a rigid routine, and overall firmness and consistency in administering consequences and setting limits have been the only way for us to mold his behavior into what is appropriate.

It’s hard, so hard, for both of us. One, because of my lack of skill in this area. Two, because of how Ezra is wired. Three, because of Attachment Parenting.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not going to place the blame for my son’s struggles on a parenting style because that would be unfair and far too simplistic. Ezra’s brain functions differently and no amount of good or bad parenting was going to change that. But the AP parenting style is the antithesis of what Ezra needed.

“Babies cannot be expected to self-soothe, they need calm, loving, empathetic parents to help them learn to regulate their emotions.” –API Principles 

While this sounds good in theory, what babies really need to be able to “learn to regulate their emotions” is space to do so. Picking a baby up every time he cries, nursing him every time he demands to be nursed (day or night), and carrying him around every time he doesn’t want to be put down may help him bond with you, but does nothing to teach him how to self-regulate. It teaches him that Mommy is the one who regulates him.

What babies really need to be able to learn to regulate their emotions is space to do so. Share on X

Combine my choice of Attachment Parenting with a child who lacks self-regulation and executive functioning skills because of how his brain is wired, and you have a recipe for disaster – a 5 year old who still demands 100% of Mommy’s time and attention for both sleep and play, and knows exactly how to wear her down to get it.

Teaching him self-regulation skills after so many years of poor boundaries is doubly hard and requires an amount of tenacity on my part that is incredibly exhausting.

WHY BABIES NEED BOUNDARIES

Now on to teaching babies boundaries:

I was fairly determined from the beginning of his life to establish healthy boundaries with Little Brother. While establishing breastfeeding was incredibly important to me – what was more important to me was that Little Brother learn from a young age how to self-regulate, how to be okay with being alone, how to deal with frustration and other hard emotions, and how to function within a routine.

I discussed this in my earlier post about what we are doing differently with Little Brother, to include a stricter schedule, less comfort nursing, use of a pacifier, and a lot of independent playtime. I also went on Zoloft in February for anxiety, started solids at four months, started adding formula to his baby food, and made some frail attempts at getting him to take a bottle. (See Pursuing Self Care)

Enter teething.

I get it, Little Brother, I really do. Cutting six teeth in five weeks is brutal.

We pretty much did not sleep for six weeks straight. We were up nursing nearly every hour and it just about killed me. I was so angry, so tired, so anxious. But I knew we just had to get through it.

Which we did. But two weeks later he was still nursing all night long.

Uh-uh. No way. Not gonna happen. I’m done with this. 

Several things were contributing to this night-nursing: learned behavior for one. He got used to nursing all night long really quickly and was quite happy with that arrangement. Also, his recent developmental changes (learning to crawl, pull up, and walk along things) and an overall increased awareness of life and better vision have made for him turning into a very distracted nurser. And by distracted I mean unable to focus on nursing for more than two seconds, especially if someone (or a computer, or a phone, or a ceiling fan) is in the room. Combine that with a poor latch due to six new teeth and the result is a baby who is taking in a piddly amount of calories during the day and thus wants to nurse ALL NIGHT LONG.

Yeah, no…

I’m fed up. Nursing hurts (thank you teeth, poor latch, and baby pulling on and off). I’m exhausted. I’m angry. When I’m exhausted everything in my life feels ten times worse. I cannot continue this way.

So, on Monday, I did something drastic. After the whole getting-distracted-from-nursing-by-a-ceiling-fan incident, I pumped a bottle of milk. I offered it to him at the next feeding time. He refused it. He cried and cried and cried. He cried himself to sleep. When he woke up, I offered it again. No luck.

BABY REFUSING BOTTLE

I told him if he wanted to eat, he had to take it. Finally at about 2:30 PM, I turned on his favorite baby YouTube video, stuck him in his seat, put the bottle in his mouth, and waited.

Slowly, he started sucking. 

Success! I pumped more that day and was able to give him two more bottles before the end of the day. Since then, I’ve been able to give him 3-4 bottles a day. I could probably give him more, but I have no milk reserves and am pumping as I go.

He still fights it at first, but after about 30 seconds he gives in and sucks effectively.

The breastfeeding experts say that a breast pump is not as effective as extracting milk from the breast as an effectively nursing baby is (source). But as I did not have an effectively nursing baby, I have found that pumping has increased my milk supply. He is taking in far more calories during the day because he will guzzle a 3-4 ounce bottle in a sitting. (I highly doubt he has taken in that much milk during a daytime feeding in weeks). I’ve been able to space out his daytime feedings to a 3-4 hour stretch. And the best part? He’s already sleeping better at night – 4-5 hour stretches again!

Ultimately, I want to begin mixing the milk with formula to wean him off the breast at least by the time he is a year old, but preferably sooner. I really love bottle feeding him. It’s quick and doesn’t require me baring myself or bracing against his teeth.

I’ve also been working on sleep training with him. While he used to be great at self-soothing with the pacifier, now that he’s learned how to stand up in his crib, he’s not soothing. He spits out the paci onto the floor, hangs onto the crib, and screams. Fun fun. So I’m letting him cry in 10-15 minute increments, going back in, reinserting paci, lying him back down, and telling him to go nigh-night.

If he continues to struggle for an extended period of time, I will pick him up and rock him with the paci. But if he’s fed, I’m no longer nursing him to soothe him.

Honestly, the specifics aren’t important. I’m sharing them because it helps me to process, but this is the point I’m trying to get home:

Babies need boundaries, too.

Babies have the capability to learn how to self soothe. They can learn how to work through frustration and anger. They can learn that they aren’t the center of your universe and won’t always get what they want when they want it.

And it’s GOOD for them. 

It may not be a fair comparison, because Little Brother doesn’t seem to have the same brain struggles that Ezra did. But even at 7 months old, Little Brother is far more well-adjusted than Ezra ever was. I think much of that is due to our setting boundaries with him.

I’ve always heard that the more babies you have, the more lax you get – how younger siblings get away with more.

Not in our house. 

We expect far more from Little Brother than we ever did from Ezra. Why? Because we know he is capable. We also know what will happen if we do not put these limits in place when he’s tiny.

It’s not just about babies though. You know what babies need more than anything? Healthy, well-rested, SANE Mommies. And Mommies who don’t set boundaries with their babies when they are little are going to have a much harder time being healthy, rested, and sane. I speak from experience.

BABIES NEED BOUNDARIES MOMMIES TOO

Mommies, don’t be afraid to set boundaries with your babies. Whether they are five or five months. Our babies are capable of so much more than we give them credit for. And you deserve to have some freedom to enjoy your life too.

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10 Comments

  • Angelika

    I know it must be very hard to decide how to parent number two after Ezra. However I want to lovingly caution you: Limit setting is not something babies can understand. Toddlers slowly learn to respect boundaries, a baby cannot. You are right to learn and grow and change your parenting, but mind your timing. Pushing your baby to early independance can backfire later on.
    It would be better to respond more now, soothe to sleep,etc, and trust that this is a perfectly normal child who will grow into independance naturally, as you gradually set age-and development-appropriate limits.
    If you are burnt out, I hesitate to heap guilt feelings on you. You must take care of yourself, and baby will certainly survive. But don’t be too quick to jump to the opposite range of parenting strategies. Attachment parenting, with healthy limits from toddlerhood onwards, works well for the average child. If a child is given all that security and trust in his first year, he will take the loving limit-setting in the coming years better.
    And please don’t think I am advocating doing everything as you did with Ezra. We must learn and grow, and as you know better, you will do better. Just a loving word of caution. It is too easy to go wrong by simply heading the opposite direction.

  • Emilee

    Wow…I’m not a mother but I also have an ISFJ personality and so much of this resonates with me. I’ve been working on setting proper boundaries since not doing so really does take a toll on one’s health and relationships after a while. I even get what you mean about attachment parenting to an extent. I worked in a nursery and I was the only employee who would hold the babies just because they wanted to be held. After a while, I noticed that they would be perfectly fine and then cry when I walked in the room, despite nothing being wrong, because they knew I would pick them up. It was exhausting because the ratio was 4 babies to 1 employee and they all wanted 100% of my attention. I am glad you are learning to practice self care. I know it is hard, as ISFJs, we want to always be there for everyone. But taking care of yourself first is vital to being able to take care of those we love <3

  • Amanda Hill

    I’ll disagree with above comments. All children are different and you, as a very attuned mother, were able to identify your child’s behavior patterns and shape them. While I love the ‘idea’ of AP, it makes the mother’s job just that much more difficult. Thank you for sharing and I think you’re right on!

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