Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Manic Milestones

Coping with baby's obsessions

By Margaret Renkl

JUNE 1, 1999:  Last Saturday my baby taught himself to walk. It happened just that quickly. On Friday, he was still crawling everywhere he needed to go, and by bedtime Saturday night he was staggering around the house like George Jones on a cell-phone call.

It was such a sudden shift, you could get the impression he was just checking an item off a to-do list he'd made up on Friday night when he couldn't sleep because his brothers were squealing in the bathtub across the hall. But unlike the tally of myriad obligations I typically come up with when I can't sleep myself, the baby's to-do list included exactly one item: Become a biped.

It was sudden, yes, but I have to say I saw the transformation coming: Just the day before, he'd spent three full hours crying inconsolably, rejecting every baby-distraction trick in my repertoire. Honeynut Cheerios provided no respite from the wails and, in fact, made matters worse when I had to wrestle him into submission long enough to wipe away the sticky Cheerios clinging to his damp face. A spin on the porch glider was no help, nor was a quick trip in the backyard swing. Even riding around in the backpack like a tiny sultan on the shoulders of a slave didn't soothe the bloodcurdling howls.

With the furious baby in my arms, I moved further into the yard, as far as I could get from the house (where one child was actually napping peacefully) and remain on my own property. Frantically, I paced. Frantically, I sang at the top of my lungs at least 118 verses of Old McDonald's Farm (..."and on his farm he had a three-toed sloth, eeyieeyioh..."), until one of my neighbors came to her window and stared at me in undisguised horror. At that point, I hurried back indoors before she could call the Department of Human Resources to report the state's first case of sonic child abuse.

On the easy-baby/hard-baby scale, this kid generally bumps along around a five. He doesn't yet sleep through the night the way his oldest brother, a two, did almost immediately after birth, but at least he does still sleep in a crib--unlike his next-oldest brother, an eight, who threw himself out of the baby bed long before he was a year old.

Anyway, I'd never seen this particular child so completely and inexplicably out of control before. I was wracking my brains: Could he have spontaneously developed an ear infection without showing one sign of a cold first? Was he having an allergic reaction to the strawberries I'd given him for lunch? Did he have a chigger bite on his tiny privates?

After ruling out all of the above, it finally hit me that he must be on the verge of some huge developmental leap. Kids always get frantically frustrated right before they hit a major milestone--the bigger the milestone, in fact, the fussier the kid. I was momentarily thrown because the fit came on this boy three months earlier than it had on his brothers, and because it wasn't preceded by the usual prolonged pre-walking stages of pulling up, cruising, and standing alone. On Friday he was crawling. On Saturday he could walk. My poor child had hit an entire cluster of milestones all at one time.

The baby logged a good two hours of screaming last Friday before I remembered a similar miserable episode with my first son and finally made the connection. For most of his infancy, my first boy was the simplest, the most easy-to-get-along-with baby you could ask for. Except for occasional bouts with ear infections, he cried only if he was hungry or tired, and he promptly stopped crying upon being fed or plopped into his crib. He gobbled up vegetables, never flinched when his warm bottom encountered a cold diaper wipe, and happily fell asleep with no bedtime routine other than a kiss and a murmured "Night-night, sweetie."

He was an easy, easy baby. Except for two days when he was eight months old, during which time Junior Jekyll became Baby Hyde. He hit three major milestones at once, learning to sit alone, to crawl, and to pull up, all in about 48 hours. He suddenly stopped being a rolly blob on a blanket in the middle of the living room floor and transformed himself into an intrepid explorer teetering proudly at the edge of a huge, uncharted world.

But for a couple of days before the actual transformation, our miniature questing hero had become a larger-than-life despot displeased by even the most fawning efforts of his most abject servant (me). He cried if I held him, and he cried if I put him down. He clamped his mouth shut at the appearance of mashed carrots (formerly his favorite main dish) and slapped away the hand that proffered mashed peaches (formerly dessert) as a special instead-of-dinner treat. He lay in the middle of his blanket and irritably tossed all his favorite toys far out of his own reach, then wailed when he couldn't reach them. Worst of all, he woke up crying several times a night, and he kept crying even when we scooped him up and anxiously felt his forehead for fever.

My husband, who left the house by seven every morning and didn't come back till 10 hours later, advised against early psychotherapy. But I was stuck at home with this scarlet-faced, howling monster, and by the end of the second day I was seriously wondering whether Prozac came in infant drops. Or, barring that, if it might still be possible to find some black-market Paregoric--the sleep-inducing wonder-drug my mother's generation happily poured into all their screaming babies before pediatricians reconsidered the wisdom of giving newborn infants a prescription for liquid opium.

By now I've read enough about the way the human brain develops to understand why babies are fussy before they hit a milestone. As an infant approaches a significant developmental event, like turning over, or crawling, or--biggest of all--taking a few steps alone, electrical impulses in that sector of the brain are constantly firing, over and over, in the biological equivalent of unrelenting nagging. The poor kid can't get any rest. Suddenly there's no joy in old pastimes, no pleasure in previous accomplishments. Until the baby body hits that milestone, the baby brain is obsessed.

I don't generally have a lot of patience with whining or screaming kids, but this is one feeling I remember with deep sympathy. I don't, of course, recall what it feels like to need to learn to walk, but God do I remember other kinds of desire, other hungers so urgent and so insatiable that I couldn't sleep, couldn't work. I could only storm against the great unfairness of having to spend even one moment of my only life on this gorgeous earth doing anything other than what urgently mattered, or being anywhere other than the place I longed for, or with the love I craved.

My usual approach to inconsolably weeping children is to weep inconsolably myself and hand them over to their even-tempered father as soon as he walks smiling into the house. But I can be a grown-up if I have to be, and when my baby was so enraged last week, so frustrated by wanting what he couldn't yet have, by reaching constantly for what seemed barely, barely beyond his grasp, I just held him tight and paced the house and murmured the most comforting words I could muster.

"I know how it feels," I told him again and again. "Oh, sweet love, I know just how it feels."

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