If you're the person who breaks out in a cold sweat if somebody comes at you with a bundle of screaming helpless hand-waving newborn and says the dreaded words "Would you like to hold it?", then this article is for you. Babies aren't particularly scary (look at them; they're basically hairless chubsters that yell a lot, like puddings with attitude), but if you've never spent time with one, they can seem utterly mystifying. Is there a Secret Way To Interact With Babies For Fun And Profit? No. But there are definitely good and bad plans for baby-time.
Other people, regardless of your opinions on the subject, will continue to have babies. It is a fact of the world, and if they are friends or family of yours, you'll probably have to hold one at some point. If you identify as a woman, people will also, very annoyingly, assume that you have some kind of innate sense about how to deal with babies, as if the possession of a womb or lady-parts somehow guarantees extended knowledge about womb-products in general. (By this logic, possession of a football means you automatically know how to kick 50-yard field goals.) But we really, really don't. Even new mothers look at their babies and go "WHAT ARE YOU AND WHAT DO YOU WANT" 80 percent of the time.
This isn't a list that will help you deal with the babies' mothers. That is another topic altogether, and is actually far more complicated. (I once blinked slightly too rapidly for two minutes while somebody told me brightly about their placenta omelette. The baby whose placenta it had been and I hugged each other in a kind of solidarity.)
Babies themselves are reasonably easy, as long as you know what you're in for, don't have high expectations about their social abilities, and do what you're told. You'll be great. Here's what you need to know.
1. Support the head.
If you get one thing out of this list, make it this one. If the baby is under three months, you are holding a human whose neck muscles have not sufficiently developed to hold up its own gargantuan, pumpkin-ish head. A baby is basically a mass of squishy solids and fluids that, for the first weeks, can't manipulate itself at all except for vocal cords and an occasional frustrated foot kick. It needs your hand or the crook of your arm cupping the back of its (alarmingly soft) skull, or it will droop grotesquely, everybody will scream, and you'll never be allowed to hold anything ever again. Not even a saucepan.
(Note: There is a soft part of the skull at the back of a baby's head called the fontanelle, which hasn't hardened yet. It will be squidgy. You are not allowed to poke it.)
2. If the parent tells you not to do something, don't do it.
The parents, even if they're so sleepless they're running into walls, will know more about their charming new genetic splicing experiment than you do. If they ask you not to bounce it on your knee, tickle it, or poke its tummy, don't. Even if the demands are unreasonable — say if they ask you to sanitize every part of your body before going near their progeny — get to work with the cleansing wipes. They'll mellow out when the first freak-out over We Have Made A Living Thing ceases.
3. Hold small babies in your arms or on your shoulder, bigger babies on your lap.
There is an accepted way of interacting with babies of different ages. Small ones should be cradled in your arms with that ridiculous head supported well, or else laid on your shoulder (with what is euphemistically called a "burp cloth" underneath, to collect drool and spit-up) with one arm under its bottom and the other hand against its back. Bigger babies can be held like this too, but once they can sit up, generally that's what they like to do: sit or stand on your lap, look into your face or the surrounding world, and see What The Hell Everything Is And Why It's So Goddamn Loud.
4. Don't expect charm.
For the first few months, babies are bulbous, angry, permanently red-faced, occasionally pimply (baby acne is a genuine thing), and pretty much entirely unable to bond with visitors in any way. At best they'll stare at you with interest and give you a gummy half-grin at some point.
Once they get to the reacting-people stage, they still might be crying and entirely unimpressed with you, but it isn't their fault; babies have no idea about politeness and don't care that you came all this way to see them and bought them that nice plush giraffe. Sorry.
5. Do expect bodily fluids — but don't freak out.
My brother threw up on my grandmother's white Chanel suit at his christening, and anybody who knows anything about babies knows this was entirely my grandmother's fault. Do not wear white Chanel around small creatures who have absolutely no control over their own excretions. Baby spit-up isn't like grown-up vomit; it's just milk, and they're still learning how to digest it. Best idea: if there's a towel, have it laid over the parts they might spew on.
Poo and urine will happen too, but probably not on you, due to the wonder of nappies. Just expect it to happen. Your input of "Gross!" will not be appreciated by people that have to deal with every poo this child makes for several years of its life, so bite your tongue.
6. Fingers are generally a good bet.
At a certain stage, babies like gripping things. It's one of the parts of musculature that are pretty well-developed at birth; scrape anything across a very young baby's palm and they'll automatically close their fingers on it. After six months, they'll start to grab deliberately. If you want to feel as if you're having a moment, put your finger in their hand and see how intently they grasp it.
7. Don't wear long earrings.
This is a rule for babies over around five months of age: do not put anything valuable near them that they can snatch at or put in their mouth. Because they will. The most important of these is long earrings. If they're shiny or just within reach, they'll get grabbed, and pulled, and you may lose either the earring or part of your ear. (Babies are stronger than you think.) Either way, it'll hurt like hell.
8. Don't ignore them.
Treating the baby as if it's not there is not a way to "make things feel normal" — it's rude. Trying to maintain a conversation around the baby's needs and wiggles is fine, but huffing with frustration or giving it a death stare every time it interrupts (I have seen this happen) is not supportive to the parents. If they say the words "Just ignore him/her/it," go ahead and talk about housing prices, but otherwise interact with the squirt, even if it's just giving it your finger to hold.
9. Don't let them put anything small in their mouth.
People think of this as more of a toddler thing, but babies will do it too: if it looks interesting, tasty, or blatantly dangerous, they will attempt to shove it in their pie-hole. Babies may be cute, but they have no interest in self-preservation. If you see something going towards their tiny maw, and the resident parents haven't noticed, quietly remove it and distract them with something else. (Be prepared for frustrated howling.)
10. Don't take it personally if they cry.
Babies teeth, have colic, refuse to nap at appropriate times, get hungry, and have exactly one reaction to all of this: crying. If you're with them for an hour and all they do is cry, it's not a personal affront or a judgement on your baby-friendliness; babies are capricious beings and do not care about you one way or the other. But make the effort anyway, because when they do give you a grin you can tell yourself that you are their Best Chosen Friend and feel great for a day.
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