Non-reactive parenting can (and should!) be used in all stages of child rearing, even the newborn phase.
Newborns are adorable, but the fourth trimester (the first three months of a newborn’s life) is a bit of a mess.
Parents quickly realize that newborns have a unique way of testing their patience. Sleepless nights, endless feedings, and incessant crying are incredibly overwhelming.
That’s why mastering non-reactive parenting techniques is crucial during this period and beyond.
How Does The Fourth Trimester Affect Parenting?
Well, it makes you tired. The fourth trimester is exhausting. Newborns often wake throughout the night, disrupting sleep and circadian rhythms.
Poor sleep has the long-term effect of contributing to chronic diseases, but its day-to-day reality (brain fog, irritability, exacerbation of pre-existing mental and physical health problems) dampers quality of life.
And most postpartum mothers are also dealing with the fallouts of hormonal cocktails (shaken not stirred) and a medical event that requires sleep to hope to heal from.
Parenting calls for patience, foresight, stamina, clarity, and forced enthusiasm. These things are very, very, very hard to summon on three hours of sleep.
What Is Non-Reactive Parenting?
Non-reactive parenting is a conscious form of parenting that calls for strategic, rather than hair trigger, reactions to challenging situations.
To put it very simply, non-reactive parenting champions emotional regulation.
Which is easy to say and hard to do, as emotional regulation skills are not commonly taught. To anyone. It’s not a capacity that society rewards or values.
But by asking for non-reaction, I’m not asking for saintliness. It’s not that a non-reactive parent never gets mad, never rolls their eyes, never raises their voice. A non-reactive parent simply pauses before reacting.
Just pumps the brakes, to not respond in frustration even when (especially when) the situation is frustrating.
In that pause, the non-reactive parent decides whether to ignore, connect, correct, or pivot.
Why Is Non-Reactive Parenting Important in the Fourth Trimester?
Non-reactive parenting can be especially useful in the fourth trimester, as it relies on automation, not disposition or critical thinking skills.
New parents are grumpy and befuddled. And that’s ok. Non-reactive parenting isn’t asking them to be anything else.
It’s asking them to pause. To lean into stillness.
However, don’t confuse non-reactive parenting with another popular fourth trimester parenting style.
Non-Reactive Vs. Attachment Parenting
Popularized by pediatrician William Sears and registered nurse Martha Sears, attachment parenting focuses on being emotionally and physically in tune with a child from birth.
Sears advocates for the seven Baby B’s:
- Birth bonding
- Bedding close to the baby
- Belief in the baby’s cry
- Balance and boundaries
- Beware of baby trainers
Thanks to the internet, some aspects of attachment parenting have become almost militant. (Comb the comment section of a breastfeeding post in a sanctimommy Facebook group and you’ll see what I mean.)
Problems With Attachment Parenting
Abstractly, I have no issues with attachment parenting. Parents should beware of baby trainers! Breastfeeding is great! Without babywearing, I’d never get anything done!
My problem with attachment parenting lies in its implied promise of secure attachment.
Caregivers are encouraged to confuse secure attachment with attachment parenting. But one does not guarantee the other, and there are many ways to form secure attachments.
Also, in my opinion, attachment parenting…
- Puts a lot of pressure on parents, particularly mothers.
- Focuses too much on early childhood, leaving parents grappling for new techniques as children grow.
- Can become parent blaming.
- Requires a level of privilege that not everyone has (for example, it’s harder for a young single mother working retail to feed on demand).
- Can be reductive: “Do this, this, and this so your baby will be happy;” if only parenting was ever so simple.
Differences Between Non-Reactive Parenting and Attachment Parenting
Non-reactive parenting doesn’t demand as much from parents.
Attachment parenting emphasizes the importance of building a strong emotional bond with your child through practices like co-sleeping, baby-wearing, and breastfeeding on demand.
Again, I’m not saying these things are inherently bad. But I don’t think they’re important enough to insist upon.
Breastfeed or don’t. Follow the American Academy of Pediatrics’ safe sleep guidelines however you’d like. I consider these things to be quibbling points.
And parents don’t have time to quibble.
Non-reactive parenting focuses on starting to help babies learn to regulate their emotions and respond appropriately to their environment through gentle interactions and consistent routines.
It’s OK To Be Mad at a Baby
“Megan, you keep saying that non-reactive parenting is about not reacting in anger. But why would I get mad at a little baby?” you’re probably asking.
Listen, for someone who can’t talk back, newborns can be hella frustrating. They don’t sleep when you want them to. They cry a lot.
Infant crying induces stress, and it’s meant to. If adults didn’t have a visceral negative reaction to infant distress, the human race would have died off a long time ago.
It’s normal to feel angry about newborn crying. Parents shouldn’t beat themselves up about that.
While all feelings are fine, all reactions are not. Never shake a baby or respond in physical ways to anger. (Yelling isn’t very good either, don’t wanna flood that new brain with cortisol unnecessarily.)
But that feeling of wanting to? It’s ok.
If that feeling is overwhelming, put the newborn down and tell someone. There’s nothing wrong with you. Your brain just probably needs some tweaking. Medical professionals can help.
How To Use Non-Reactive Parenting in the Fourth Trimester
Each stage of child development calls for different non-reactive parenting strategies. The only thing that remains constant is pausing.
In non-reactive parenting, caregivers pause before reacting. It depends on the situation, child development stage, and child temperament if the parent will ignore, connect, correct, or pivot.
With a newborn, the non-reactive parent is going to connect or pivot, never correct or ignore. In the fourth trimester, non-reactive parenting focuses on laying a foundation of calm and routine.
Non-Reactive Parenting Solutions for the Fourth Trimester
Connecting in the Fourth Trimester
Newborns have a reputation for crying when they’re hungry or have other physical needs, but they cry for connection, too!
And connecting in the fourth trimester is great for tired parents. Newborns love to lay around, especially skin-to-skin with caregivers.
(There’s no pretending, no endless fetching of snacks and toys. I’m side-eyeing you, older children).
Revel in that. Sit and hold your baby. Babywear when you can. If you’ve got the spoons for it, smile and make eye contact during feeding times.
Chat with your newborn. Not all the time (silence is wonderful), but friendly narrations (“brother is showing you something/that’s the wind/I’m picking you up now”) help keep everyone engaged and calm.
Pivoting in the Fourth Trimester
There’s a steady roster of things that will soothe newborns, like feeding, burping, sleeping, changing, and connecting.
But the solutions needed constantly revolve and blend, so it’s important to switch tracks willingly and quickly.
With older children, pivoting often involves distraction, discussion, and negotiation. You can’t do those things with infants.
In the fourth trimester, pivoting looks like wearing the baby when you don’t want to, dealing with nap shenanigans, and managing cluster feedings.
The best way to promote calm in the fourth trimester is to lower expectations, keep family schedules light, and follow medical guidelines.
New parents should banish expectations about “bouncing back.”
Now is simply not the time for elaborate outings or dinners or to-do lists or workouts or parental tasks. No elaborate anything, ok? That’s a rule.
Try to stay in the house as much as possible. Sit. Keep the lights dim. Use Bluey as a crutch. Make mini tortilla pizzas for dinner three times a week. Go on a little walk instead of signing up for a Body After Baby Boot Camp.
I inwardly scoffed as much as any veteran parent at the “no driving for six weeks” and “no lifting anything heavier than the newborn” post c-section recommendations, but I followed them as much as I could.
Medical guidelines are in place for a reason. Following them as closely as possible makes recovery from birth, and therefore parenting in the fourth trimester, easier.
For a newborn, what we think of as a routine is very different. I’m not advocating for sleep routines in the fourth trimester. That’s impossible.
I’ve found success using the “Eat, Play, Sleep” model for a newborn “routine.”
The other piece about routine concerns older siblings. In this time of upheaval, it’s important to stick to their routines as much as possible.
For example, we were tempted to order more take-out in the fourth trimester or skip baths. But we found that things went smoother when we stuck to our pre-baby-arrival evening routine.
Don’t “Yell” Back
At first reading, that sounds weird, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen it.
Now, no one is actually yelling at newborns. That’s why I put it in quotations.
But adults will raise their voices over infant crying, sometimes to talk to another person, sometimes to say things like “What’s wrong, cutie?”
This is a completely normal reaction that I’m asking you to quash. When newborns go loud, we go quiet.
When possible, wait until the crying has subsided to answer someone else, don’t try to speak over it. Go ahead and ask the newborn what’s wrong, sing a song, etc, but speak quietly. Whisper, even.
I’m not kidding. When all else fails (feeding, burping, changing), try to calm newborns by whispering sweet nothings in their ears.
Soft Hands, Soft Stance
I know you know to be gentle with newborns. Nobody’s out here handling tiny babies with anything but care.
It’s just that whole crying issue again.
Infant crying releases cortisol in the adult brain, which causes stress responses. The classic fight, flight, freeze, or fawn responses.
A newborn parent is most likely to employ the fawn response (they’re not going to leave their infant or start punching), but freeze is a close second.
In response to stress (like high-pitched screaming), it’s common for the body to go stiff. Shoulders hunched up around the ears, clenched hands, and so on.
Newborns sense that physical tenseness. Now both the baby and their parent are locked in a stressful feedback loop.
Frequently check in with your body when a newborn cries. Consciously relax hands and posture and take deep abdominal breaths and release shoulders.
Strategies for Maintaining a Non-Reactive Parenting Approach
Tending to physiological needs, practicing mindfulness, and having a support network can help maintain non-reactive parenting.
Tending to Physiological Needs
This is the section where we get to talk about one of my favorite things, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.
By using a pyramid, Maslow so perfectly illustrates the importance of a strong foundation. Without it, a pyramid will topple over.
See that first level? It’s physiological needs and it’s the most important one.
If physiological needs aren’t met, it’s hard to function beyond base instincts. Because they’re screaming, “I need sleep! I need balanced meals! I need sunlight and movement!”
And practicing non-reactive parenting techniques is harder to do if physiological needs aren’t met, as it’s our base instinct to react to negative emotions without pausing.
Therefore, meeting physiological needs as best as we can (sleep hygiene, healthy eating, daily movement), is important.
Like, really important, ok? Just do your best.
A huge part of non-reactive parenting involves recognizing and accepting negative feelings without reacting to them. And that requires mindfulness.
Like emotional regulation, mindfulness is a skill not commonly taught. Luckily, the human brain is malleable.
Mindfulness requires practice, and in our modern age, there’s an app for that! I like using the prompts and options on my Fitbit Premium app, but there are all kinds of programs to download.
Having a Support Network
Oh man, this one’s a doozy. Many of us simply don’t have one.
Whether it be by choice or circumstance, at home or in wider society, many parents have no village to speak of.
And I’m truly sorry about that. Because non-reactive parenting is harder without it.
It’s hard to be calm if there isn’t an equal distribution of household labor. It’s hard to be calm when struggling to find childcare. It’s hard to be calm without a single moment to oneself.
I don’t have easy answers to those struggles. I’m not sure there are any (besides radical systemic change, which, of course, isn’t easy).
Demand help from a partner. If they won’t provide it, leave them (it’ll come to that anyway).
Try to be transparent when struggling. If aid is offered, accept it.
Common Mistakes to Avoid
There are only two mistakes where non-reactive parenting is concerned:
- Expecting to remain calm at all times
- Beating yourself up for not remaining calm at all times
Non-reactive parenting is always going to be a work in progress. No matter how much we chase automation, we won’t become robots. And non-robots get mad.
It’s about the journey, not the destination.
The fourth trimester is a stressful time, but non-reactive parenting can help soothe (some of) the tumult.
Remember, there is no perfect way to parent, and it takes time and practice to master any new technique.
However, with patience, persistence, and grace towards self, caregivers can develop non-reactive parenting techniques that will make a positive impact on infant development.
Here are some more articles about tiny babies!
- Survival Guide to Welcoming A New Baby: Sibling Edition
- 29 Baby Items for New Moms (Best Products)
- 22 Baby Items You Don’t Need
- My Pandemic Pregnancy
You Tell Me
In what ways has non-reactive parenting helped you? In what ways do you struggle? I want to know!
Happy fourth trimester!