30 Nov 2022

How to behave around babies

If you don't have children, or if memories of early parenthood are fast fading, you may find friends with babies a real challenge. While there are undoubtedly many parental pitfalls that must at all costs be avoided, you should be aware that your behaviour is equally important. Impatience or censoriousness will destroy new parents’ confidence and will make a difficult time unbearably fraught.

Here are some ways of behaving around babies and new parents with tact and diplomacy:

• If you are hosting new parents (even if it’s just for a few hours), make sure that they have the sole use of a room in your house. They’ll be able to dump their baby paraphernalia, retire here to change nappies, breastfeed, or just have quiet time with the baby. They may be able to set up a carry cot in this room and put the baby down for a nap.

You’ll benefit from allocating them their own space, as otherwise they’ll inevitably colonise your whole house (it’s difficult to avoid), and you may begin to resent the territorial encroachment.

• If the baby is mobile (ie crawling or toddling), you must make some basic preparations before a baby comes to your house. Remove breakables so that they are beyond a baby’s reach, secure kitchen cupboards, and, if possible, move a piece of furniture in front of the bottom of the stairs. At least you have now done the best you can to safeguard the child’s safety and the parents will appreciate the effort you’ve made.

• Test your own tolerance. If a baby creates a certain amount of mess (saucepans on floor, books taken off shelves, newspapers shredded around the sitting room), can you live with it? If all that it entails is a quick five-minute tidy around once the baby has gone home, then you almost certainly can. Why make a fuss over something that is comparatively trivial?

• Communicate with the parents. If a baby is doing something that you can’t bear to witness (playing with your best china, breaking the flowers off your precious pot plants, smearing jam on your white upholstery), point it out – quietly and firmly – to the parents. Never react directly to the baby – snatching it away, shouting etc. will cause open-mouthed shock followed, inevitably, by lusty screaming and pained looks of reproach from the parents.

• Never criticise. It’s almost inevitable that you will see behaviour around babies that you find baffling, provocative, or just plain stupid. But unless this behaviour is life-threatening, you must keep your criticisms to yourself. Head-on critiques will cause anger, or painful self-doubt and defensiveness and are therefore totally pointless. If you want to convey a message to a parent, you must use the tact of a seasoned diplomat; anecdotes about your own experiences, self-deprecating tales of mistakes made, lessons learnt and so on, might work, but only if they are deployed with the utmost subtlety.

• Lead by example. If a baby is causing unacceptable disruption (at a dinner table or in a restaurant, for example), and the parents are resolutely determined to ignore the interruption, offer to take the child outside yourself. There’s always a chance, of course, that they’ll just let you do what you suggest (although only the most insensitive parent will leave you in sole charge for long); but they may also correctly read your suggestion as a gentle reminder of their responsibilities.

• No snatching. Many babies don’t enjoy being grabbed by comparative strangers (and almost everyone, apart from their parents will seem like a stranger to them at first, even if they are blood relations). They will wriggle miserably in your arms, reach out for their mother, start grizzling. It’s really not a good idea to put either the baby, or the parent, through this misery. Wait until a compliant and relaxed baby is handed to you and then you can welcome it with open arms.

• Accept parental fussing. If parents make a song and dance about feeding the child, getting it to bed, settling it etc., don’t adopt a world-weary “been there, done that, never did me any harm” line. The parents’ fussiness is, obviously, a manifestation of anxiety about new responsibilities, and will have to be worked through at their own pace. Just try and let it all wash over you…


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