Q: So luck played a role in how you learned to deal with children?
R: It did, at least in determining when I learned these things; probably I would have gotten there eventually, but not as soon and maybe not with so much conviction.
One evening while my wife was away I began a diaper change with my usual misgivings. As I undid the diaper, ready to duck in case Mike wriggled free, I realized that I had not gotten out the diaper cream. With one hand I held him while I dug through the diaper materials almost out of my reach, with my head turned away. As I found the tube of cream, I realized that Mike was lying still under my other hand! When I looked down at him, his quizzical look gave way to a broad smile and his arms and legs went into motion. “Hmm,” I thought, “Isn’t that interesting?” as I recalled my colleague instructing parents to withhold attention from kids during undesirable behavior.
I was curious enough now to want to check this out. Still holding the baby with one hand I again stretched and reached away from him so he could not see what I was doing. Again within a short time I noticed Mike’s movements slowed and then virtually stopped! But also again when I turned back to him I was met with a quick change to smiling, babbling, and flailing arms and legs.
Q: Once again it sounds like things weren’t going so well. What happened then?
R: Well, we psychologists can be pretty persistent when we get curious about behaviors that surprise us. But your comment is on target. What I found was that each time I turned away, Mike calmed for a time but each time I looked back, he resumed his activity. So, how could that help, since I could hardly change diapers while looking elsewhere?
Q: That seems like a good question, but that’s supposed to be my job.
R: Sorry. The answer to that important question turned out to be suggested in another thing I noticed: Each time, when I turned back, it seemed that Mike stayed quiet a bit longer than he had the time before. That was encouraging, but still not a solution.
Q: So what did you do then?
R: I decided I needed to find a way to help Mike stay calmer while I was looking at him. Since he was used to babbling at me and to me babbling back, I thought that I should do something different and hope that he would, too. What I hit upon, instead of babbling to him, was talking softly each time I turned back to face him. This seemed to have a good effect because I soon found him smiling at me but moving less. After repeating that pattern a few more times, the baby stayed noticeably calmer and it lasted a bit longer each time. To sum it up, what I saw was this:
Each successive time I turned away, Mike quieted a bit more quickly, and
Each time I turned back and talked quietly to him, he remained calm for a bit longer,
Finally the baby lay adequately still while I spoke in soft tones to him and I was able to complete the diapering process pretty easily.
Q: So that means the problem was solved, just like that?
R: Don’t we wish it could be that easy? A while later, as nature would have it, it was time for another diaper change. And in my naive way, this time I was actually eager, expecting to see Mike lay calmly while I did my job. Mike, unfortunately, hadn’t read the script and he responded as usual with flailing arms and legs while babbling happily at my attention. While I found this discouraging, I made myself repeat the same steps as before. To my relief, this time Mike responded much more quickly to the same maneuvers; when I turned away he quieted more quickly and the entire process of diapering took less time overall. By a third diapering that evening the process was easier still and my confidence had increased considerably.
Q: That sounds very encouraging. Was your wife as pleased as you were?
R: In fact, when I described to my wife what we had done, she was clearly dubious. I understood, since here I was excitedly claiming significant changes a few hours after she’d left home, in a baby a few months old! But when the need next arose, she willingly watched me do the diapering. You may not be surprised to hear that things didn’t go quite so well this time. Mike responded to diapering as he always had in his mother’s presence, with his usual babbling and flailing. Eager to demonstrate the success of which I had been so proud, I had her move to watch out of Mike’s view while I completed changing his diaper. The process was a bit slower than it had been before she got home but soon Mike was responding as well as he had earlier.
We repeated this pattern a time or two more and my wife decided the approach was helpful enough that she tried it herself. At first Mike behaved as he always had but soon he learned to stay calm during diapering with his mom as well. After a few more days of practice the pattern was changed, essentially for good; only occasionally did either of us have to withdraw our attention to calm him during diapering.