How to Have a Happy Baby

By Nancy Gottesman

You have so many dreams for your newborn baby. More than anything, you want her to become a happy, healthy adult. How can you know which of your parenting practices will be good for her in the long run? Which habits will influence her the most?

Darcia Narvaez, PhD, is a Notre Dame psychology professor whose research focuses on the character development of children. Her studies have shown that certain infant-rearing habits produce children (and adults) who are calmer, happier and more empathetic, and have higher IQs. But Narvaez is concerned that we seem to be moving away from the very customs that produce emotionally healthy kids and adults. “The way we raise our children here in America seems to deprive them of the practices that lead to their future well-being.”

Other experts agree. “One of the most important messages for new mothers is that being a responsive parent now can prevent mental health issues later in life,” explains Karam Radwan, MD, director of the Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Training Program at the University of Chicago School of Medicine. “This isn’t a theory anymore-it’s evidence-based science.”

Just what are these “magical” parenting practices? You’ll be amazed to learn that they’re pretty intuitive. They involve a lot of TLC-and a little more effort. They include tossing out inflexible schedules and being less rigid-about everything from nursing to naptime. But the returns are invaluable. The well-known pediatrician William Sears, MD, calls it “attachment parenting,” a style of mothering that builds a baby’s trust as well as the foundation for her to become a responsible, contented adult. “Being able to trust is what makes this a beautiful world to live in,” says Dr. Sears. Here are the infant-rearing practices you’d be wise to invest in.

Infant-Rearing Practice #1: Give lots of positive touch

When you cuddle, carry, hold and wear your baby in a front pack or sling, good things happen. “Touch helps your infant’s body regulate temperature and digestion,” says Narvaez. “It also stimulates production of the social hormone oxytocin-in both mom and baby-which increases the pleasure we get from being with other people.”

A prime example of the power of touch can be best explained by what happens when babies are physically neglected. Researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison studied children who had lived in Russian and Romanian orphanages before being adopted into stable homes in the U.S. They discovered that due to the absence of loving contact during infancy, the children had emotional problems and abnormal levels of the social-bonding hormones vasopressin and oxytocin-many years later. “These children were not touched and they failed to thrive,” says Narvaez.

Dr. Sears is a huge advocate for wearing your baby-in a front pack or sling-to reap the myriad advantages of positive touch. In his many decades of practice and research, Sears has found that babies who are worn cry less, stay calmer, get socialized faster and learn about the outside world more quickly. “Without positive touch, infants will become adults who lack intimacy and empathy,” says Sears. “And these are the hallmarks of bullies and criminals.”

NEXT: Respond quickly to your baby’s cries and fusses