The longer I spend as a parent, the more I realise that it’s a bit like being a detective, and not only because I look strung out, wear a trenchcoat and am full of droll maxims such as: “You can have a hangover from other things than alcohol. I had one from a baby.”
Having a baby who can’t tell you what’s going on with it means having to solve a mystery every single day. Say the baby is whingeing. First, you run through the usual checklist. Is the baby hungry? Is his nappy full? Is he sleepy? Does he have wind? Once you’ve ascertained which one it is, you go back to the start, because it’s probably something else by now.
There are deeper mysteries, of course, than this. When I realised my baby was waking up because his hands were getting cold, it was via a process of elimination that took several weeks. But that didn’t stop well-meaning readers from trying to crack the code. I think as humans we have an instinct towards problem-solving, and more experienced parents can well recall the hours they spent trying to work out the reasons why their baby was doing this or that. Sometimes my mother, my husband and I will all find ourselves speculating together in the living room in an exhausted summit. Could it be teeth? The change in the seasons? All that adult brainpower dedicated to one tiny infant.
Your baby is probably hungry, one correspondent informed me – and I mean no ill will towards him, because he is a doctor and a parent, and more experienced than I. In this case he was wrong, though his recommendation of putting butter in the purée to keep the baby fuller for longer was helpful for an entirely different reason, in that broccoli tastes better with butter. We know this as adults, yet somehow expect our babies to accept naked vegetables from the off.
I suppose what I’m saying is that, even if the reader’s suggestion isn’t the answer at that moment, it could well be the answer further down the line, or indeed the key to an altogether different mystery. So I’m grateful to all the amateur sleuths out there for doing some of my work for me.
It’s when you bring the whole internet into it that it becomes problematic, as I learned during one of my late-night Google sessions when the baby went through a phase of waking 45 minutes after being put down at bedtime, which I learned is called a “false start”. The reasons listed were as follows: too many naps, not enough naps, overtired, underwired, wake windows, hunger, allergies or separation anxiety.
Not a single one of the reasons listed was wind. So, even though each time I picked the baby up he would do the kind of almighty burp that you usually hear from an adult man doing his best Barney Gumble impression, I did not trust my instincts. The same thing happened when all the websites said that teething doesn’t disrupt sleep. I believed them, got myself into a stress about why the baby wouldn’t settle, ignored the gnawing pain every time I fed him, and then, lo and behold: a fang appears, waving a big flag that reads “idiot”.
There is simply too much information out there. Too many people with agendas and opinions. Why would a thread of Mumsnet users know the reason for your baby’s rash? Of course, I love the internet. The internet means that you can make a quick exit from your local art house cinema, where your child has been loudly farting through Kazuo Ishiguro’s exquisite screenwriting, in order to Google, “What the hell is that in my baby’s nappy?” and get the response, “Don’t worry, they just had banana!” in a fraction of a second. In the olden days, you would have had to have gone to a payphone to call your mother, and she probably would have been out drinking a snowball at a cocktail party and eating savoury jelly, so you’d have had to go to the library and look it up. Or else maybe you’d have shrugged your shoulders and thought: “Eh. It’ll probably be OK.”
But the internet is also killing parental instinct. Millennials are so used to being able to instantly receive the answer to any minuscule bit of trivia that when we can’t solve a mystery such as why our baby is crying, it drives us insane. I’ve found that one solution is to channel our boomer predecessors by not worrying so much and hoping for the best. One friend seems to have successfully managed this – it helps, I think, that she has two, and all the wisdom that goes with that. “I just accept that some days he will cry all day and some days he will be cheery, just like some days I wake up in a bitch of a mood,” she says.
So why waste the energy? With the exception of illness, a grumpy baby is par for the course, and rarely a great mystery that needs solving. Nowt lasts for ever, as my mum says. In any case, it’s probably wind.
Nothing is working this week. The poor baby caught another virus and, though previously a very good sleeper, has been waking up every hour. I am barely functioning. I am accepting all offers of advice, techniques, spa weekends etc at the usual address.
I’m so sleep deprived that I got on the wrong branch of the Northern line and also took my eye off the baby’s backpack, which was stolen and contained a beautiful hand-knitted cardigan from a relative and – horror of horrors – the baby’s “red book” (his health record, which, for some inexplicable reason, is on paper despite it being 2022). Such is the importance of the red book that I am expecting a knock on the door from the authorities at any moment, declaring me an unfit mother and asking for the baby back.
Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett is a Guardian columnist and author of The Year of the Cat, which will be published in January 2023