As a father, Cord Whitaker knows how to take it on the chin. Literally.
When his 5-year-old daughter, London Curtis-Whitaker, was 2, she would butt him with her head with startling regularity, as though letting him know who the real ruler of the family’s South Philadelphia house was.
“Her head has gone onto parts of my face, or my mouth and teeth, as she’d get fussy and squirmy,” said Whitaker, 40, an English literature professor at Wellesley College in Massachusetts. “I’d experience some kind of face pain every couple of weeks.
"Then she’d cry with the impact, and I’d really want to cry in pain myself.”
While parents can find any number of books instructing them on how to keep young children safe, there’s a dearth of survival manuals for moms and dads looking to avoid injuries at the tiny, precious, and too-often-dangerous hands of their offspring.
Where’s the When Babies Attack handbook? When will we read How to Defend Yourself From Toy-Flinging Narcissists?
“You must remember,” said Benjamin Hoffman, medical director of the Tom Sargent Children’s Safety Center at Doernbecher Children’s Hospital in Portland, Ore., “babies and toddlers are stronger and faster than we think.”
Savannah Guthrie, 48, cohost of the Today show, returned to work just last month after eye surgery for a torn and detached retina caused by her 3-year-old son, Charley, accidentally hitting her with a toy train in November.
The key word, of course, is “accidentally.”
“With infants and toddlers,” said Paul Donahue, a Scarsdale, N.Y., child psychologist, “we have a hard time establishing intent. They’re just going through their own developmental struggles."
No one can say with medical certainty how often parents are damaged by their babies and toddlers.
“It’s sort of the secret of parenting no one likes to tell,” Donahue said. “Being a parent is being able to absorb pain, nicks, and bruises.”
That carnage is visible in every emergency room in America, according to Al Sacchetti, chief of emergency medicine at Virtua Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital in Camden.
“Anybody working in an ER long enough has a few anecdotes,” he said.
In fact, Sacchetti spilled one himself, recalling the time he held his 3-year-old grandson upside down just for fun, only to have the boy kick out one of Sacchetti’s front teeth.
“I had declared I’d won a wrestling match with him,” he said. “That didn’t go well.”
Through the years, Sacchetti has witnessed limping battalions of wounded parents who’ve trudged into the hospital suffering from corn and peas shoved up their noses; corneas scratched by fast-growing baby nails; broken toes from wildly navigated kiddie scooters; America’s Funniest Home Videos-quality groin kicks; major broken bones caused by falls on staircases booby-trapped with Legos; broken noses and black eyes from headbutts; and earlobes split by babies yanking on hoop earrings. (“Never, ever wear hoop earrings around kids,” Sacchetti cautioned.)
He added, “For the most part, parents take it all in stride and are pretty humorous about it. Of course, they’ve already been ridiculed by other family members before I see them.”
Joannie Yeh, a pediatrician in the Nemours Children’s Health System Media office, also knows firsthand the perils parents face.
“All my three girls scratched my neck quite a bit when I burped them,” said Yeh, who also teaches pediatrics at the Sidney Kimmel Medical College at Thomas Jefferson University. “And I’ve been whacked, headbutted, and kicked when I had them flailing in bed with me. Oh, that hurts a lot.”
More often than not, child psychologists say, infants feel frustration they cannot express, and will flail wildly.
“It’s fairly common for a colicky baby to try to release internal tension by hitting and kicking, letting their arms and legs go,” said child psychologist Mark Nemiroff, of Bethesda, Md. “Even throwing their heads back suddenly is a way of releasing tension. It could be from gas, or a desperation to be fed.”
By nine months, they are biting, making breastfeeding difficult, according to Georgia DeGangi, a retired child psychologist from Shelburne, Vt.
From about age 1 until 2, kids throw objects without good aim or control.
Then, as all parents know, the terrible twos can bring on all sorts of stomping, poking, and punching behaviors, DeGangi said. Children generally don’t possess the mindfulness to know they’re injuring their parents until they’re around 30 months.
“They may feel guilt or remorse, but mostly, they are realizing that their aggression has power,” she said.
Even when they’re 3 and 4, children occasionally regress to the behavior of tantrum-minded 2-year-olds, said Donahue, of Scarsdale.
“They’re in emotional storms sometimes, and don’t have full control and won’t make good choices in mid-tantrum," he added. “Things usually quiet down by ages 5 or 6.”
In the midst of all this home-time havoc, parents are asked to practice the forbearance of Gandhi. It’s no easy feat.
“You must stay calm,” said Yeh, of Nemours. “You can’t discipline children under 9 months old. And, of course, you must never hit.”
Children older than 9 months should never be shamed, and should be allowed to feel angry, she said.
If a child physically ambushes you, instead of saying, “That hurt daddy,” you say, “Mad, mad,” Yeh added, explaining that the parent isn’t saying he’s angry. It’s short for, “You’re feeling mad,” a recognition of the child’s frustration. “That helps the kid regulate emotions,” Yeh said.
It’s OK to say, “You’re not allowed to hit mommy,” Donahue said. “We just have to be careful not to have a moral tinge to it. By 3 or 4, if a kid hears she’s bad, she can internalize it. You don’t want that."
Of course, never laugh when a child hits you. That’ll keep the pounding going for some time, the experts say.
Finally, understand that it’s natural to feel angry when you’re battered. “You can’t be a bottomless pit of forgiveness,” said DeGangi.
And if a baby scratches your eye, put her in the crib, then tend to your wound, Yeh said.
"Let the baby cry. A crying baby is a breathing baby. You’ll need that moment for yourself. Take a time-out.