Looking back on their pre-parenthood days, Dan and Deborah Baumfeld describe their marriage as "very solid." When they were expecting their son Olen, now nearing in on 2, they made it a rule to carve out time for each other, looked forward to growing a family together and were committed to staying connected despite the stresses of early parenthood.
On the flip side, neither felt that working through conflict was a relationship strong point before the baby's arrival. When things got heated, Dan admits, he'd take a fighting stance: "I'd generally get snipey and mean," he says. "And then, after a while, I'd always feel like ‘I have to get out of here.'"
At the same time the two worried that Deborah's ample experience with kids – she grew up with siblings and often cared for small children – and Dan's dearth of it might lead to a parenting divide.
So when a friend suggested they sign up for Bringing Baby Home, a workshop for expectant couples and parents of infants and toddlers, the Baumfelds did not hesitate. They had heard about researcher and relationship expert Dr. John Gottman and his colleagues at the Seattle-based Relationship Research Institute. Gottman's studies on what causes marriages to flourish or fail are the cornerstone of Bringing Baby Home.
The two-day parenting and relationship skills training, developed in Seattle, is now available across the country. It gives couples lab-tested, tried-and-true strategies for working together as parents and for engaging their baby in ways that help the infant's brain to develop to its full potential. It provides new and expectant parents facts about the common relationship pitfalls after a baby arrives and offers a map to navigate the ups and downs that often trip up new parents.
Bringing Baby Home trainers cover 15 concepts critical to sound relationships and good parenting, many based on Gottman's best-selling book, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. Participants get an honest picture of the impact of a new baby – they talk about fatigue, not just sleepless nights. Couples spend time exploring one another's psychological world and learning ways to adjust to the differences between their emotional triggers.
Using in-class activities and homework designed help them deepen their understanding of each other and firm the lines of their "love map," couples are taught to create a culture of appreciation, fondness and admiration in their relationships with each other and their baby. They learn to pay attention to signs – bids – for attention from a partner or child.
It's practical information: warning signs of a relationship meltdown, steps for constructive problem-solving, how to preserve the romance in marriage and why a daily stress-reducing conversation can be the difference between connection and disconnect. Bringing Baby Home offers equal assistance for developing healthy relationships with kids. Parents learn about research showing that moms' and dads' interaction with kids develops different, but equally important, pathways in the brain.
Fathers tend to follow a child's lead in play, which helps kids develop their imagination, self-esteem and decision-making while enhancing their attention span and ability to control their impulses. Mothers, on the other hand, tend to direct children's play, which fosters kids' social and emotional development, among other things.
Program participants get the stats on what might seem like an obvious fact: that men and women are different in many ways.
"A lot of the information I felt I knew," Deborah says, "but it was very validating to hear it, and I think it helped Dan to hear from an expert things he might have trouble hearing from me."
The Baumfelds learned that Dan's "fight-or-flight" response to difficult discussions heightened Deborah's own fears: If she allowed Dan to "get out of here" he might check out for a couple of days or "if he came back, he wouldn't speak to me indefinitely."
Following an instinct that research shows is common among women, Deborah's approach to conflict was to "tend and befriend" rather than take the time-out that Dan was signaling he needed. When Deborah experienced the flood of fear and anxiety that often came with an argument, she was prone to push the conversation forward in the hopes of bringing Dan to her side.
As is the case with many Bringing Baby Home participants, the Baumfelds say it was a relief for them both to learn that their fighting dynamic was not only absolutely normal, but also biologically influenced. Far greater relief came from gaining understanding of each other's innate responses to stress and how to help the other cope during emotionally flooded moments. Learning how to regulate rather than resolve conflict by managing the floods, they say, was a "revolutionary" moment in their marriage.
In the months since Olen was born, the Baumfelds have returned to this moment time and again. In doing so, research shows, they are not only strengthening their marriage but helping to ensure Olen grows up feeling safe, secure and able to navigate his own relationships.
"It was such a relief to know there was a term for this roadblock we'd encounter over and over. Having the vocabulary helped to lessen the urgency I'd feel," Deborah says. "Down the line, through the stages of flooding, including his fight-or-flight reaction, what we heard in class is how our arguments would go.
"Now Dan can say ‘I feel flooded right now,' and I understand that he needs to cool off. We'll take a break and talk in 20 or 30 minutes."
Couples who participate in Bringing Baby Home get hands-on practice using the communication strategies that research has found to increase couple connection, decrease misunderstanding and thus facilitate relationship happiness. The program gives couples a leg up by helping them beat the odds of Gottman's studies.
Those studies show that 67 percent of couples express significant relationship dissatisfaction a year after a baby comes home. More importantly, it identifies what has worked for the other one-third of couples studied by Gottman – the couples for whom baby was not the death knell for marriage bliss.
"Dr. Gottman has been studying relationships for more than three decades," says Joni Parthemer, Education Director for the Bringing Baby Home program. "Because of that research, we are able to not only tell people about what (weakens) relationship but what the remedies are as well."
The course should not be confused with childbirth education classes says Lynée Brown, a certified Bringing Baby Home trainer.
"Childbirth education focuses on getting ready for the birth day," she says. "This is focused on the relationships. Relationships are ongoing. The research is showing there are high consequences to be paid for not attending to the couples' relationship after the baby arrives."
Sean and Kelley O'Connor were content in their marriage and wanted to keep their relationship as vibrant after their daughter, Breanna, was born, as it was before. They took Bringing Baby Home a few weeks after their daughter's birth in April – something they suggest other new parents consider.
"I actually recommend taking it right after the baby is born," says Sean. "We were still a little in new-parent shock when we went, and we already had some things that we knew we wanted to iron out. Before Breanna came, I thought, ‘It'll be fine, we are just going to be tired.' I did not count on the total mental incapacitation! We could already see how that was impacting our patience with each other."
"The most important thing to us is our relationship, and we wanted to go and solidify it," Kelley adds. "We've always been good at open communication, but the class opened up new areas for us to work on and helped us realize we will always have to work on things together."
The O'Connors say they got a lot out of discussions about building relationships, both individually and together as a couple with Breanna.
"We talked a lot about how to go off the baby's cues and not just do what we wanted to do. We learned how watch for her body language and how to adjust to it, how to play with the baby together and how not to compete for her (attention)," Sean says. Research presented about the power of positive reinforcement in the couple relationship hit a chord with both O'Connors.
"It just made sense. If there's a behavior you want, then praise that behavior rather than harp on what you don't want," Sean explains.
Taking a time out to deal with flooding and using positive reinforcement make sense for babies too.
"What we know from research," Brown says, "is that when there is stress in the home, children pick up on it and respond to it. During (infancy), you are laying down nerve pathways in the brain. When a secure relationship is modeled for a child, that is how the child learns to relate in the world."
Conversely, when couples fight and argue in destructive ways, children learn those habits as well.
"We are always teaching on two planes … the partner relationship as well as the parent-child relationship and how they are intertwined," says Parthemer. "The skills learned, relearned, awakened and developed through Bringing Baby Home apply to all our lifelong relationships." Parthemer points out that even though her children are older, she relies on the tenets of the program in her own life and relationships.
"As a 48-year-old, 25-year spouse, parent of an 18- and 13-year-old, and an employee working in a variety of work situations, I have such a passion and dedication to this program and for its potential," she says. "Bringing Baby Home provides research-based and research-tested concepts and skills which promote healthy lifelong relationships."
Brown became a Bringing Baby Home trainer after reading up on Gottman's seven principles to happy marriage and working on them with her partner, and she says they still ring true. "We learned (communicating) fondness and attraction needs to be a main staple in the relationship diet," Brown says. "It is important to go back to what it is that you first enjoyed about each other and find ways to embellish it."
Two years into parenting, the Baumfelds say they are largely satisfied with their relationship with each other and with Olen, and the O'Connors say they, too, feel connected and strong.
They have plenty of company. Data collected from attendees one year after they take the class show that they have less relationship strife than the new parent community at large and they report higher relationship quality, less interpersonal hostility and significantly less postpartum depression.
Learn More about Bringing Baby Home
• Visit the Bringing Baby Home Web site at: www.bbhonline.org.
• For a class near you call 206-832-0300.
• Become an approved Bringing Baby Home trainer by attending a Certification Training workshop. The next one will be held at the Seattle Sheraton Oct. 17-19. To register call: 206-832-0300.
• Books: The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work by John Gottman with Nan Silver; And Baby Makes Three: The Six-Step Plan for Preserving Marital Intimacy and Rekindling Romance After Baby Arrives by John Gottman and Julie Schwartz Gottman.
Cheryl Murfin is a Seattle freelance writer and mother of two.