It was 2am, when Shelly Loggerson heard the wail. It came around like clockwork, each and every night. So regular now that a decent night’s sleep seemed a distant dream, the kind of good fortune you saw on television or read about in magazines but never expected to actually experience. Like her husband Rod turning up with champagne, a dozen red roses, and a rented yacht ready for a week’s cruise to the Cayman Islands or something. The Hollywood romantic comedy crap all women in her book club sighed over, still fluttering on about Ryan Gosling in The Notebook. None of them cared much for Nicholas Sparks, too many unhappy endings. The same would happen to them if John, their new baby never figured out how to sleep through the night. They’d get a Nicholas Sparks unhappy ending too.
Shelly waited patiently for the second wail, the final indicator that her son would need extra help getting to sleep tonight. It too arrived like clockwork, roaring through the baby monitor.
She inched across the bed as her husband groaned. “I’ll get him.”
“No,” Rod grumbled, patting her arm. “Book says we’re supposed to wait fifteen minutes, see if he can get back to sleep on his own.”
Another scream shook the monitor, filling their bedroom with the red light. Shelly winced. “What if he wet himself?”
“Do you think he did?”
“I don’t know!” She sniffed, her voice came out a little more ragged and pitched higher than she meant. “It could be just another… he could be lonely! Something might be wrong!”
Rod sighed. Turning his head toward the monitor, he was right on time for another wail. “Doesn’t sound like his ‘Made A Poopy’ scream. Sounds like ‘I want Mommy’.”
“See!” Shelly wiggled across the bed. “See! He needs me!” She was halfway to standing when Rod pounced.
“No,” he said quickly, his weight pressing down on her. “No, need is a decent night’s sleep.”
She opened her mouth to argue.
“Which we’ll get if he goes back to bed on his own. He wants Mommy, want isn’t the same as need.” He kissed her cheek. “Wait fifteen minutes, huh? You can check him after he’s gone back to sleep. He’ll never know then.”
Shelly hunkered down as another wail rolled through the monitor. Her eyes flicked restlessly to the clock on her bedside table. A round furry critter with slit cat eyes and a wagging tail in the circle ticking down the seconds. She inhaled deeply. It was going to be another long night.
The most important thing to remember is babies aren’t a happy ending. They’re messy, and they take up all your time. They’re little people who can’t communicate yet and are figuring out things like bodily functions and they need you, yes, you all the time.
The best advice I have for writing babies is (if you have no access to actual baby) to buy a parenting book, probably a couple of parenting books. Get one from the library if you must. The trick with writing anything is to learn as much on the subject as you can. If you know nothing about babies, then learn about babies. Which starts with, you know, understanding that they’re messy and that you may end the week with no shirt that isn’t covered in spit up or vomit.
The problem with writing children is that most writers either make them too dumb or too wise, and they don’t feel much like kids. A baby tends to end up a prop or a motivation like you said. However, a baby is a little person trying to figure out how to person and can’t communicate with you because they haven’t reached that stage yet.
Babies are messy.
Bodily functions. So many bodily functions, so many smells, so much cuteness wrapped up in shrill shrieks and the ability to ruin your favorite shirt utterly by accident because you can’t tell if it was intentional or not. Did you know that babies have personalities and that babies tell jokes? They do. Their version of a joke may be a gas passing, a poopy diaper, or an imitating wink or face of the person closest to them but they do. Baby should be interacting with their environment and the people around them.
Heck, you may not have lived until you’ve gotten sprayed down with pee.
Baby is not just an ambulatory prop. Baby is the ambulatory prop following the butterfly and careening off toward the cliff’s edge when you, their responsible caretaker, are not looking.
Babies are trouble.
You don’t know what’s wrong, you just know something is. Or maybe it isn’t. Maybe they just have gas. How can you know?
Babies are inconvenient.
You can go adventuring with Baby, but it will be a harrowing experience. You want to go digging through a three thousand year old tomb with an infant who touches everything, drools, and will probably pick up some disease because they stuck their dirty, dust covered fist into their mouth.
Comedies love the single parent with baby stories where the hot guy finally comes over and they’re ready to finally have sexy time after their wardrobe has been totally ruined. They lean in for a kiss and BABY SCREAMS!!!!!! Monitor goes off. Kiss ruined.
Be careful of the kinds of stories you want to tell with Baby, because Baby can take up a fairly large portion of it despite their inability to talk except in garbles, screams, smiles, and blinks. They are a constant responsibility, a thankless task, except for those smiles, blinks, cuddles, first steps, and saying ‘mama’ or ‘papa’. Those emotional rewards balance out the misery.
Babies aren’t easy.
It’s okay if your characters sometimes want to kill Baby. That’s a pretty honest reaction, actually. There are a great many joys to parenthood for some, but everyone has their 5AM moment where they’ve gone a week without sleep and just want to scream into the water closet or sob it out in the shower.
How to write babies:
1) Decide the purpose the baby serves in the story.
Most people use babies as props, they use kids as props too. Children are there as a means to express something about a character, not because they are characters in their own right. Baby is going to be less of a character than other characters BUT Baby is figuring out their personality. What is Baby’s personality? Baby doesn’t know how to be good or bad. What makes Baby cry?
2) Start thinking from the perspective of a parent, but also of Baby. Treat Baby like an individual.
I just said above that Baby is a character, but let me reiterate: Baby is a character. They are not a Goodness Test. A character’s worth is not defined by Baby. Baby is not an evil detection meter. Baby isn’t going to figure out who the villain is by crying. That isn’t how babies work.
3) Characters, even the parents, may struggle with Baby’s importance in their lives.
That’s normal, natural, and trying to figure out boundaries is the actions of a good parent. Caring for yourself also helps care for Baby, everything doesn’t go on hold because Baby is here. Characters need to work out their relationships, responsibilities, and that includes the nastier sides like jealousy. Trying to pretend that everything is perfect is what will sink your story and make Baby seem false. Your character being a perfect parent who never makes stupid decisions, who is 100% always ready and on call, never feels anything negative, is the one who seems inhuman. These people exist, I’m sure, but they’re not the norm.
Don’t be afraid to let the humanity in.
4) Think seriously about whether you actually want a baby in your story.
Why do you want Baby?
Do you honestly want to tell a story about a baby?
The question shouldn’t scare you or act as a reason not to write your baby. It’s just an honest question, Baby is a character, they need an arc. They aren’t just a prop. Maybe they provide other characters with motivations, but they’re characters themselves.
5) Spend some time with babies.
Whether it’s watching videos with parents and their kids on YouTube if you have no babies in your life, reading books on parenting or babies for dummies or something, read up not just on raising children but the different life stages. Babies grow up quick, figuring out the different ways they change as they develop is important to characterizing them.
Babies are important and real, and little people. They’re people that’ll be with your characters for the rest of their lives. Figuring out that balance, stripping out the whole morality play before adding it back in will help a lot toward getting to the meat of the character dynamics.
Are your characters happy about Baby?
Do they want Baby? Why did they want Baby?
It’s a huge commitment in time, love, and care. Cuddling the baby to sleep can be a great character moment, especially if it leads to character growth.
Those are my two cents anyway.
Chime in down in the comments if you’ve got any other ideas!