Baby Talk: Four stages of learning with help with second baby

March 11, 2014 

Q: We are expecting our second baby soon. We had a really hard time adjusting when we had our first baby. We had no idea there would be so many challenges. Everyone says the second one is easier. Is this true?

A: Indeed the first baby is usually the hardest baby as everything is so new. One can read about sleep deprivation and crying babies, but to experience it, is something else indeed.

The second baby is usually easier to adjust to. That is not because you are used to sleep deprivation, I don't think anyone ever gets used to that, but because you have entered what is called the Conscious Competence Learning Matrix of parenting.

It was initially called the "Four Stages of Learning Any New Skill." It was a theory that was developed at Gordon Training International by Noel Burch in the 1970s. Every since I was first exposed to this theory I have found it can be applied to many aspects of our lives as we challenge ourselves to learn new skills, including parenting a new baby.

The four stages are: Unconscious incompetence, conscious incompetence, conscious competence and unconscious competence.

In the unconscious incompetence stage we don't realize how badly we are performing a task. I can relate it to learning ballet later in life. At first I thought I was fabulous. I have had expectant parents tell me they are not going to take any prenatal classes because they will read a book, watch a DVD or they just don't have time. They are confident they really don't need much preparation. Then they get that baby in their arms and the baby does not behave like the book. They realize need some help.That helps us progress to

the second stage of learning -- conscious incompetence. I realized I was at conscious incompetence when I looked in the mirror during ballet class. I remember watching the other dancers do pirouettes across the floor and thinking that looks easy. Then I tried to do one pirouette and nearly fell flat on my face.

This is the stage when one makes mistakes but keeps trying. This is when we realize we can refine our skills through practice.

During conscious competence, we realize we can demonstrate the skill, through diligent practice. I can now pirouette across the floor. It takes time and practice for parents to figure out what is going to calm their baby. Maybe it wasn't what they initially thought would calm the baby, but another calming technique worked better for them. What a wonderful feeling to have that sense of accomplishment.

The fourth stage, unconscious competence, is when one automatically does a skill without thought. It has also been called the complacency stage.

Keep in mind that even though one may master a skill, without practice, one will lose that skill.

Personally I find myself perpetually going from stage to stage. Every now and then there is a glimpse and brief interlude into stage 4, but mostly I am in stage 3. That is OK, because it keeps me on my toes (literally). The same goes with parenting.

As your child grows, the skill sets you need will evolve. Since you have already done this once, the second time around you will travel the matrix with greater ease. However, this baby will challenge you in ways the first did not.

Life is a journey that requires preparation, action and maintenance, traveling through the matrix over and over again.

Katie Powers, R.N., is a board-certified lactation consultant and perinatal educator at Manatee Memorial Hospital's Family BirthPlace. Her column appears every other week in Healthy Living. Contact her at katie.powers@mmhhs.com.

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