By Swetha Chakravarthi
It brings a smile to my face each time I see a parent talking to their newborn baby. A little baby will have the entire family wrapped around the little finger! Babies can get almost all their demands fulfilled just by pointing toward what they need or with just a single ‘uhhh’. In our daily life, many of our interactions with newborns and little babies seem to be like a one-way street. Every time the baby cries or every sound that the baby makes, we try umpteen ways to pacify our baby with the hope that we have figured out the needs.
But why do we feel we can’t understand our babies?
Can we trust our little ones to convey their needs effectively?
Do we respect them as individuals?
The focus of this article is about trusting our newborns and respecting the capabilities they bring with them when they come into this world. It is noteworthy that one of the most important lessons in parenting is helping the infant develop a bond of trust with the mother/parents.
So how do babies really convey their needs to us?
We often associate communication and interactions with ‘verbal language’. How many times have you thought, “If only my newborn would just tell me why he is crying, I will fix it!” These frustrations are common for all parents with little babies. With language or without language babies are excellent communicators. Babies are very good about telling us when they are hungry, uncomfortable, need a diaper change, sleepy, tired, and ready to play.
But how do we understand it?
Many infant development resources highlight the ways to decipher the signs of hunger, sleep, etc. but the ability to understand it begins with trusting that our baby will inform us of the needs. Research on infants and babies clearly show that babies communicate, respond and are capable of doing some things on their own. For example, you don’t really have to teach an infant to rollover, or crawl or pull up to a standing position. Babies are one of the most self-motivated and self-directed learners.
While that is true, the idea that parents need to trust the capabilities of infants and give them the opportunity to unfurl them seems to be fairly new idea to many parents. This is one of basic principles of the Educaring Approach by the Resources for Infant Educarers (RIE).
Respect, is the basic principle of the RIE Philosophy. Accepting that babies as young as newborns are capable of conveying to us what they feel and need is our first step to respecting them. While caring for our little ones, respect them for who they are and what they are capable of doing. Think about it, when we talk to babies, how often do we take a pause and wait for them to respond? We do things ‘to’ them as part of our caregiving like change the nappy, feed them, and bathe them.
What are things that we can do ‘with’ the baby?
Here are some simple yet powerful ways to begin with:
- Talk directly to the child: Look at the baby, maintain eye contact and talk to baby. “Are you hungry? Would you like to drink your milk now”? Babies love listening to their parents voice and will respond with a smile or coo or a grunt to convey their feelings.
- Wait for the child to respond. Be sensitive and keen observer. This is the part that requires us to pause. Look at the baby and wait for signs. Even if the baby does not respond or show a sign initially, eventually they will. Wait and give them a chance to be a partner in the interaction. Remember to practice Mindfulness in parenting.
- Tell an infant before you pick him/her up. Tell the infant about whatever is going to happen next. “I can see you need a diaper change. I am going to pick you up and take you to the diaper table now”. This is the first step to getting him to participate in the activity. For a bit older babies who are already engaged in something or in an activity, give them a few seconds or a few minutes to complete what they are doing. For babies and toddlers who can crawl or walk, engage them in the activity. “Can you take a new diaper from the shelf and bring it to me”?
- Don’t distract the child from her feelings. When children experience strong emotions, especially unpleasant ones such as sadness and anger, we tend to distract them without taking a few moments to acknowledge their feeling. We wish to distract them to help them calm down and forget the unpleasant feeling. While the intention seems to be right, it isn’t really respectful to the child who is experiencing those emotions. Try to acknowledge the emotion and label it. It will help in building the child’s emotional vocabulary. “You fell down and hurt yourself. I know you are hurt and feel sad. Papa would like to help you”. After the child seems to feel settled, try introducing something new to the child.
These strategies help in building a child’s emotional vocabulary and also become better communicators. In our day-to-day interactions with babies, being respectful to babies and trusting their capabilities is an essential caregiving practice to lay the foundation for good parent-child bond in later years.
Kendon A. (2014). Semiotic diversity in utterance production and the concept of ‘language’. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 369, 20130293.
Solomon, D.C. (2013). Baby knows best: Raising a confident and resourceful child the RIETM way. Little, Brown and Company.
About the author-
Dr. Swetha Chakravarthi has a PhD in Early Childhood Education. She currently works with a non-profit group where she is involved in educating mothers of young children from rural and low income communities with strategies to support their children's learning and development. A mother of an active preschooler, she is enjoying the roller-coaster experience of raising a strong-willed daughter. She loves reading to her child and is forever making plans to catch up on the many years of lost sleep!
Picture Credit: Kelly Sikkema