Talk to me

In our series of posts on respectful parenting we would like to continue with a post about communication. Communication with the infant from birth until the age of 6 months. An age where the language and speech development is not first priority. But an age where communication, information and familiar voices are essential for the baby‘s feeling of security, safety and trust.

(We are not going to talk about the development of speech. This is simply a post about the early communication with your baby.)

Why is communicating so important for a baby? He can‘t respond anyway. Or can he?

We do nowadays know a lot about baby‘s ability to already hear and feel while still in utero. Therefore many parents take the chance to read stories to their unborn child, talk to him or sing. And they continue doing this once the baby is born. Which is great and necessary. But there is a little more (or in fact: much more) that can (should!) be done when raising a child lovingly and respectfully. While a lot of people talk to their babies before they are born, it is interesting that this direct communication often stops when the baby is born. Why? It might be strange in the beginning to talk to a tiny infant, who does not respond with words. We might find it awkward. We might need time to get used to it.

We know that babies can hear us, what we don’t really know is how much they understand and when this understanding begins. And the choice we are making is this: do we assume they do, or at some point will understand us and therefore communicate with them from the start, or do we choose to assume that they don’t understand in the beginning and therefore we do not need to communicate with them directly.

We believe the ground for building respectful communication begins at birth. Because babies do respond. They do communicate with us. We just have to be careful, observing and patient (http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/great-kids-great-parents/201201/children-talk-they-understand-lot). Read their signs and in return – respond to them again. It might not be obvious at first, but with time you will learn to read his signs, and see how hard he is trying to understand yours. He is trying hard to communicate with us – first through crying, facial expressions, movement. It is much harder for him to communicate his feelings than it is for you. But he is trying, looking for new ways to tell you what is going on.

Our first talks with Antek happened over diaper changes – most likely this is true for a lot of parents. I tried very slowly telling hime what will happen. I stopped and waited. I waited for the response. It felt like waiting for something that might never come, but over time it became second nature – I said what I would do and stopped for a moment. Once I got used to it, I stopped waiting for the response to actually happen, I just gave him time and moved on. He was about four months old when I realized he was listening very carefully and started trying to cooperate with me. It was an amazing discovery to see this. „I will lift you up now“ I would say, and his whole body would suddenly tense in my arms. He understood what was about to happen. This was the beginning of our dialogues. (Anna)

When a baby is born he is thrown into a world full of sounds, smells and all sorts of senses he can‘t possibly handle all by himself. So it‘s important to not just limit the stimuli but also explain what is just happening. And why. Especially in those situations where a lot is happening. For example during diaper changes or bathing times which – in the world of a newborn – are very active moments. And no – we are not saying that a newborn will understand every word you are saying. He will not know exactly what you mean by „I‘m going to pick you up to change you‘re diaper now.“ or „You have just been asleep and now you are hungry. I will feed you now.“ But he will realise the sound of those sentences, the voice of the mother which is familiar from the uterus.

Imagine watching a couple of people talking in a different language you don‘t understand. You will still be able to make out if they are being friendly or if they are arguing. You can watch their body language and faces and make out if friends or strangers have just met.

This is exactly what your baby is doing too. He watches you and closely listens to what you are saying, how you are saying it. And he will try hard to respond. May it be screaming, giggling, later smiling or fighting with all his body movements. The earlier we talk to our children and do what they are doing – closely listen and observe – the earlier we will understand every response we are getting. Even those we didn‘t know existed. So again – careful observation is the key. The key for a close relationship but also the key to a child that feels safe and secure in this world.

How do I talk to an infant ?

I do admit that in the beginning, right after Leander was born, it felt strange to talk to him, tell him everything I would be doing. In the end he WAS this little person who just didn‘t seem to hear me or understand me. But I was so curious, I heard so much about Pikler and the importance of communication – I tried to talk more and more. And while I was explaining what was going on, what was going to happen, the more I felt an You and Me becoming a We. It wasn‘t just about him getting to know me and the world around him. It was about me getting to know HIM too. I kept stretching the diaper changes, kept talking to him. And slowly he started responding to me. 

But that wasn‘t it. While I startled with my first „talks“ I also realised how unorganized I was. I kept looking for things while I actually wanted to stay focused on him. I held my left arm on his belly while my right one crossed underneath his legs to find a diaper in the depths of the changing table. And I had trouble explaining this and that  way I figured that I needed to change these situations. This is how I got organized and we developed OUR routine. Not mine. Not his. We grew together. (Nadine)

When babies are small they are trying to make sense of the world, like we are trying to make sense of them. Our explanations, our voice, our tone are all soothing and are all important parts of their daily life. And as much as they want to be a part of our lives, we want to be a part of theirs. If we communicate with babies, it is important to try and talk about things that are relevant to them at that moment – remember babies live in the here and now.

So how can we build this sensitive, respectful way of communicating?

  • Talk during care moments: it creates a unique atmosphere and might turn a mundane task into a wonderful dialogue involving words and bodies. Be slow and patient. Inform your baby of what is about to happen or what you are about to do. Imagine yourself in that position for a moment – that you are fully dependant on someone else, that you are in their care. Imagine even that they are speaking a language you don’t understand. Wouldn’t it be more comfortable for you if they tried communicating with you nonetheless? If they informed you before taking your clothes off, or putting them on? Before touching you?
  • Wait for a response. Don’t expect one, but just give time. Stay close. After a question or sentence – stop. Watch the response. If there is one – narrate it: „Oh I see you are really upset. You must be very uncomfortable. I‘ll change you right away.“ But it‘s not always about getting a response – it‘s about having the opportunity to give one. Or not. This time is not only important for a response to happen, but for the baby to process what you have signalled – remember it takes them much more time to process information, even when they are slightly older (http://networkedblogs.com/zXFvE) . Allow it if you can. And if you are in a hurry – acknowledge that you cannot give him time right now, but next time you will.
  • Allow the dialogue to happen. When you start communicating in this way – talking about things that are directly relevant to the baby and giving time for a response (or time to process) – your baby is learning what the words you are using mean, but also turn-taking (http://www.janetlansbury.com/2011/03/10-secrets-to-raising-good-listeners/) . She is learning about communication with another person, and is learning to listen to you and to talk to you. She knows this already from birth – studies have shown that humans are the only mammals that suck in a rhythmical way, and that this rhythm is created by the mothers and babies together while feeding. This is the first sign of communication.
  • Check what your baby is interested in and talk about it. It might be her foot, the sun (or rain) outside, it might be something you did that has drawn her attention. She wants to know the world, and you have the power to explain it to her! Isn’t that magical? When you do that, your baby is getting a very powerful (and empowering) message: You are important to me, so whatever is important to you is important to me as well.
  • Talk to babies directly, not over their heads or about them as if they were not there – even though it’s a common culturally accepted practice, it is not kind or respectful. Practice that from the very beginning and it will become easier over time. Also very young babies listen, even when we are talking to others and not to them – you would not talk about your husband, wife, or friend that way, and probably would not like if someone did that to you. They might seem focused in their play, but their ears might be with us. Remeber too, that your baby is not only learning words and their meaning, but also the power they have.
  • Say what you want to say, not less but not more. Don’t let communication become background noise. Babies have a lot to process, they are interested in the world, but it is all new and difficult for them. Talk about things that are relevant, not about everything and all the time. When you do this, it is hard for the baby to follow, and eventually she might tune you out. Your voice is important. Keep it that way.
  • Be authentic. Be yourself. When your child is asking for you for the 7th time and you are tired and exhausted – don‘t be all happy and pretend that‘s ok. It‘s not. You need sleep too and there is a way between being falsely happy and madly angry. Just let her know you are tired. When you are sad or in a bad mood- that‘s ok. Children have a fine sense for emotions. They feel how you feel sometimes before you do. So if you then speak to her in a pretend happy voice she will get well confused. And might demand you a little more. Because she really wants to know what is going on with you. Right now. In being honest she will not only understand you better – she will also be able to put her own emotions into words some day. And on top of that – she will feel trusted because you are open and clear. Another big stone in the foundation of a mutually respectful relationship.

Good for them, good for us

Although it might feel awkward and strange in the beginning, there are a number of important things you are giving your baby if you communicate with him directly and respectfully from the beginning. But it is also helpful for us as parents – we have found that talking during care moments makes us slow down and focus more than without talking. It makes us be fully there for our babies, giving them the undivided attention (http://www.magdagerber.org/vol-i-no-2-spring-1980.html) that will later allow them to play freely.

Especially during routine situations (bathing, dressing, changing diapers) talking to our babies allowed us to focus on what we were doing and really see our sons and their first attempts at communication. During those familiar moments it is easy to tune out and do things automatically – talking to our babies helps us be fully there.

Have you found it easy or difficult to talk to your infant directly? Have you noticed their attempts to communicate or answer before the words came?

We would love to hear your thoughts!

A fresh look at play

This post is a continuation of our musings and reflections on play. Last time we talked about the importance of uninterrupted play for the age of 0-3 months, and about when and how play happens. The information in that article we believe to be of importance for all age groups. But there are things that change, things that shift and develop as the babies grow. Have a look at our previous post to see what we mean by play in this very early age, and continue on reading to see what play can look like in infants 3-6 months old.

“Play is the highest form of research” (Albert Einstein).

If we understand play not as the action itself, but an approach to action, and if we consider it to be research, the important think to ask ourselves at any given moment is this: What is my child researching at the moment?

To understand this we need to observe. There is no other way to understand the researcher at work, but to observe his actions, try and see his thought process, and not let ourselves interrupt. ‘A journey of observation must leave as much as possible to chance’ (Tahir Shah). To be able to really observe we should put our expectations aside, and rather than guessing what is going on, we should simply let the things unfold in front of our eyes.

Try not to anticipate, expect, suggest. It’s hard. It’s hard to just look, without expectation or judgment. But it is also incredibly rewarding for us as parents to know that we, too, can grow and learn in this experience – we can learn to really look. And by learning to look at the child, by allowing ourselves to be challenged, we too can again experience what our child is experiencing every day: the challenge of discovering and learning something new. As our child is learning new skills, we are learning the skill of observation. And we can maybe begin to understand that the only way we can truly learn this new skill is by trial and error, by allowing ourselves to fail and allowing ourselves to sometimes take a step back into our comfort zone without anybody pushing us to keep going, by learning about our limits, and by learning how to push those limits by ourselves. The wonderful thing about this learning experience is that the child is a patient teacher.

One trick to the way of observing a child we are talking about here this is admitting to ourselves that more often than not we don’t know what he is working on (http://www.janetlansbury.com/2012/07/the-infant-need-experts-dont-talk-about/), so it might be futile (or even sometimes disturbing) to offer our help or a solution. Is he reaching for that toy or is he stretching his arm? Is she trying to turn to her belly, or is she practicing rocking from back to side? Does he want to sit up, or is he working on the balance? Since there is no way we can know this, rather than help our child practicing whatever he is working on right now, let’s focus on practicing our own skill of sensitive observation.

Coming back to play and research the 3-6 month old children are busy with, some things we might expect are these:

Play as…

… movement

“Nothing is more revealing than movement” (Martha Graham)

The 3-6 month-olds are not mobile yet in that they do not crawl or walk (though whoever thinks that babies on their backs are immobile should look carefully). A lot of smaller movement happens around this age: turning from back to tummy (and sometime later, turning from tummy to back), working on the side-lying position, balancing on the side with the use of arms and legs.  You will see a lot of stretching and trying to understand how to change positions, and how to get back to the original position.

The amazing thing you will notice is that it is movement itself that is the motivation, not getting to a certain goal or reaching for something. This is the development of intrinsic, self-directed motivation that, if not interrupted, will serve your child for life. Playing with small, and later also bigger movements, is the challenge, this is the game for babies this age. Allowing the child to move freely helps him develop the awareness of his body, its position in space, but also at the same time allows him to regulate his own strength – he knows best when to stop, when to rest, when it’s been enough. Be sensitive to these signs, but don’t anticipate or guess them in advance. Observe your child’s “dialogue with gravity” (Anna Tardos) in action.

… experiment and discovery

“It is in playing, and only in playing, that the individual child or adult is able to be creative and to use the whole personality, and it is only in being creative that the individual discovers the self”  (D.W. Winnicott)

If we allow the child to freely experiment, we will see the amazing discoveries taking place all the time. This is the time, when the infant slowly begins to discover his hands. Mobiles hanging above his crib, or too many toys places around him might distract him from this important step in development. For now there is no need for too many objects – the body needs to be discovered first, before it can be used to play with toys. This is the time when babies get familiar with their bodies, they discover their arms and legs and experiment with what can be done with those.

You may see first the uncertain wave of the fist in front of their face, and the moment when the fist is in front of their eyes. ‘What is this?’ he seems to be saying. Soon after comes the discovery, that the arms are his and that he can influence how they move – this is very powerful and will occupy him for a while. Only after that is no longer a novelty will he engage more with the objects around. Surely, you need to know yourself first before you can get to know the things outside you 

… learning

So what does all of this have to do with play? We believe, following Teacher Tom, that play is life. That play, learning, discovery – can all be synonyms if we choose to see them that way. But if we want to see our children playing, we need to let them develop in their play, and let them develop the skills that will later help them play, work, live and create. Therefore, once we begin to understand that for our smallest children play is everything, we will be more likely to see it when it happens. Because surely, all parents want their child to play happily…

In these first months of playing with movement the child is beginning not only to learn how to move, but also learn how to learn. With mastering of each new movement he begins to learn how things can be mastered. This process has nothing to do with getting to certain milestones, but rather mastering each small movement to perfection to be able to later use it for other purposes. Like learning alphabet to be able to learn how to read, in a similar way the child is learning about balance (losing and gaining it), gravity, positions of his own body and how to effectively use the body to support him – all those seemingly small steps will later help him learn how to crawl, sit, walk, run and dance.

The more we let him experiment with his own learning, without guessing the next move and helping him get to it faster, the more confident he will be in his dance. But it’s not just that. Failing, falling, trying, playing with loss of balance and gaining it back, playing with his hands and feet to later understand they can be used for holding, catching, walking – all of these are pieces of a puzzle. All of this play he is doing now, will later prepare him for all of the learning that needs to be done along the way. In playing with movement he is learning about how to tackle a challenge, how to deal with failure, how to be proud of his own success. We will see all of this on his face if we choose to quietly observe, giving only as much support as necessary, rather than guiding him through the steps only to make his success ours.

Playing, working, experimenting, learning, discovering… you can see your child do all of this (and more) if you allow yourself to observe without interrupting. Try and let us know your thoughts. How is your baby playing? What is he working on in his play? What is she trying to discover?

We LOVE to hear your thoughts!

Nadine & Anna

How to make PLAY happen

Play is movement. Play is self-regulation, learning. Play is… life. In our last post we talked about looking at play with fresh eyes and figuring out the millions of things we put in one bag, and then call it ‘PLAY’. But for babies 3-6months, as much as play is a natural state of being, there is a need to set up conditions for it to happen. How can we help our babies play freely, and help ourselves enjoy it? Here is what we have learnt so far.

How can we facilitate this play?

A lot happens at this age (wow, this seems to be true for just about every age group once we start thinking about it), and for the child to play he needs certain conditions. Good news is – it’s not that difficult, it does not require specialized equipment, and anybody can do it. So, what do babies need to be able to play freely?

  • Emotional security
  • Care
  • Quiet, peaceful environment where they can play, learn & discover

Since you could probably write a book on the tons of aspects of each of these points, let’s take one step at a time. Today, we will focus on the environment, and specifically – the playpens.

Playpens

Only pictures show me that when I was little I was playing in a little playpen. I obviously can’t remember. What I can remember though is visiting friends of my parents who had a baby when I was about 6 or 7 years old. They had a wooden playpen, rectangular and just the right size for a baby that can’t move around too much yet. I always wanted to climb in it with the baby. In fact – I did. Because I liked the cosyness of it. I liked being away from the adults who bored me. I enjoyed just being in there, watching this little baby. In this small comfortable world of his. (Nadine)

Nowadays most parents think of playpens as of little prisons. Many refuse to buy them because they don’t want to place their little baby behind gates. And we say – it’s a matter of perspective.

A child does not know what a prison is. A child has no negative connotation of the bars around him with being locked. More importantly – if you use the playpen from early on it will become your child’s safe space. So he won’t necessarily feel “locked away“. As in Nadine’s case – he might actually feel safe and secure. Comfortable.

Try and think about it. You have those gates – preferably a few flexible ones to form a safe area that fits into your flat furnishings. Your baby has just been fed and changed. You have given him all your attention and had a wonderful time together. Now you need a coffee, maybe a snack or just a moment for yourself. So you put your baby into this safe play area that has a few toys in it. There is a chair nearby where you can sit down and relax. While your baby explores… well – his own body? The world around?

If something bothers him – you are there. You are not out of reach, not ignoring him. But you don’t have to constantly keep your eyes fixed on him – he is safe, his needs have been met. And he knows that. Because that’s the way it has been for a while now.

How does that sound?

  • But why is a blanket on the floor not enough?

Take a moment and imagine this: You are lying on a mattress in the middle of a football stadium. You can barely make out the walls, everything seems endless. Could you feel safe? Could you focus on a book or any task without having the feeling of looking around, making sure everything is ok? It may sound a bit excessive, but considering the fact that distances are still a bit vague for little children, you might imagine what it feels like to lie in a room with no close borders around.

  • When should I start using a playpen?

In the beginning the baby is usually close to you or in his cot or pram. But as soon as he starts moving around – may it just be rolling onto his side – he needs space to freely do that. The sofa or bed become dangerous because you never know, when he will roll over (and over) fort he first time. With flexible playpens you can build a small one for a start. Then extend it with the baby’s gross motor development.

  • How long should I use the playpen?

When your child starts moving forward you may either extend the playpen even more or take it away. The latest moment to put it aside is when your baby starts walking. This is the time when the whole flat should become safe and secure because stopping your child from entering areas he physically could reach will just be an unnecessary core of frustration. For all of you.

We love to hear your thoughts!

Anna & Nadine