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!