Baby Speak

Infants are born with hopes and expectations. Their need to be loved, nurtured and safe are innate and they can intuitively sense when their essential needs for love and security are being met or not being met. While these set of expectations lie at an unconscious level, the baby hopes her cries will be heard, that she will be fed when hungry, allowed sleep when needed, that her gaze will be lovingly returned and smiles reciprocated.

Consistency in meeting needs leads to the infant developing a deep sense of trust in the parent and in others. Inconsistency leads to mistrust and either a withdrawing from contact or an aggressive railing at the world of people who have let her down. Effective parenting in these early years is critical to the child’s present and future wellbeing. Thankfully, there is help at hand. A wonderful book, ‘Your Baby is Speaking to You’, (Nugent, 2011) for parents – and not just parents – is a book of 45 black and white photographs of infants communicating during the first astonishing days of life and the months beyond. The author, Dr. Kevin Nugent Ph.D. is director of Brazelton Institute at Children’s Hospital, Boston where he has studied newborn babies and early parent-child relationships for over thirty years. Dr. Nugent reveals that his interest in the mother-baby relationship arose from an experience in his own childhood and it was on encountering his own first one-day old baby as a young doctor that the buried memory of that past time when he, at eleven years of age, had cared for his own baby brother after their mother died.

At many seminars I have given on parenting I have asked the question: what draws your heart to the baby? The most common response is ‘his or her helplessness’, and not the one I was hoping to hear – the baby’s unique presence. Babies and children need to be loved for themselves and any confusion of their individual self with a behaviour is very threatening to the child’s wellbeing. As regards the confusion of the baby with helplessness, I can assure you that babies are not at all helpless and that they are very powerful at directing parents to meet their needs. Certainly, infants are dependent on parents to provide unconditional love and to gradually empower them (age appropriate) to meet their own needs so that later on they can fly the nest as independent young adults. Lao Tzu puts this well:

                  “Be parent, not possessor,

                  Attendant, not Master,

                  Be concerned not with obedience but with benefit

                  And you are at the core of living.

                  If I keep from imposing on people, they become themselves.”

Dr. Nugent’s book beautifully illustrates the amazing communication strategies newborn babies possess. It is important that parents are tuned into the infant’s communication so that they can best meet the child’s emerging needs. Interestingly, the word ‘infant’ comes from the Latin infans, meaning unable to speak. In many ways the word does an injustice to infants because, as Dr. Nugent points out, they do have a wide range of ‘stunningly’ precocious communication strategies. Infants, toddlers, children, teenagers, adults never cease to communicate for those who have the eye to see, the touch to feel and the ears to hear. The most powerful and accurate barometer of a state of wellbeing is non-verbal communication – across all age groups.

In the photographs presented in the book, Dr. Nugent describes what the infant is communicating in:

  • Deep sleep
  • Light sleep
  • The full cry
  • Fussing (low-pitched, less intense form of crying)
  • The search response
  • Feeding (whether breast or bottle-fed)
  • The fencer response (a self-organising and self-consoling device)
  • Hand to mouth response
  • The sleep smile
  • Grasping adult’s finger
  • Pre-reaching
  • The smile of discovery
  • Crawling
  • Crossing feet
  • Yawning
  • Responding to sounds
  • Visual exploration
  • Touch
  • Cuddliness
  • Startles
  • Drowsiness
  • Signs of distress
  • Soothability
  • Eye contact
  • Feeding and communicating
  • The power of the parent’s voice
  • Irritation
  • Baby learning simply by watching
  • The social smile
  • Reaching out
  • Exploring
  • Learning to love

I like the inclusion of how a parent needs to respond to the not very cuddly baby, to the not easily settled baby and to recognise when the baby is being over-stimulated. Parents need to be alert that too much excitement can overwhelm and exhaust a baby and compromise her ability to maintain periods of social availability.

Given that the newborn period and the first months of life are a time of amazing development for the baby and her parent, Dr. Nugent’s book is an invaluable resource to have for the very sensitive and far-reaching matter of the relationship between infant and parent.

Dr. Tony Humphreys is a clinical psychologist, author, national and international speaker. His book ‘Self-Esteem, the Key to Your Child’s Future’ is relevant to this article.