How to Talk to Babies

This guest post was written by my good friend and colleague, Ora Barkan. She's a clinical psychologist with a specialty of working with babies and their parents. You will learn how to talk to babies in a way that makes them feel known and understood. The post was published in Hebrew on a site called Horuta and translated by me.

You are tired. You never thought one can feel so tired. Every morning you wonder how do you manage to get up, take care of your baby, clean the bottles, change the diapers, feed, cuddle, put to sleep. Where do you get the strength? But actually, you don’t feel strong. You’re exhausted. And why does it feel like other moms or dads have it so easy? You feel like a wreck, always on call for crying, poop and other baby mess.

And then, there are moments of magic. You look at her. Your baby. For a moment you see, in her, yourself as a baby. For a moment you see yourself through her smiling eyes. Mommy. Daddy. You are a parent. And she is your baby.

She gets to know herself through you, and you get to know yourself anew through her. What is going through her head right now? You are smiling at one another. She clings to you and you can’t take your eyes off her. She falls asleep in your arms. A little cub. She feels nice. And you feel nice too. Every now and then a little smile spreads her lips, and you know that despite what everyone else may see, this is a good smile. Because now it is good.

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And this routine repeats itself. Day in and day out. Sometimes you feel like Sisyphus, rolling his rock again and again. Sometimes it’s too heavy, this parenting. Sometimes you feel like you were born to it. Sometimes you find it hard to believe that it’s actually your child, and you feel more like an actor in a Hallmark TV movie.

Sometimes you are lonely. Very lonely. Cold, hard loneliness that shoots into the back of your head like angry raindrops on a grey day.

And sometimes you are together. You hug each other. Two that are one. And your heart is warm.

father and baby
Me and my daughter

Does this sound familiar?

These are shreds of experiences, moments that comprise your parenting and the connection that is building between you and your baby. What meaning all these moments have for your baby?

How does your way of caring contribute to his or her development?

How do babies tell us what they need and what their physical and emotional state is, without words?

How can we communicate with babies so that they feel seen and understood?

And why is this so important?

In this post, we will try to answer those questions and shed some light on the enormous meaning your daily activities have for your baby, and yourself.

Nature or Nurture: What Influences Babies’ Development?

While in the past the questions of babies’ development boiled down to what is more powerful – genetics or environment – today we know that the answer is that both are important.

As a matter of fact, babies come to this world with a genetic makeup that defines certain traits, but development to different kinds of personality is dependent on the interaction of the baby with the outside world.

In addition, while in the past the psychology world saw the mother as an object that is there to provide the baby’s need and influences the baby in a unilateral fashion, now we know that the mother and father are influenced as well by the baby, according to their own personality and subjective traits.

“The brain of the newborn, we now know, is not finalized; an essential neurological connection that controls biological rhythms of sleep, feed, action, and relaxation, are built by matches and mismatches, delicate connections between the baby and the caretaker. The baby and the mother share each other reciprocally and create a world for the child to grow in”


(adapted from “Can Love Last?’, by Steven Mitchell)

As the study of baby development moves forward, the picture gets clearer and shows that as soon as after the birth, the baby reacts and communicates with the environment.

As adults, who are accustomed to verbal communication, we may miss the non-verbal communication of the baby, and miss their signals.

Crying, gaze aversion or gaze locking, reaching out a little hand, smiling, rapid movement of the limbs – those are not only symptoms of comfort or discomfort, but also the baby’s way to communicate to us what is going on inside of him.

Mindful Parenting to Catch the Baby Signals

As we observe babies, with an internal willing not to know them in advance, but with an open and honest curiosity about their developing mind, we let ourselves discover them in their own pace.

This is a position that assumes that although the baby is tied to us in a connection that will only grow with time, he or she are also a separate human being, discovering the world and itself.

This position is based on the concept of mentalization, coined by the psychoanalyst Peter Fonagy. Mentalization is the ability to observe the mind of another being with curiosity, and no pre-knowledge.

It is assumed that knowing the needs of the other fully in advance, prevents that individual from showing himself in his own unique way. This position, which is the opposite of mentalization, makes life easier for the anxious parent, who finds it hard to hold the uncertainty. But it puts the baby in a rigid developmental trajectory.

How Does a Curious Parent Help the Baby?

As Joan looks at Noa, her baby, with real curiosity and interest, she wants to know: what’s going on in Noa’s mind right now? How does she feel? What does it mean if she smiles or moves her head away? By having her mother look at her like that, Noa feels thought.

She is thought in the sense that her mother thinks about her and of her. The psychologist Arietta Slade said that “If mom thinks me, I exist”. The meaning of this is that the baby’s self is born from this primordial relationship, where something of him is thought and digested by the parent, and then brought back to him, and like a mirror, giving the baby an opportunity to see himself.

This mirroring is echoing the baby’s inner experience, an experience that he lacks the words to grasp and contain.

baby playing with mother

Photo by Daria Shevtsova

Baby and Parent Moments of Communication – What’s it Look Like?

Noa is five months old. She lays on her back on a soft mattress. Her hand holds a soft toy. She brings it close and puts it away, again and again. Seems she puts it in her mouth, feeling it. She is quiet, concentrated on her movements and the toy.

Her mother, Joan, sits next to her and looks at her quietly. After a couple of times as Noa brings the toy to and away from her, her mother says: “Oh sweety, look at how you bring that teddy bear close to you and then away from you!”

Noa looks at her mom and her eyes almost say “You saw me?”. After a while, the play is less and less directed. Noa throughs the toy away and starts to hum. Joan bends towards Noa, trying to understand what is going on inside her child. Noa moves her arms and legs in a frenzy. She puts her hand in her mouth and over her face. Joan asks “What’s going on Noa? Are you tired of the game?”.

Noa fusses in what sounds like the starting sounds of crying. She looks at her mother and puts her arms towards Joan, her all body inching closer. She brings her hand to her mouth and sucks on it. Joan asks “Are you hungry already? Maybe you are both hungry and tired. I see you are not comfortable, come to me”. Then she picks her up.

This is an example of a dialog in which the mother responds to the signals her daughter gives, in a sensitive and mindful way. She is in no hurry to know Noa’s needs. She checks with her, and by using the signs Noa gives she tracks the caregiving Noa needs.

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The Baby-Parent Communication Strengthens Both Parties

As Noa feels her mother is mindful and interested in her own experience, and respond accordingly, she feels seen and meaningful. She develops a knowing of herself. She knows she can express her needs to the outside world, and that there is someone who receives her signals and does something good with it. This experience strengthens Noa’s trust in the world (and fosters a secure attachment).

But sometimes Noa will have moments of frustration. Those will come because her mother is a separate person, who cannot fully know, understand and give her what she wants.

All of these experiences, as they build together, will create a sense of self-agency that will stay with Noa for the rest of her life, as long as she feels that she can express herself and her needs in a “good enough” way.

As an adult, she will not hesitate to express her needs, or protest when they are not met. But she will also know how to be frustrated without breaking apart. All of this builds on the foundations of these early connections with her parents.

When Noa came to this world, Joan received an important and challenging mission – that of building her identity as a mom. She is probably confused and disoriented at the beginning. She doesn’t always no what Noa wants. And she herself is tired and hurting after giving birth.

As long as she feels that a personal language is created between Noa and her, with their own internal grammar, through which they see and know each other as different entities that are also connected – she could gather more meaning from her motherhood and her part in Noa’s life: being an anchor in a world of internal and external sensations.

The psychoanalyst Jessica Benjamin wrote about the importance of mutual recognition in the primary connects:

“What makes the mother from moment to moment is the relationship she creates with her baby, the satisfaction she feels when that baby, with all its force, responds to her… the process of recognition… always contains a paradoxical mix of otherness and togetherness: you belong to me but you are no longer a part of me. The please I derive from your existence must include both my connection to you and your own separate existence – I acknowledge your realness”.


(Adapted from The Bonds of Love, by Jessica Benjamin)

Warning Signs in The Initial Connection

When the parents’ ability to mindfully see the baby is hurt for some reason, the baby can find itself in a chaotic experience of having an experience and sensations with no meaning.

As it is the early stages of infancy, the baby doesn’t have the ability to explain to himself what’s going on. He needs the parent to do that for him, mediating the inner and external experience

When the parent is unable to do so, the baby is stuck in a kind of vacuum. This can happen, for example, if the primary caregiver has postpartum depression.

In this instance, the caretaker may handle the basic job of caring such as feeding, diaper changing etc, but the eyes that look at the baby will be empty. The parent will have a hard time seeing and adoring the baby or mirroring the baby.

Another problem can happen when the parent is depressed and feels guilty for it. Then he or she may avert their gaze from the baby to escape those feelings. The baby in this situation is left without a looking parent, and the parent is left alone with his or her pain.


Photo by Kat Jayne

Other situations, such as traumatic birth or trauma for the baby after the birth, may leave the parent in a hyper-vigilant stance, in which he or she may find it hard to be mindfully open to the baby’s signals. Simple light signals may be misinterpreted or unrecognized if the parent is haunted with scary experiences from the past.

Longitudinal studies show that when the initial connection is hurt, other developmental issues may arise in the motoric, cognitive and emotional development of the baby.

Moreover, studies show that babies who spent the first six months of their life with a depressed parent, and with no or little outside support, will be at a higher risk to develop depression and anxiety through their life.

And how will the parent feel if the connection is broken? They might feel guilty, inadequate and generally feel like a bad parent.

Conclusion

The priory, initial connection between a baby and a parent is important for the development of the baby and also for the parent who creates his or her identity as a meaningful parent.

Investing in this connection goes a long, long way, and bring sweet fruits to those who are involved. If there’s a fear of hurting the connection, you should consult a mental health professional who is experienced in baby’s development. When therapy starts earlier, it has a better chance of success.

So Sisyphus or not, it is worth making the effort to stop for a moment while climbing the mountain. Observe the rock and observe the forces that enable you to carry it up the hill. And try to see what can help you roll it more smoothly. Then, roll with it to new heights of joy.

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