Before Your Baby Smiles

“Oh, look, he’s walking! He’s a little person now!”

We’ve all heard these comments about infants and toddlers and have probably made them ourselves. So, that begs the question: at what age do babies morph into little people? It’s admittedly hard to believe that a tiny newborn is a fully aware, whole person. Could a brand new baby, only able to communicate by crying and eye contact, be as “present” as you or I? The answer is yes, and new research proves it.

Then why does infant specialist Magda Gerber’s advice to welcome a newborn with the respect we would give an “honored guest” still sound a little bizarre to most of us? Why is it that even if we believe infants are whole people, we don’t follow Magda’s direction to tell babies each and every thing we will do with their tiny bodies before doing it (“I’m going to pick you up now”)?

For one, perceiving the conscious person from the beginning is inconvenient. Caring for an infant’s physical needs is difficult and exhausting enough without having to consider his emotional and interpersonal ones, too. It’s easier to believe that an infant can’t feel ignored or insignificant while we’re focused on our computer screen, or engaged in a conversation with a friend while he is breastfeeding. We don’t want to waste our breath speaking to someone for whom it might seem to make no difference. This isn’t selfish. It’s human, especially since we feel taxed and overextended already. And let’s face it, believing our baby is ready to truly engage in a relationship with us before he can even smile takes a giant leap of faith. It makes sense to postpone that perception.

But the truth is, infants are ready to engage with us person to person long before they can respond, eagerly waiting for our relationship to begin. In fact, since we are our infant’s life, he or she can’t really enter the world in a meaningful way without our invitation to participate, our inclusion.

Does it really matter if we don’t acknowledge our babies as full-fledged people from the beginning? Consider this…

Formative Beginnings

Dr Kevin Nugent, a Boston-based psychologist and newborn infant specialist who has developed a system of “decoding” newborn babies’ behavior notes, “By the time your baby speaks his first word, a lot of water has gone under the bridge. The possibilities for relationship-building are still there of course, but it is in the first few months that the most formative part of the relationship is consolidated.” (Read more about Dr. Nugent and his fascinating new book, Your Baby Is Speaking To You: A Visual Guide to the Amazing Behaviors of Your Newborn and Growing Baby here at Lisa Sunbury’s site Regarding Baby)

Image of the Child

Loris Malaguzzi, the founder of the Reggio Emilia approach, explains in a recent edition of the Childcare Exchange, “There are hundreds of different images of the child. Each one of you has inside yourself an image of the child that directs you as you begin to relate to a child. This theory within you pushes you to behave in certain ways…”

In other words, the way we view our newborn baby affects the way we relate to her. We can alter our original image of a child once she is smiling, walking, talking, reading, going to school, driving a car, but it’s harder to shift gears once the patterns of interaction between us have been set.

Acting ‘as if’ and self-fulfilling prophecies

Preverbal children are ripe for our projections. So I recommend rather than relying on our fallback instinct that “seeing is believing”, believe first and then see. Since this will be one of the most precious and profound relationships we’ll ever have, it’s certainly worth the leap.

Then, once we begin acting as if our babies are sentient, capable beings, they can show us the truth…even before their smile.

Janet Lansbury



4 Responses to “Before Your Baby Smiles”

  1. Debra Judd-Ehrhardt says:

    My twin sons were born seven weeks premature. It takes premies a while to begin to respond the way a full term baby would. I talked to them constantly and sang songs to them. I was fortunate to be working with a wonderful infant ICU staff who supported me with the knowledge that my little guys may not be responding outwardly right away, but in time would be. I just needed to keep interacting with them although it was one-sided for a few months. How wonderful it was when the smile reached their eyes and they were finally developed enough to respond to me. I remember taking them into an early pediatric exam once I got them home from ICU. The doctor treated the boys like little lumps of meat or rag dolls. I was furious! I changed doctors to one who was more caring. Thank you for this article help other parents realize that same thing - whether premies or full term little ones.

  2. [...] with new eyes,” and consider what it means to treat a baby with respect. Her suggestion to treat a baby with the same respect we’d treat an “honored guest”  is still not  widely understood or practiced by [...]

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