Years ago, I had a major awakening. It hit me that my three month old baby was an actual person. I had brought her to a RIE parenting class and was asked to place her on her back on a blanket next to me, where she lay for two hours — peaceful, alert, engaged, and self-contained. She didn’t make a sound, but I felt the power of her presence, a self-assuredness that at age 17 still knocks my socks off.
If you had asked me before that day whether I respected her, I would have quickly answered “Yes, of course!” But I would have been lying (misunderstanding the question, anyway). What I observed in that parenting class for the first time was not just my baby — it was a whole person with her own mind, a mind I wanted to become intimately acquainted with, and human needs no different than mine or yours. Maybe other parents figure this out right away, but I didn’t.
Without that moment of clarity, I’m not sure when I would have seen beyond the needy infant to the person — possibly when she began walking, saying recognizable words, or at least communicating to me by pointing or gesturing. Intellectually, I knew she was all there, but not to the extent that I would think to put myself in her shoes (or booties) and treat her the way I would wish to be treated.
One of the most profound lessons I’ve learned since becoming a mom– reinforced by observing hundreds of other parents and babies interact — is that there is a self-fulfilling prophecy to the way we view our babies. If we believe them to be helpless, needy (albeit lovely) creatures, their behavior will confirm those beliefs. Alternatively, if we see our infants as capable, intelligent, responsive people ready to participate in life, initiate activity, receive and return our efforts to communicate with them, then we find that they are all of those things.
I am not suggesting that we treat infants as small adults. They need a baby’s life, but they deserve the same level of human respect that we give to adults. Here are some examples of baby care that reflect the way I like to be treated:
Tell me what’s going on. If I had a stroke that made me as dependent as an infant (I couldn’t take care of my own needs or express myself), I would hope to be warned before I was being touched, lifted, fed, sponged, rinsed, dressed, given a shot, etc. I would want to know everything that was going on in my immediate world, especially if it directly related to my body. I would want to be invited to participate to the extent I was capable (i.e., given an opportunity to hold the spoon myself.)
At first it feels awkward talking to someone who does not talk back, but we quickly get used to it. Babies begin to understand our respectful intention to include them much earlier than we might believe. And they communicate earlier if we open the door.
Give me attention. Babies need undivided attention from loved ones, just like you and I do, especially when we are joined physically (as in breastfeeding.) Several minutes of real attention in intervals each day is more fulfilling than hours and hours of empty physical contact. Stuck sitting in the car next to my husband while he talks on the phone for an extended period of time makes me feel invisible, not important, loved or appreciated.
When someone touches me, especially when it’s intimate (as in a baby’s doctor’s appointment, bath or diaper change), I want to be included in what is going on, encouraged to pay attention, not asked to look elsewhere and ignore what’s happening.
Hear me, don’t just fix me. Relationship counselors teach it, and it applies to our babies too. I want my feelings heard, not fixed. Please don’t ‘shush’ and pacify all my cries, sticking something in my mouth just to stop my tears. I want to be able to try to tell you what I need, before you assume it. Sometimes I just want to cry in your arms and have it be okay with you. Relax. It feels comforting to have you here, calmly listening and trying to understand.
Let me create and initiate my own activities. I like tagging along on adventures with the people I love sometimes, but I also crave time to initiate activity that I choose. Give me a quiet, safe place where I am not hemmed in, so I can move my body and have uninterrupted thoughts and daydreams. I need time to figure out the way my marvelous hands work, and why there are things like breezes that I feel but cannot see. What I’m doing may not look like much, but I’m actually very busy. (And when I am deeply involved in something, please don’t interrupt me to change my diaper.)
I love knowing that you are nearby in case I need you, or within shouting distance, but please don’t get me in the habit of following you all the time when there is so much I could be experiencing for myself. Notice the things I like to do. Let me show you the interesting person I am.
Trust me with the truth. You don’t have to smile at me when you’re upset. Be honest with me. Be yourself, so that I can be myself, too. We have lots to learn about each other. It won’t always be perfect together, but it will be real. And when you are worrying and projecting about the future, I’ll tug you back into the moment. Promise.
I share more in Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting