Your baby will thrive on getting lots of physical contact, attention and care from you. Respond in a way that is sensitive and appropriate to your baby’s gestures and sounds. They do best if they feel that someone is emotionally ‘tuned in’ to them and understands them. It helps your baby feel safe and secure in the world. It enables you to help your baby organise and manage their feelings.
Example: Your baby is tired, becomes worked up, and is unable to sleep.
In order to understand what your baby is experiencing you should think about what it must feel like from the baby’s point of view:
- How would you feel?
- What would you want?
- What could be helpful?
You recognise that your baby is overtired so you take charge to help them to calm down. This sets the stage for going to sleep.
Let your baby know that you understand his feelings by mirroring back these feelings and intentions. Change your expression and use an empathic (feeling) voice to reflect your baby’s saddened feelings.
“Oh! What’s the matter? Don’t worry!”
“Oh you’re tired now, come on let’s go for a little walk around the garden while you calm down a bit.”
The way that you look at and hold your baby – and the look on your face – all convey to your baby that you understand and can help.
Reading your baby’s behavioural cues
Reading baby’s cues is a basic parenting skill that helps in your interactions and communication with your baby. This happens as you first get to know your baby and it is something that you need to keep on doing as your baby matures. Babies change the ways they communicate over time. When they are very young they cry, wriggle, and pull their legs up, but by the time they get a little older the variety of their behaviour increases.
- Learn to understand your baby’s likes, dislikes and needs by tuning into different types of crying. If you listen carefully, you will discover they cry differently when hungry (loud and insistent), tired (mumble, grizzle, cry), anxious, distressed and insecure (intense scream).
- Get to know your baby’s other signals. Yawning may mean they are overstimulated. Hiccupping may mean they are full or agitated.
- Try to observe what comforts your baby. Keep a list of what works since it can be helpful for when you feel stuck or if someone else is looking after your baby for a little while.
There are three factors that can help you understand the meaning of your child’s behaviour. They are like the pieces of a puzzle that you have to put together:
- What’s going on in your baby’s world.
- Your baby’s age and stage of development.
- Your baby’s temperament.
Personal style or temperament
Remember, your baby’s temperament is not something they chose or that you created. It is something they were born with. It affects the way they experience the world. As you think about your child’s temperament, remember, there is no good or bad or right or wrong way for a child to be.
But let’s face it; some temperaments are more of a challenge. Some babies are more difficult to soothe and others are more placid. It takes a lot of energy and patience to be the parent of a child who is very intense and has big reactions to what is going on around them.
Babies differ on how strongly they react to things, how busy or active they are, how easily frustrated they become when they have to wait for something they want. Babies also differ in the way they react to new people or changes in their routine or environment.
Your baby’s differences are part of the little person they are. Of course, mothers and fathers have their own temperaments, too! Some parents will be more easy-going, others will be highly-strung, intense or maybe more easily frustrated. As adults, people have usually learnt to play down some of their own traits in order to have harmony in their relationships.
Some parents will have an easy fit with their baby; others will have to change the way they react in order to fit with their baby. Consider whether you have an “easy fit” between your baby’s temperament and your own. What about your partner?
Communication with baby
What happens between you and your baby when you “talk” together? Interactions have been likened to a dance where each takes turns, are “tuned in” to each other, and occasionally you move together. At other times you know it is time to stop and “pause” from the dance.
A typical conversation with your baby might flow like this:
- baby smiles
- you look, smile and coo
- baby looks at you then coos
- your voice and face become more animated
- baby becomes increasingly excited and moves all his limbs
- baby tires and starts to look away
- you decrease your activities and wait for a signal that baby is ready to start again
- you may still smile and look at him to create a readiness for more play
Ways to improve interaction with baby
- Bring fun into your games
- Touch your baby
- Wait expectantly for your baby to be ready
- Learn your baby’s preferences
- Adjust stimulation to your baby’s needs at the time
- Reduce distractions when you are playing
What your baby needs from you
Babies need you to provide a secure and nurturing environment in which they can grow and thrive.. Be the type of parent who strives to understand their baby and be consistent in providing help and guidance in a kind and comforting way: strive to be a strong reliable presence who is wise and kind. Whenever possible follow your baby’s needs. Whenever necessary take charge.
Let’s return to the example of the child who is grizzly and demanding because he is overtired. What does their behaviour mean? It means “I need you,” or, “I don’t know what to do with how I’m feeling.” What does baby need you to do? He needs you to be calm and kind, to take charge, and to stay with him until he can cope better with feelings that seem too much for him. You can help him return to what he was doing with a new option (for example, maybe he needs to have a nap).
Learning through play
Play for your baby is touching, tasting, looking, and listening. Play is essential for mental and emotional growth. Through play, babies learn about themselves and the world. Play helps the brain to develop and sets the stage for successful social interaction. When babies are contented and alert, they are most ready and able to engage in interaction and play. A good time is after being fed and before going back to sleep (daytime only). You have probably heard of the Feed, Play, Sleep cycle.
The play sessions will start out small and grow as your baby grows. Playing starts with looking at things and listening to the world around them, and it progresses to touch and taste. Try singing songs or humming to your baby, let them explore natural objects (keeping safety in mind, as soon as babies can hold an object, it will go directly into their mouths), and you can even read to them. They will love the closeness you have when you share a book, the sound of your voice and the interaction you have about the pictures and story no matter what age they are. Playtimes help your baby to explore and learn about the world around them.
Playing with a toddler will involve more language and physical activity as their skills develop.
So much of caring for a new baby feels like one more thing you HAVE to do. Setting some time aside to play with your baby may become a pleasant activity which you can schedule into your day. You just may find you look forward to playing with your baby when opportunity arises, resulting in a spirit lifting win for you both.
Dad’s play strategies
Mother-baby play and father-baby play are different. So don’t worry if what you do is different to your partner. Each has its own important part to play in baby’s development.
Fathers play is likely to be physical which arouses the child, is exciting and often spontaneous.
Mothers often are more verbal, more modulated and play games like peek-a-boo and show baby toys and encouraging interest by moving them and talking about the things in baby’s world.
Here are some suggestions to help you develop and strengthen your bond with your young baby and to help you learn to understand them:
- Observe your baby closely and notice as much as you can about them, their unique way of being and rhythms of alertness and activity. Notice how they change each day.
- Try to imagine how your baby might feel and how they might experience the world. Empathy helps you work out what to do to make them comfortable.
- When settling, try to communicate to your baby that you understand their distress.
- Interact with your baby when they are in a state of quiet alertness by cuddling, gazing and talking to them, making faces and different noises. Try to imitate their facial expressions and noises. Pause and watch their responses. When they look away, pause and wait for them to look back.
- Take your baby for a walk in the pram so they can see and hear different things.
- A gentle massage often helps baby relax.
- Provide interesting things to look at and noises to listen to, such as mobiles, a tree outside, music and nature sounds.
- Where possible, include your baby in your daily activities and talk to them as you go about your day. This helps them feel connected and assists with their language development.
All parents reach a point when they are not sure about what to do so don’t stress about it. Follow your child’s lead, what are they interested in looking at or playing with? Being with your baby is what they want, not necessarily what you do or how you play.
Accepting “good enough”
You can’t always know what your baby wants, it takes trial and error. As long as you get it right more often than not and provide a consistent flow of warm, responsive, reliable nurturing – that is what your baby needs. If you are consistent and devoted in your care giving, your parenting will be ‘good enough’ for your baby. There is no such thing as a ‘perfect’ parent. Responding when your baby is distressed and staying with them until you find a solution is providing a ‘good enough’ experience for them. Encouraging them to explore their environment and being there for them when they need you is what they need. We all do it in our own way, relax and enjoy!