I know… The mere suggestion that we not pick up a crying baby sounds callous, even criminal to some. No doubt, soothing a crying baby is a healthy instinct that can never be wrong, but since crying is communication — one of the few ways preverbal children can express a wide array of thoughts and feelings -– shouldn’t we first observe and listen, however briefly, so we might discern what our baby is really saying?
This assumes, of course, that we believe babies are capable communication “partners” and want to encourage that partnership. It assumes we are aware that even the youngest infants are able to connect with us person-to-person, mind-to-mind, heart-to-heart, feel our support and receive our empathetic responses. It also assumes that babies are whole people who (just like us) ultimately feel calmer, more confident, connected, more themselves with people who “get” them, rather than those well-meaning adults who preempt listening with an immediate reaction.
Michael and his mom provided an enlightening demonstration during a recent RIE Parent/Infant Guidance Class:
If Michael had wanted to be picked up, he would have let his mom know. In previous instances, Michael’s mom picked him up right away, and we noticed that he would almost immediately lean toward the floor and indicate his wish to go back down and continue playing. Since Michael is able to scoot across the floor, he can clearly indicate his wishes to separate from his mom to explore and can also autonomously return to his “secure base”.
If his mom was unsure whether or not she should pick him up, she might simply ask, “Do you want me to pick you up?” When parents practice this kind of communication, babies learn to indicate “yes” (or their crying escalates, which usually also means “yes”). “Okay, I’m going to pick you up.”
After viewing the video, it seems to me that Michael was expressing stranger anxiety. A father had arrived who hadn’t attended this class before, and his presence seemed to instigate Michael’s reaction. Michael then needed to check in with his mom and tell her about it.
Learning to communicate with our babies is a process that takes time, patience and restraint. It’s much easier to swoop down and scoop up the baby, but when that is our default response we miss opportunities to deepen our connection and convey affirming, confidence-building messages like these:
- I trust you to tell me what you need.
- I want to hear what you have to say.
- I won’t wither or panic when you cry.
- You are capable of handling this situation with my support.
- I am paying attention.
- I want to understand.
- I want to know you.
Michael’s mom and I are learning that he is a gifted communicator. He vocalizes thoughts and feelings readily. Babies like Michael, especially, need parents who can calm themselves and patiently listen rather than reacting as if everything they express through crying is a crisis or immediate call to action. These children are a blessing, because you never need to doubt that they will tell you what’s going on.
I predict many more of these lively and earnest mother and son conversations in Michael’s future.
“It seems so much easier to do something about crying: to pick up, move around, take for a ride, pat, bounce. When the baby cries, the first step is to try to determine why he cries, rather than to try to stop the crying. When you have eliminated hunger and the other standard discomforts and the baby is still crying, that is the time to tolerate crying, even to respect the infant’s right to cry. You might want to say, “I am here to help you, but I do not know what you need. Try to tell me.” If that is what you feel, share it; this is the beginning of communication.” – Magda Gerber