In this episode: A mother wonders when and how to react to her baby’s sounds of frustration, whether she should intervene in her child’s self-directed play sessions or observe from a distance. “I don’t want her to be her savior,” she writes, “but I don’t want her to feel unsupported either.”
Transcript of “How to Listen to Your Baby”
Hi. This is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled. Today, I’m going to be responding to a question from a parent who says her six month old seems to make sounds of frustration all day long when she’s involved in self-directed play. And this mom is wondering how, when, or if she should be stepping in.
Here’s the email I received:
“Hi Janet. Thank you for your work. It benefits me and my little one every day. She is six months old and has begun making sounds of frustration, seemingly almost all day. I interpret it as her being bored or frustrated with her toys. I’m a little unsure of how often to step in to her self-directed play sessions when she does this, to offer either social support, pass her a different toy, or change her body position from front to back. Do I allow the groaning to continue, take her for a walk, or observe from a distance without interference as much as possible? I don’t want to be her savior, but I don’t want her to feel unsupported either. Your advice will be appreciate. Thanks, Janet.”
Okay, so this is all very fresh in my mind right now, because I have a new young infant group that I’m working with. It’s been a while since I’ve had an infant group, so it’s really nice to revisit all the issues that happen. And what I notice there, and elsewhere in my communications with parents around children this age, is that they’re getting a little stuck looking for strategies to address the child’s communication, which is what groaning is, or anything that an infant does. Any sound an infant makes is potentially communication, and there are several common reasons that babies make sounds of frustration.
One, they might be tired. Two, they might be teething. This is a time for teething, unfortunately. It’s this cruel thing that happens, I think, to babies, when they’re just kind of getting settled in their routine, and getting comfortable with some of the internal processes that are developing. Then, this teething thing happens, and some children really suffer from it for a long time.
Another reason is that children are developing motor skills, and they’re straining, and they’re expressing exertion around that, which obviously is very healthy. Often, the children that seem to vocalize a lot at this age are children who will end up being communicators. They might start talking early. They’re sharing. They’re sharing everything that’s going on with them, and it’s really important to know that, yes, some of this is uncomfortable, but it’s not the sound of an emergency.
So all of that said, because this is communication, we have to respond. We want to encourage communication. Communication is what’s going to help us not only connect with our child, but understand their experience, understand what’s going on with them. So, every time our child utters something like this, and seems to be looking toward us for help, we’ve got to respond. And I would say even if it sounds like an expression of exertion or something, that even if our child isn’t looking at us, then I would acknowledge, “I hear you. You’re working very hard, it sounds like,” or, “You sound uncomfortable.”
There are also things that babies don’t complain about, generally. A big misconception is that babies get bored. If we think about what it’s like to be a baby, psychologist and researcher, Alison Gopnik, described it as they’re having a double espresso in Paris, and they’re in love. It’s all brand new. It’s all exciting. There’s nothing in an infant’s experience that could be boring.
So if we respond to the complaints our baby has as if this is boredom, we’re going to be changing things up for them, trying to fix them, trying to make it better, which in fact can end up being overstimulating, and that’s another common reason that babies have feelings. They get very easily overstimulated, and that’s very tiring for them, and uncomfortable for them. If we perceive boredom, we’re likely going to overstimulate, and waste a lot of our energy trying to fix something that actually wasn’t the issue.
I know this is controversial, because I have a post on my website called The Myth of Baby Boredom, and some outside groups have made great fun of this idea that babies don’t get bored. They sent a lot of traffic to my article, laughing about how ridiculous it was. But how could a baby get bored when everything is brand new, and everything is intense, and colorful, and vibrant, and every little angle of things is interesting to them? It’s like a banquet of sensory delights. Babies don’t get bored. They get tired. They get tired very, very easily.
So let’s talk about this mother’s specific questions. How often to step in to her self-directed play sessions when she does this. I’m not sure if this mother’s talking about when she’s not sitting with her baby during self-directed play. Perhaps, but let’s go over it both ways.
So the first way is we’re sitting there, having what Magda Gerber called “Wants nothing quality time” with our baby, where we’re just emptying our mind. We’re being present. Our body’s relaxed. We’re not trying to engage. We’re not trying to entertain. We’re not coming from a place of worry in these moments, ideally. We’re just there. We want to see and we want to hear what’s going on.
It takes practice, but it really is the key to enjoying parenting, understanding our children, making a lot of things clearer. And infants feel this attention that we give them. They’re feeling that energy. They’re sensing that we just like to be with them, and that whatever they do or are not doing is enough. We are interested in them, as-is.
So, let’s say we’re doing that. She’s happy for a bit, and then she groans. She sounds uncomfortable. We’re not sure what’s going on. What we don’t want to do is wait it out or ignore this communication, so right away, I would respond as if another person has said something. This other person is not able to express in words, so it’s harder to understand, but we take that in. “I heard that. I wonder what’s going on with you.” We stay calm. We stay open. We stay observant. We don’t feel like we have to do something, besides communicate.
So then, let’s say this continues. If I was sitting there, I would probably get down on my child’s level, so that I could be face-to-face with them, and I would say, “Hmm. I’m looking at you, and I’m hearing you. I wonder if you’re teething.” If we think that’s a possibility, then what Magda Gerber recommended is not just to hand our child a teething object. She suggested offering two different things, and holding them out for our child.
Why does this matter? It’s all about giving our infant a sense of agency. There aren’t that many ways that we can do that, but play is one way that children can be empowered that way. So, we don’t want to be, “Here, I’m going to fix you, using our power.” Instead, “It sounds like your mouth might be hurting. Here are a couple things that might help.” We hold them out to our baby, and we allow our baby to maybe grasp one of them. Sometimes, babies take both of them, but we let them choose, even in that situation.
And then maybe they don’t want that, or they try that, and they’re still having a difficult time. We continue to acknowledge. “Wow, it sounds like you’ve still got feelings about this. Would you like a break?” Now, we can decide to do that at any time, and then we would say, “Okay, I’m going to pick you up.” Staying sitting is usually the best way, unless we’re now sure that our child is tired, or maybe needs to eat, or there’s something else going on. But if we’re still kind of unsure, and we’re still having playtime with our child, then I wouldn’t get up and make it into this magical fix where I pick you up, and now we’re walking. Just do the smallest thing to give your child that physical connection.
So now, you’re holding your child in your arms. You’re sitting comfortably. At that point, you’re going to get more information from them, and you’re going to learn more about what’s going on. Maybe they just need a break for a few minutes, because they’re working on these motor skills, and they get tired, if that’s part of it. And then, your child will sort of indicate that they don’t want to be in your arms anymore, that maybe they’d like to be back down. Either they’re looking down there, or they’re kind of moving around in your arms, seeming restless, wanting to get away. Then, you could place your child back down again, on their back, in a position in which they’re freest to move.
Now, if you are in another room, and you hear your baby making a sound, some kind of groan or other utterance, then I would walk in and, from standing, see your child and say, “I hear you. What’s going on?” Then, you might decide to come closer, and get down on your baby’s level, to see what they need. And again, the more we observe, the more we communicate and let our child know that we want to hear all of these sounds, that we’re not trying to avoid them, or trying to ignore them, or just trying to fix them right away, the more we will get to know our child, the more we will get to know what they need, the more we’ll see that this is a very communicative person here.
One time that I might not communicate back to my child right away is if my child was sleeping, or taking a nap, and maybe I hear some sounds. At that point, I would observe first, to see if my child’s eyes are open, if they’re actually awake, because if they aren’t, then my coming in and saying, “Wow, I hear you,” could wake them up all the way, and they might just be in a wakeful moment, getting themselves back to sleep.
Or sometimes children, they like to be awake for a little while before we come in. They’re looking around, which is playing at this age. They’re maybe babbling, or making sounds, and we’re not sure. One thing that proved to me that my children were whole people that could communicate and understand when they were just a few months old was that I would say to them, “When you wake up, and you want me, call. Call me, call, ‘Mom,'” and I know this is going to sound farfetched to people. I swear to you, they all did that. They all made a sound that sounded very much like they were calling me, and that’s how I knew they wanted me to come and get them up. So, you don’t have to believe in this, but I suggest that you try it.
And, in terms of what this mother said about passing her a different toy, or changing her body position from front to back, I definitely wouldn’t do those things, because those are, “Let me try to fix you” things, and I know this mother doesn’t mean it that way, but that’s how it can come across to the baby, who we want to empower.
So, I don’t believe babies are saying, “Take me for a walk,” but if this mother wanted to go for a walk at that point, that would be a great choice, not to fix the baby, who may just be tired. Outdoor play areas are always the best, having our child somewhere in a safe-ish area, where we’re going to need to monitor more than we would inside, of course, but on a blanket, or something outside, where they have the fresh air, and all the shadows, and the sounds, all the wonders of nature around them, they are much less likely to groan. It does have an effect, especially if they’re free to move in that environment.
I notice with this approach that people do have the misconception, sometimes, that you’re sitting there looking at your watch, not responding, because you want to give your child a certain amount of time, or you’re coming in and swooping them up. That middle territory is where the person-to-person communication is, and where the respect is. Granted, it can be very hard to see an infant, who is not saying words, as a whole person. They really are, and the sooner that we see this, the sooner parenting becomes more of an exciting adventure, the less afraid we become of our child’s expressions of feelings or thoughts, and we see results.
I hope that helps. That’s the way to support this baby’s communication, and this wonderful relationship that’s developing.
Please check out some of my other podcasts. They’re on my website, janetlansbury.com, and I have a lot of articles about infant play on my website as well. Check out the topic categories, and you should find quite a bit on this topic.
You might also wish to check out my compilation, Elevating Child Care: A Guide To Respectful Parenting.
Thanks so much for listening. We can do this.