What Your Baby Can’t Tell You

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


Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. This is the way I felt the moment I held my baby. I was completely astounded that her personality was so well developed at birth. And further, was a direct reflection of the baby I experienced in the womb prior to delivery. She is 1 year old now, and so much about her has stayed consistently “her”. She is an entire being, with original thoughts and feelings and it is my joy to walk along side her during the beginning of her lifelong journey. Your article makes me feel peaceful, and completely competent as a first- time mom. Thank you!

    1. Lucky baby to be so appreciated and understood! Thanks!

  2. Trust me with the truth…. that paragraph made me cry. Guess I need to do some soul searching there. Thanks for another great post, Janet. Reading your words inspires me.

  3. Etta Sheldrup says:

    It’s nice to see someone very excited about what they do. Thank you.

  4. angela mancuso says:

    This is a great article. One of my faves from you. It is so true, and so easy to understand,but so many people never figure it out. Kids are people too wacka do wackado!!! AS Bob Mcallister said!!!

  5. This post is so beautiful, Janet. I absolutely love that you wrote it from baby’s perspective. I love “…breezes I can feel but cannot see” and “It won’t always be perfect together, but it will be real.” The whole post is just lovely and I know it will help me tomorrow and for many days after. I feel so grateful to have your guidance.

    1. Suzy, thank you so much for your kind words and encouragement!

  6. Wow. I am floored. I feel so much more capable and strong. I can do this! I am so glad I found you… 🙂

    1. Gena, thank you for making my day! Yes, you can do this! Once you recognize the baby as a whole person, parenting is simple, logical, fascinating (though not always easy or instinctual). 🙂

  7. I love this. Just briliant!
    We do this with our daughter, I really believe she understands so much more than we might usually believe. She is nearly 10 months old and very content, I believe this is because she trusts us and trusts the decisions we make.

    1. Love this post. And Rebekah, your comment “trusts the decisions we make” rings so true for me! We let our baby lead the way often, but when we’re leading we strive to communicate with her and trust ourselves that we’re doing the right thing. It’s so clear that she also trusts in these decisions. During those times when I’m unsure about something I’m doing (taking her for vaccinations comes to mind), it’s clear that she’s as uneasy as we are.

  8. I love this post, but it is so difficult to balance these things with keeping our little one safe (1 yo), expecially the one about initiating his own experiences. He loves to go outside and wander around, which I really enjoy to do with him. However I am not well and he will wander around for an hour outside and I need to make sure there is no glass, sharp sticks etc. which will hurt him (not to mention going places like into other people’s houses). We have a small yard so he wants to be out the front. It is such a challenge to balance his need for freedom and exploration and my need to keep him safe and stay within my energy limits.

    I love your post, and wish I didn’t struggle to provide my child with this kind of care as much as I do.

    1. Ros, thank you! Your comment is timely, because I’m preparing a post now about the value of safe play spaces for our children… It will hopefully be finished before week’s end… These spaces can be created indoors and outdoors, if we have even the tiniest garden area or a bit of brick patio, padded (like I had with my first baby). Infants and young toddlers don’t need tons of room. They find plenty to explore (especially outside) with shadows, patterns of light, breezes, tree branches above them, the sounds and smells…a few toys and simple objects.

  9. Fiona Mathers says:

    Beautifully put Janet. I would echo your views about self-fulfilling prophecies. How often I hear parents complaining about children and teenagers being disrespectful, while not realising that they have shown them how to be like this! You get what you give.

  10. About to have baby #2 in February! Love this post, thank you!

    I have also just read Toddler 1,2,3 and the Sibling Rivalry books you recommend and LOVE them! I am just so afraid of falling into old habits instead of using all these wonderful methods! Do you have any advice on how to remember all this?

    1. Erin, you’ll remember. Maybe you won’t remember every detail (and that’s why I love 1,2, 3, The Toddler Years…it’s such a great little handbook to quickly refer to) but once the idea of respecting babies (and children of all ages) as whole people sinks in, you can’t NOT do it! There’s no turning back… So, I’m not at all worried about you! Please keep me posted about your new addition to the family! 🙂

      1. Thank you! I love all these concepts! So wonderful!! I am excited to create a safe play space for the new baby and give it to create a exploration area with no PLASTICY toys. Parenting is such an adventure!

        1. Whar alternitives to plastic toys have you come across? I despise plastic but have only seen a couple catologs with natural toys, thanks

          1. Katharine says:

            Look up Plan Toys on Amazon. They’re wooden.

  11. AnneMarie says:

    Before my daughter was born, I was given the advice that my child will teach me everything I need to know about being her parent, just listen. I had all these ideas about how it would be, but when I met her, and she wanted nothing to do with these ideas I had, I let them go.

    I value your advice to help along the way.

  12. A very touching and beautiful article.. many of these ideas of how to treat a baby or a child are overlooked in todays fast paced hectic modern world and the advent of millions of articficial pacifiers, music machines, rockers,bottles, gizmos, gadgets etc etc etc created to help busy families but end up part of everyday living and relied apon so heavily thta it is just not fair for the baby. Enjoy your babies!!!! xxx

  13. you say everything i crave to communicate so eloquently. thank you.

  14. Being honest with your newborn is so dynamic… the baby loves all natural and creative stimulation.

  15. Thank you so much for this! I agree whole heartedly with your sentiments and share this article often. I appreciate your ability to speak directly, yet gently to parents. 🙂

  16. Thank you for your thoughtful openness about raising our little ones. I have an 11 mo old son who is the light of my world; the sunshine in my day; the happiness of my heart! I love exploring with him and watching how he responds to things 🙂 It is hard for me though because not many people that I know agree with the way that I interact and am raising him, including his father. When he is whimpering or crying for a bit, I don’t like to refer to him as “fussy” I think it is demeaning or dismissive to his feelings and I believe he is communicating. However, his father will refer to him as fussy or fussy butt and will get upset with me when i ask him not to call him fussy. He fears I am making him too “sensitive and that it will be hard to have a relationship with him because he will read into everything that everyone does” I feel the opposite. I told him that labeling his feelings would create something in him that would make him feel that he could not openly express how he feels and that he would feel he needs to be a certain way in order to be accepted. We just don’t agree…

  17. Janet, thank you very much for this incredible article. I am currently contemplating the decision to become a parent with my partner. Articles like this are an invaluable resource to us while we discuss perspective and possible approaches.

    I believe your approach of respect to be a universal technique that one could apply to friends and co-workers, aging parents and little ones.


    1. Thank you, Meg! You are so wise to be giving this consideration to parenting ahead of time. And, yes, I agree that this is a universal approach to building relationships with all human beings.

  18. Alayne Stieglitz says:

    Hi Janet,
    Thank you for sharing these experiences and insights. Dr. Alexandra Harrison, Dr. Elizabeth Levey and I visited India recently and introduced Kevin Nugent’s book, “Your Baby is Speaking to You” to a group of maternity nursing students. We brought information about the Newborn Behavioral Observation (NBO) developed by Drs Brazleton and Nugent with the idea that maternity nurses are in a unique position to support the first relationship by carefully observing the babies individual skills, capacities, and preferences in partnership with the parents. Learning the language if their newborn may very well be the first step in a relationship filled with love and respect.
    Thanks for the post,

    1. Hi Alayne! That is so exciting! Thank you for sharing this news with me and for your important work!

  19. Sapna Debnath says:

    Beautiful. what you have written is so beautiful and helped me learn how to understand my child well…

  20. I love the idea behind this and have tired incorporating these philosophies with my now 7month old boy. I sit with him on his mat and if I see him working at something I let him be and observe. He’s usually ok for a while but will often start whining if he gets bored or frustrated or who knows! Sometimes it’s because he rolls onto his tummy and maybe doesn’t want to be in that position anymore. I know he knows how to roll onto his back or side but he often refuses and whines and whines until I help him or pick him up. Sometimes I really can’t understand why he whines (knowing he’s fed, changed, not tired, etc). What do you do in those instances?

  21. Hi Janet, I am completely new to this page and this concept, so I don’t fully understand the article in terms of its practical application in my daily life with my baby. Can you guide me so that I can be the parent my 3mo needs me to be to flourish?
    Thank you 🙂

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