The Secret Language Of Babies

Romance was in the air at a recent parent/infant class, and it was definitely one for the cameras, but interrupting those astonishing minutes to document the action could not have been further from my mind.  

Mila and Julian, 3 and 4 months old respectively, were on their backs on the rug by their moms. The infants soon took notice of each other, began engaging, and spent several minutes captivated. Mila twisted in Julian’s direction. Julian gazed at her. They reached out, discovered they could touch hands and then held them for a minute or two before releasing them again. They continued to explore, touching and holding hands, obviously intrigued, but in a calm, comfortable way. There seemed to be mutual recognition between them, an intuitive understanding and communication.

As we were quietly appreciating this enchanting scene, Julian’s mom, who is also a RIE colleague, shared an insight. She remembered that after once spending several weeks in Italy and immersing herself in the language, she had longed for the ease of communicating in English again. Do our babies find it similarly soothing and freeing to interact with other babies…those who understand all the subtleties of their non-verbal communication? Observing Mila and Julian, this idea was convincing.

Our babies are all intuition, and their language is refreshingly authentic, devoid of pretense or artifice. It’s the language my acting teacher trained us to focus on years ago. He always balked at the idea that the actor should concentrate on memorizing lines first. He taught us to spend the majority of our homework time dwelling on the thoughts behind the words our character chose to use — far more important than the words themselves.

Although infants and toddlers listen to our words and are acutely sensitive to our actions, what they hear loud and clear — and are most affected by — is our subtext, our feelings and intentions. Keeping that in mind, it’s important to remember to…

Touch gently and consciously.

Babies know when we are treating them as ‘honored guests’ (as infant specialist Magda Gerber encouraged us to perceive them), really tuning in when we touch or hold them, and when we are mentally elsewhere (or wishing we were).

Talk to our baby from the beginning as if he understands. Be aware of the way we say whatever we say.   

In Dear Parent – Caring For Infants With Respect, Magda Gerber suggests, “Just tell the baby how you feel and what you think; do not censor your feelings or thoughts.”

Aspiring to this level of honest communication can bring relief because it gives us permission to say only what we feel. If we are grumpy at the end of a long day, it isn’t soothing to our baby for us to force out a happy goodnight song. Better to play music to calm both of us instead.

Consider giving our babies a simple explanation when we are severely stressed, so they don’t wonder and worry.   

Have you ever noticed that the most agreeable baby can become totally uncooperative when we’re rushing? Infants and toddlers absorb our stress. Sometimes it helps to explain, “I’m sorry that we have to hurry through this diaper change, but I am late to pick up grandma.”

By acknowledging our distress, we can bring the comfort of clarity to a baby who senses our anxiety. “I’ve been very worried about Aunt Rita. She’s sick.”

Allow our baby to experience infant/infant interaction.

Consider forming a regular play date or group where an adult intervenes only to protect babies from hurting each other. Allow your child to experience the joy of exploration and socialization with other babies.

Observe and listen 

Since our babies cannot speak, observation is the surest way for us to read their cues and understand what they are communicating. To truly observe and listen we have to do less. When we respond to our baby’s cries by automatically feeding or rocking him, we are not taking the time to listen. Better to let our babies know that we hear they are upset (admit that their cries upset us, if they do), calm ourselves, think out loud, and assure them that we will try to find and eliminate their discomfort.

Being sensitive to our baby’s intuitiveness not only helps us better understand his or her needs; it nudges us to be our more authentic selves. It keeps us honest. We can only hope that while we are teaching babies our language, they will do their best to help us re-learn theirs.

I share more about caring for infants with respect and trust in my book, 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. loved this article!! I think all parents should read this. I’m so surprised at parents of infants who get upset about infants exploring. I have a six month old and she is very active and it’s shocking how many times parents have picked up their children and walked away from us because my girl is taking socks off or touching their children’s hands. This article definitely put things in perspective for me and reassured me that I’m not a bad mom for letting her explore things that are new to her.

    1. Gosh, Keturah, I am really glad that this encouraged you to keep letting your daughter explore. Those are great instincts you have.

  2. Oh Janet,

    I LOVE this post. I felt as though I was right there observing those beautiful babies. I truly believe that when we, as adults, regain our ability to know ourselves and others non verbally that we are more able to experience true empathy and compassion.

    As you mentioned,

    “Being sensitive to our baby’s intuitiveness not only helps us better understand his or her needs; it nudges us to be our more authentic selves. It keeps us honest”

    Thank you again for another wonderful post.


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