Before Babies Smile

“Oh, look, he’s walking! He’s a little person now!”

We’ve all heard these comments about infants and toddlers and have probably made them ourselves. So, that begs the question: at what age do babies morph into little people? It’s admittedly hard to believe that a tiny newborn is a fully aware, whole person. Could a brand new baby, only able to communicate by crying and eye contact, be as “present” as you or I? The answer is yes, and new research proves it.

Then why does infant specialist Magda Gerber’s advice to welcome a newborn with the respect we would give an “honored guest” still sound a little bizarre to most of us?  Why is it that even if we believe infants are whole people, we don’t follow Magda’s direction to tell babies each and every thing we will do with their tiny bodies before doing it (“I’m going to pick you up now”)?

For one, perceiving the conscious person from the beginning is inconvenient. Caring for an infant’s physical needs is difficult and exhausting enough without having to consider his emotional and interpersonal ones, too. It’s easier to believe that an infant can’t feel ignored or insignificant while we’re focused on our computer screen or engaged in a conversation with a friend while he is breastfeeding. We don’t want to waste our breath speaking to someone for whom it might seem to make no difference. This isn’t selfish. It’s human, especially since we feel taxed and overextended already. And let’s face it, believing our baby is ready to truly engage in a relationship with us before he can even smile takes a giant leap of faith. It makes sense to postpone that perception.

But the truth is, infants are ready to engage with us person to person long before they can respond, eagerly waiting for our relationship to begin. In fact, since we are our infant’s life, he or she can’t really enter the world in a meaningful way without our invitation to participate, our inclusion.

Does it really matter if we don’t acknowledge our babies as full-fledged people from the beginning? Consider this…

Formative beginnings

Dr Kevin Nugent, a Boston-based psychologist and newborn infant specialist who has developed a system of “decoding” newborn babies’ behavior notes, “By the time your baby speaks his first word, a lot of water has gone under the bridge. The possibilities for relationship-building are still there of course, but it is in the first few months that the most formative part of the relationship is consolidated.” (Read more about Dr. Nugent and his fascinating new book, Your Baby Is Speaking To You: A Visual Guide to the Amazing Behaviors of Your Newborn and Growing Baby here at Lisa Sunbury’s site Regarding Baby)

Image of the child

Loris Malaguzzi, the founder of the Reggio Emilia approach, explains in a recent edition of the Childcare Exchange, “There are hundreds of different images of the child.  Each one of you has inside yourself an image of the child that directs you as you begin to relate to a child.  This theory within you pushes you to behave in certain ways…”

In other words, the way we view our newborn baby affects the way we relate to her. We can alter our original image of a child once she is smiling, walking, talking, reading, going to school, driving a car, but it’s harder to shift gears once the patterns of interaction between us have been set.

Acting ‘as if’ and self-fulfilling prophecies

Preverbal children are ripe for our projections. So I recommend rather than relying on our fallback instinct that “seeing is believing”, believe first and then see. Since this will be one of the most precious and profound relationships we’ll ever have, it’s certainly worth the leap.

Then, once we begin acting as if our babies are sentient, capable beings, they can show us the truth…even before their smile.


For more, please check out Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting (now available in Spanish!) 

And The Way We See Them by Lisa Sunbury, Regarding Baby 





Originally posted on America’s Angel


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

  1. I’m glad I stayed at home for my baby’s first 11 months – since then she’s off to infant care and pre-school but I don’t worry about our bond weakening! Love her to bits! Even though her eczema is stressing the whole family, but then, it inpsired me to do a whole host for eczema families, including support group, fund, book, blog +++!

    1. Hi Marcie! Yes, the eczema is a big issue… I have a couple of families in my classes dealing with this. I’m so glad you are providing resources and a support group!

  2. You know, it never occurred to me to do anything else than treat my baby as a conscious person. Maybe it was because he came out of the labour ward with his eyes open, obviously looking around with interest. Maybe it was just that I’d been talking to him for most of the pregnancy anyway. But anyway, it stood us in good stead. 26 years later we still have a strong bond.

  3. Thank you for this one Janet. In college I participated in some research that proved that even very young infants have incredible cognitive abilities. I think infant humans might be the smartest creatures on earth.

    This is my favorite line…”the way we view our newborn baby affects the way we relate to her.” What a great reminder of the power of our observation and intention.

  4. Thanks, as always, Janet…and for providing links to more research!

  5. My son nursed almost 24/7 for the first couple months of his life and so I usually read, watched tv, or chatted with visitors while he was nursing. I noticed that it was hard to break out of the cycle of being distracted while nursing him, even when his nursing schedule slowed down a bit. I get confused by the advice on this website sometimes, I love the idea of it but it seems like one minute I think I should be letting my child play on his own without interrupting him and connecting for feedings, changing, etc. and then when I read this I feel like if I am distracted doing something and letting him play by himself then he feels neglected. Ah, the never ending mommy guilt.

    1. 100% agree with this sentiment. How do you do both?

    2. If you read more you’ll understand. We are meant to connect during child care activities (feeding, diapers) and then let them play without interruption when they’re playing.

  6. Thank you for this post. We’re struggling with the transition to two littles. Most of the advice I’ve gotten has been to set the baby aside and focus on the toddler. After 8 weeks of doing that, I still get toddler tantrums, and I have tons of guilt from not truly bonding with the baby. I’m grateful to realize that I also need to teach my toddler that the baby is an individual, and that we need to adjust and welcome her into our family and take care of her and not ignore her.

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