How to Talk to Your Newborn

Just do it. Talk to your newborn, even your preemie, especially your preemie in the NICU. Speak to her authentically, honestly, slowly, and in simple language about the real things happening to her and in her immediate world. Respectfully inform her a bit in advance about events, changes (like being picked up or placed down), and uncomfortable or new experiences. Acknowledge the sights and sounds in her surroundings, especially when her expression indicates she notices.

Most importantly, make an intensive effort to understand what she is communicating and then acknowledge these thoughts and feelings. When in doubt (and there’s almost always doubt) ask, “Are you saying you’re tired? Hungry? Do you have a bubble in your tummy?”

Many of us have the powerful instinct to close down communication as soon as babies cry, whine, or even fuss the tiniest bit. (I do!) But if we can calm ourselves and keep this precious door open, we send a more encouraging message: “I want you to tell me, so I can help you. So I can know you. We’re in this together.”

Invite your newborn to participate actively in her life. Ask her to work with you.

Why is talking to babies in a genuine, person-to-person manner such a challenging, and even controversial idea for some? Because it can be incredibly hard to believe that babies really understand, that it might really matter, even if we’re aware of the scientific evidence* that fetuses are learning our language in the womb.

The chicken and egg in this is that our babies can’t prove they’re hearing, understanding, ready to participate in a communicative relationship with us, unless we first believe, and then treat them as if this is possible. Here are three stories that might convince the skeptics:

Alyce’s story:

“Breastfeeding was a challenge for us in the first few weeks. O was very frantic at the breast, always with his hands very close to his face, which made latching an arduous process. One lactation consultant we visited suggested we swaddle him, but I felt his hands had an important purpose and didn’t want to exclude them. Instead, I did something I never would have considered before discovering RIE; I asked him to move his hands. “O, can you move your hands. When you move them I can feed you.” Then I waited.

Eventually, he seemed to figure out what I was waiting for. I don’t know that he understands my words, but he certainly understands my intentions and my requests, if given the time and space. And so begins a wonderfully communicative and cooperative relationship.”

Stacey’s story:

“My son is two, and we’ve practiced RIE and mindful parenting since he was three months old.  My daughter was born at 31 weeks. She has been in the NICU for three weeks and four days. I have had many challenges giving RIE care to my daughter while she’s in this environment. But I have continued to do so even when it’s ruffled the nurses’ feathers. I’ve advocated for respectful care for her every day and modeled it to every nurse on her service.

Last night one of the nurses that I initially had an issue with our first week here apologized to me. She said she has since learned a lot from me and has never seen a parent so sincere about how their child is cared for. She said she started incorporating what I do into how she is with the other babies and has seen a huge difference in their demeanor during her shifts with them.

If anyone has spent time in NICU, then you know the babies have to get poked and prodded every three to four hours around the clock. Nurses are often fast at care times and do not talk to the babies except to shush them. So I feel like we’ve turned a terrible, impossible situation into a more positive and enlightening experience. It’s been so hard, but knowing RIE has made it so much easier to bond with my baby through our care times every three hours, which is the only time you can touch or interact with them.

This entire experience has made my beliefs in RIE and respectful caregiving even stronger. It works. I know that my connection and attachment to her is so strong because of practicing RIE (as much as I could) from day one in the NICU. It’s working and the nurses are seeing it. They see me acknowledge her feelings and tell her what’s going on and how she relaxes.

I’m not preaching RIE. I’ve actually only mentioned it to two nurses who seemed genuinely interested. But modeling it speaks for itself. Even if they think I’m weird, they can’t argue with the results. This has been such a hard journey, and we aren’t home yet. But with RIE I know I’ve been able to do everything I possibly can to ensure she’s treated with respect while she’s here and mitigate the negative impact of this experience on her psychologically.”

Penny’s story:

“I was feeling so frustrated during a visit with my sister’s preemie baby Max in the hospital today. He’s just been moved from a city hospital – where the nurses told him everything that was going on – to our local regional hospital, where the nurses, while gentle and attentive, are mute. Or the baby will be crying and they’ll say things like, “Oh, what’s happening here?” (and I’m thinking, why don’t you tell him!), or “You’re not my friend today, are you?”

I couldn’t help myself and started explaining loud noises like the water gurgling in the sink. He was so alert and interested. It’s fascinating.

I’m not judging. It was only three years ago that I realized I should be treating my baby boy like a whole person and not a “cute blob.” Like you say, once you start talking to babies, there’s no going back!”

 * Moon, Lagercrantz, Kuhl,  Acta Paediatrica (2012)

For more about respectful care:

Dear Parent: Caring for Infants With Respect  by Magda Gerber

Your Self-Confident Baby by Magda Gerber and Allison Johnson

My new book: Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting

A warm THANK YOU to Stacey, Alyce and Penny for sharing your stories!

(Pictured are Stacey and Ada)


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

  1. A big heart-felt yes to this.
    I would talk to my Sufiana (my daughter) about everything that was happening around her, to her – when she was born. Mine was a long and intense labour and it wasn’t easy for both of us. When she would cry so much in those initial days, I told her how precious she is to us, how much we all love her, we’ve waited for her. And to date, I tell her before we have to travel, I inform her before we go to a big gathering so she understands that there will be lot of people, they might like to touch her, pick her. And, I’ve seen she processes all of that really well. She feels calm when in a new place because she was told before hand.

    Also, she’s very communicative and we try our best to understand her, listen to her. That has encouraged her to convey her needs in signs and sounds. She’s 11 months old.

    And, I have to say, Janet – I really appreciate and admire all that you share here. I love your perspective and your writing. I share some of your articles with my elder daughter who’s 8.5 – so that we all share a common perspective in the family.

  2. This is when I first ‘talked’ to my baby, in NICU. We were having the hardest time latching and we were both frustrated, exhausted, & a little terrified. I acknowledged my daughter’s feeling & said: “I want you to know I acknowledge how terrifying it must have been to be taken away from me when you first came out. You were taken from me and strangers put tubes down your throat — I bet that hurt and was scary. You were so brave and they weren’t listening to you. I want you to know that I did NOT want you to be taken, and every moment we were apart I was trying to get back to you. I hated being apart. I am so very sorry that happened to you. (Pause. Look in my baby’s eyes. Mean it.) I’m here with you now. You are safe.”

    I was SHOCKED when my baby looked straight at me. I swear she smiled. THEN SHE LATCHED! We never had a problem since with latching. No lactation specialist in the NICU recommended talking with respect… It’s because I read DEAR PARENT. Thank you! I was even more of a believer.

    1. Such a beautiful story, Melissa! Yes, believing in our babies is a leap of faith worth taking. Well done! And thank you for sharing.

  3. “I’m not preaching RIE. I’ve actually only mentioned it to two nurses who seemed genuinely interested. But modeling it speaks for itself”
    I always imagine Argentina and entire Latin America practising Pkiler`s and RIE approach because I know how accurate, valuable and respectfut it is. But sometimes I worry I might be preaching a bit too much or I get tangled in discussions comparing this approach to AP… It´s just I know it is such an important issue I find it hard to hold my tounge sometimes. But I also know the best way is to model, to set an expample and let other people choose their way. But sincerely, the only thought of a NICU applying RIE respectful caring for premmies makes me want to go to Congress to propose it as a compulsory law. I know, I know, a law wont necessary mean people will follow it from the heart and that is probably not the best way. But wouldn`t we have a VERY different humanity if life could start (even if it must be at the hospital) experiencing such dignity?
    Much love, Fernanda

  4. hi Janet Im on the wrong thread I know this but I tried posting on the ‘right’ thread and it froze. So here I am! Another poster posted a question and I was desperate to read your advice as I’m in exactly the same boat. I’m currently reading your book ‘ toddler discipline without shame’ but so far haven’t been able to work out the right way to deal with my toddler (nearly 3) when he deliberately hurts or irritates his sister (1). Sometimes it’s in front of me (he walks into her, he shouts at her ‘no’ …if she heads for one of his toys but mostly it happens when I’m out of the room for a second (heart pounding the whole time…) I usually run back as I hear her crying and my toddler looks sheepish. He often confesses ‘I pushed her ‘ or similar. I’ve sneaked peaks in when he hasn’t known I’m looking and seen him try to pick her up or similar- behaviour he knows is not acceptable. I always sit him down and talk to him about why hurting his sister is not right. I don’t use time outs. I understand often he is trying to get my attention (he gets a lot!) but why do this when I’m out of sight? Help! Below is the original posters question…. Rebecca x

    I have the same question as Nicole. My 3.5 year old keeps on pushing over his 7 month old sister and hurting her. I cannot catch it each time. Timeout has not worked. I feel anxious whenever I leave the room for a moment and leave them alone for a second. I am at a loss

  5. I didn’t even know I was doing this! Even during birth, I was talkin Lily thru it. SHe was stuck a little, and every time I stopped pushing her heartbeat would drop dramatically , so I would turn to my side and talk to her and say silly things like “c’mon baby girl, get that heart rate up” & ” you’re doing so good momma wants to meet you” I honestly didn’t even notice until the nurses pointed it out and were telling me yes! Keep talking to her! It seemed to have worked because every time I would speak she would calm down and her heart rate would level out. Even now at 5 months she stops whatever she is doing just to hear me when I speak. I think regardless of the words we use, our voice inflections tell our true emotions. Of we are calm they are calm. If we are a wreck they scream cry and fuss. I love talkin to my mini me, and I know she loves listening. So talk! They hear you. You’re the only one they are truly listening to. Everyone else is just entertaining noises hahaa

  6. I love this. As a speech pathologist, I am aware of the benefits of speaking to babies when it comes to speech and language development. But I never anticipated how hard it would be sometimes – when you’re tired and foggy and just trying to get through the day without collapsing. But I always made an effort to communicate.

    My first son was mix fed. I was not able to produce enough milk for him, which was absolutely devastating for me. To make it harder, after a couple of days of breast-bottle-pump, he started refusing the breast. I can remember sitting up with him at 4am, desperately trying to get him to latch – he would latch, suck, then come off and cry when no milk came. After about 30 minutes of this, I held him up, looked in his eyes and said “I know you are hungry. I know you are frustrated. But we are going to have patience, we are going to persevere, and you will drink milk from Mummy’s breast”. He immediately stopped crying, latched and drank from the breast.

    I think there were a couple of things at work here: talking out loud helped calm me down, which I think he sensed; and using virtues-based language helps speak to the soul, and showed him that i saw him, and that I wasn’t ignoring his struggle.

    1. Thank you for sharing your beautiful story, Emily! Bravo to you!

  7. Mother’s voice is one sound that a newborn can recognise soon after birth. So it is really important to talk to your baby. This gives him a feel of security.
    One thing my mom insisted I do strictly is to talk to my baby and explain everything looking into his eyes. This has helped to strengthen the bond between baby and me.

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