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:
“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.”
“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.”
“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!”
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
A warm THANK YOU to Stacey, Alyce and Penny for sharing your stories!
(Pictured are Stacey and Ada)