Written by: Eva Bild
A new mother is trying to put a horrible prickly sweater on a baby before taking him outside in the cold weather. The baby is howling and the mother is distressed. I start to explain to the baby about how cold it is outside and how the lovely sweater his grandmother knit for him will keep him warm. The mother looks puzzled: “He won’t understand that, will he?” Well, no, he probably won’t but it’s still worthwhile to talk to him about it.
When we talk to babies, we feel a little foolish. We laugh, embarrassed, when someone catches us at it. If we talk to our baby before other adults, we often do it archly, really meaning to communicate with the adults present:
Dad: Come on, baby, let’s go and change your diaper and let Mom here get herself ready to feed you as soon as we get back.
Mum: (when baby has been brought back to her for feeding) oh yes, baby, here you are nice and clean, isn’t Daddy a nice daddy to change your diaper for you?
Our culture does not encourage us to believe that babies understand or feel anything. We are told that babies aren’t smiling “they just have gas”. We are told babies aren’t sad when they cry, they are just “exercising their lungs.” Until the 1970’s surgery was commonly performed on infants without anaesthesia, because it was believed they couldn’t feel pain. Mothers have said things to me like “I think she recognizes me, but she can’t, can she?” I remember one new father holding his newborn daughter who was staring with clear fascination at her father’s face. “When will she be able to see?” asked the father. Our culture teaches so strongly that babies are incompetent that we can’t even believe the evidence before us.
I wonder if so many babies used to die in infancy that it just wasn’t worth it to get too attached to them, to see them as real humans. It was easier to stay a little aloof until we were sure they would survive. So, to protect our own feelings, we developed these beliefs about babies not really being present and aware.
And yet babies start listening to us and learning from us very early on. There is good evidence that newborns can recognize their parents’ voices and music they have heard in utero. Our babies are born ready to tune in to our voices and to start learning language. They are hard-wired to watch our faces, especially our eyes and our mouths. They are born with a sense of how to take turns. Play the “I’ll stick my tongue out – now it’s your turn “ game with a two-week-old, and you’ll find a creature who has an innate sense of how to have a conversation. As soon as you stop sticking you tongue out, she’ll take her turn. If you wait too long to take your next turn, she’ll do it again, to encourage you to keep playing with her.
More on this topic next week…