Talking to Babies – Part 2

The best evidence there is that we should talk to babies, is that babies LOVE to be talked to. Tell a baby a story with an animated face and voice, and the baby will stare, in rapt attention – for as long as her little brain can handle it. Then she’ll turn her face away – to take a rest from the hard work of listening. A minute later, she’ll turn back toward you to see if you’ve got anymore to say.

One mother told me how her baby hated having his diaper changed. So she decided to explain to him why she had to do it and what she was doing every step of the way. She found that the baby cried much less and seemed to listen to her explanation and accept it. Now I am not suggesting that the baby thought something like this: “Hmm. Mom makes a good case for this diaper-changing business. I guess I’ll go along with her to avoid getting diaper rash which I know can get darned unpleasant!” Of course not! But I do think the baby thought something like this: “Hmm! Mom is talking about something. I wonder what it is? She seems to feel pretty strongly about it. I wish I could understand what she was saying, but I’ve got a hunch that if I keep listening, someday I’ll figure it out.” And while baby is listening and trying to understand, Mom can quickly change that diaper.

Daniel at 4 months
Daniel at 4 months

One night when my eldest son, Daniel, was seven or eight months old, he was teething and had swollen puffy gums. He was miserable – drooling and crying and rubbing his face on my shoulder. I tried to nurse him and soothe him and cuddle him and sing to him. I rubbed his gums with my finger and gave him a cold cloth to chew on. Nothing worked. Finally I got out the Tylenol and tried to give him a dose. He clenched his jaw shut and would not let me put the dropper in his mouth. He would have nothing to do with the sticky artificial-strawberry-flavoured medicine. I struggled with him briefly and then gave up. I took him out into the dark living room (leaving my husband to go back to sleep).

I walked up and down and started to talk. I talked about his teeth buds growing in his gums and how extra blood was being sent there by his body to make nice strong teeth so that he could chew crunchy nuts and yummy steak. I talked about how the extra blood caused pain for him. About the Tylenol that would take away the pain. About the nice scientist in her white coat in the lab with the bunsen burner and the test tubes who invented the Tylenol so little boys could have medicine to make their gums feel better and so they could go to sleep and let their Mommies go to sleep too. I talked to calm myself and prevent myself from feeling angry at my poor little boy who was suffering. I talked to calm him down and to let him know everything was okay. I talked to amuse myself in the dark – to see how long I could talk about something I knew nothing about!

After I had been talking for ten minutes or so, Daniel was quiet. I sat down and looked at him. “Now what do we do, little guy? I asked. He looked at me solemnly and opened his mouth – as if to say: “Giveme the medicine and stop talking, already!” My surprised laughter startled him, but he took the Tylenol, cuddled in against me and eventually fell asleep.

Babies’ capacity for empathy (the ability to feel what another person is feeling) is a subject for argument in the world of psychology. How can a baby understand how Mom feels, when he may not even be quite sure how he feels himself, may not even comprehend that Mom is a separate person? But a fetus in the womb experiences the mother’s emotions. The hormones running through the mother’s body, creating physical responses such as an elevated heart rate, blushing, crying, laughing, also get into the fetus, through the placenta. So the fetus too experiences fear, embarrassment, sadness or joy. And the newborn arrives with an experience of emotion which may help him to recognize those emotions in his mother’s voice when he meets her on the outside.

When we talk or sing to our babies, we keep ourselves calm, and in doing so, we keep our babies calm. Diaper ditties – those silly songs we make up to entertain our babies when we change them – are not only for fun. Singing helps the parents to regulate their own mood and stay calm and cheerful even when the baby is screaming the house down. I am sure that lullabies are only partly for babies. When I sang to my babies in the night, I was also entertaining myself, challenging myself to see how many of the lyrics I could remember. And when I made up songs and rhymes for my babies, it was partly to deal with the awful boredom of being the only adult in the house. Some parents will deal with the loneliness, isolation and boredom of parenting a small child by playing music or talk radio or having the television on. And I confess to having used these tools myself. But a real live, caring, alert and interested grown-up is so much more valuable to a baby than a distracted care-provider listening to the news while he makes lunch or watching TV while she breastfeeds.

One way to understand our babies is to see them as scientists collecting data on how to be a human being. Over the first few years of their life they amass an immense collection of information, not only about how to move, walk, eat, but also about how to talk, sing, dance and tell stories. Our job as parents is to input that data. We can provide some of the input through our actions, our physical presence, the gentle care we take of our precious babies. But by talking to our babies we model for them the myriad and endlessly creative ways that human beings use language to transmit information and emotion.

So to go back to the example in Part 1 of this article, what does the mother do by talking to her baby about the prickly sweater? She distracts the baby with the sound of her familiar and beloved voice. She calms herself and reminds herself that she is not torturing her child gratuitously. She acknowledges her baby’s upset while taking care of a practical need. She attracts the child’s attention and begins a habit of explaining things to him. She is developing a relationship with him. So it doesn’t matter that he doesn’t understand her words. She should talk to him anyway.