Did you know that a human baby is born with 200 million brain cells? I find that number hard to comprehend. On top of that, these brain cells are yet to form the majority of their most vital connections.
A child’s experiences during the first five years of life are what create and recreate the connections that will help to form their outlook on the world for the rest of their life. We, the adults, have the huge responsibility of providing the best possible care and environments in order to allow this development or unfolding of the child to happen in the most helpful way.
As parents, we do our best every day and the unconditional love we carry for the child helps us to always be Winnicott’s ‘good enough parent’.[i] But what about the professional carer – nanny, childminder or nursery worker, for example? How can we ensure that we are delivering the best possible care for the children in our settings?
Babies have basic needs. Food, warmth, comfort and love – whether parental or professional. But they also need our support to work out who they are in relation to the world they find themselves in. So how can we help them to learn about themselves and the world? In what ways can we communicate with them to give them the best sense of self – to facilitate the formation of those neural pathways that will be most helpful to them as whole human beings?
Communication is key
There are still some who believe that babies don’t know how to communicate or understand what is happening to them. Beyond crying or cooing, what other means do they have, you may ask?
At the risk of telling you something you already know, here are several ways that babies have of letting us know how they are:
- Differentiated pre-crying sounds[ii]
- Choosing where to focus their attention
- Holding or letting go of tension in their bodies
- Shutting down (sleeping) when over-stimulated
Infants are helpless to look after themselves, but they are not helpless when those that care for them are tuned in to the different ways they have of communicating to us how they feel.
So, what about how and what we are communicating to babies each and every time we interact with them?
Again, it’s quite a responsibility we take on when we choose this life of caring for children. Here are some tips to help you think about the messages you send to the babies in your care.
#1 – How are you?
Who, me? Yes, looking after yourself is one way to make sure that you are doing the best for those you care for. If you’re not feeling good, the children in your care will know. Thinking about how you feel – your physical comfort when working, your mental health, whether you’ve eaten well or had enough sleep – will help you to be the best you can be. That benefits everyone!
#2 – What are your hands saying?
“A newborn … is already able to respond to the touch of an adult’s hand – by either relaxing or becoming tense … It only takes a few days for this interaction to develop … Thus, from the very beginning, positive or negative contact comes about between an infant and the caretaking adult.”[iii]
As the quote above suggests, our hands communicate many things to a child. The author, Dr Emmi Pikler – Hungarian Paediatrician (1902-1984)[iv] – was way ahead of her time, along with the likes of Maria Montessori and other radical thinkers of the age. She realised that babies are whole human beings with a full set of senses and emotions, and therefore must be looked after with particular care and sensitivity.
Paying attention to how you use your hands in relation to picking up, feeding or changing the nappy of a child will help you to send the message that their wellbeing is important to you.
#3 – Stop multitasking!
Whether you’re caring for one child or several, it’s likely that you’ll be working to some kind of agenda. You know how it goes – feed, nappy change, nap (Snapchat, laundry, tidying, etc.) and repeat.
It’s easy to get caught up in trying to achieve as much as possible as quickly as possible in order to get everything done. But why do you get those days when the children are a bit whiny, they don’t want to eat, they won’t go to sleep – nothing runs smoothly at all?
Chances are that if you stop trying to do everything at once and just focus on the task at hand, everything will start to make sense. It’s a kind of mindfulness, but not one that you need to sit in a quiet room with your legs crossed and get all zen for. All that’s required for this is to give your full attention to whatever it is that you’re doing. (And that includes your time on social media.)
When children feel that they have your full attention, they respond. They feel fully cared for and learn that you can be trusted and relied upon. And, you’ll notice that when you give your full attention to any task, you do it much better!
Which leads me to this…
#4 – With, not to.
Now you’re being mindful, how about letting the baby in your care know what you’re going to do BEFORE you do it? Letting an infant know that you’re going to pick them up gives them time to prepare. Letting them know that the wipe you’re going to use on their bottom is cold before you touch them will do the same. These actions are very intimate. They can be important opportunities to create bonds and trust. Let’s not waste them!
By treating the child in your care with this kind of respect, you are doing more to build the trust that they need to thrive and that you need in order to be able to guide them in the trickier moments. If they trust you, they are more likely to respond to your requests when there is something you need from them.
Letting them know what’s going to happen and allowing them to take part in the process makes you partners. You do things with them, not to them.
#5 – Slow down!
Lastly, for now, SLOW DOWN! Communicating with babies needs time. In order to allow a child space for understanding or assimilating experiences, babies and young children need to be able to process at their own pace. In everything you do with and for them, slow down. Even when you feel like you’ve done so, slow down even more. In the extra space you’ll create for the child in your care, you’ll find more space in which you can observe them and yourself and see the effects of all the small and important changes that you’re making to your practice.
To conclude, every action we take around the children we care for has an effect on their wellbeing. Children who are cared for in this way will find it easier to develop trusting relationships with others, at school, later at work, and when forming their own loving families. Of course, we can only do our best, but the better informed we are about the little ones in our care – their needs and potential for natural development – and the more work we do on ourselves to become happier, more contented carers, the better life will be for all.
[i] D. W. Winnicott, The Child, the Family, and the Outside World (Penguin 1973) p. 173