Do We Do Too Much With Our Babies?
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately and the more I think about it the more I really do believe that we have babyhood all wrong in our society.
A quick google of “baby activities” near my home reveals the following classes I could take my (imaginary!) baby to, they include:
Baby Massage, Baby Yoga, Baby Sensory, Baby Swimming, Baby Music, Baby Disco Dancing, Baby French, Baby Signing, Baby Ballet, Baby Gym and Baby and Daddy classes. That’s not including toddler activities where you could throw the following into the mix: Toddler Rugby, Toddler Drama, Toddler Football and Toddler Trampolining.
Whoah, what a choice! small wonder so many parents ask me “what should I do to entertain him?” or comment “he must be so bored just being at home with me”. The more these classes crop up, the more mothers feel they should be “doing” something with their babies, the more entertainment they must provide and the more they must to do encourage their development, they learn they alone are not enough for their child, their measure of self worth becomes hinged on the classes they take their baby to and the equipment they provide. My other concern with these classes is once again they often devalue the parent as being their own expert, mothers learn there are specific ways they should touch their baby, specific ways they should move with them, specific ways they should speak and sing to them (and that all of this takes a certain level of professional study) and sometimes this tuition can leave them less confident in their own way of doing things, wondering if they are “doing it right”. I know when I learnt baby massage with my first child I ended up massaging him less after the course as I couldn’t remember all of the specific strokes (and accompanying songs) and worried if I was “doing it right”, my spontaneous touch therefore diminished as a result.
My question, simply is “why do we think we need all this stuff?” when did we stop believing that what a baby really needs is time with us? when did we so devalue the importance of babies blending into part of everyday life with us? why don’t we think we are enough for our babies? why can’t we just let babies be babies?
The sad thing is here is that research shows us quite clearly how babies learn and what is important in this process. Here I love Maria Montessori’s quote: “Our care of the child should be governed, not by the desire to make him learn things, but by the endeavor always to keep burning within him that light which is called intelligence.” How do we therefore foster that natural inquisitiveness? by allowing our babies to lead and dictate the pace of their learning? or be hot-housing them through various groups and developmental aids?
Play with our babies starts before they are even born, often without us realising. Rubbing a pregnant tummy, gently prodding a protruding limb and feeling your baby respond. Play carries on spontaneously from the moment of birth – mimicking facial expressions, playing peekaboo, tickling….we do all of this without realising. Play teaches our babies so much perhaps the most notable is turn taking, which becomes one of the most important components of speech. Melanie Klein wrote widely about the importance of play and the formation of phantasy and symbolism for children and is particularly famous for her quote “One of the many interesting and surprising experiences of the beginner in child analysis is to find in even very young children a capacity for insight which is often far greater than that of adults”. What happens therefore if we always direct a baby’s play? through specific toys or classes? what happens to their creativity if we always take the lead?
Speech and Song
Research now shows us that babies begin to acquire language even before birth. Babies are hot wired for speech and the most important component in their language acquisition is us. Without realising we teach our babies to speak, we teach our babies musicality and rhythm, we teach our babies the art of conversation and turn taking. Not through flash cards or DVD courses, but through our everyday interaction and our use of Motherese. Motherese explains the unconscious way we speak to our babies, we naturally raise the pitch of our voice, lengthen vowels and exaggerate consonants as well as tailoring our language to be age appropriate through the use of short sentences and simply content, motherese also relies heavily on eye contact. Infants naturally have a preference for motherese - or what could otherwise be defined as “baby talk”. We all possess this wonderful innate skill of teaching language to babies, why do we then need outside help and apparatus?
Everyday Objects & ‘Toys’
An everyday object will be as fascinating to your baby as an expensive developmental toy. Winnicott wrote about his spatula experience, where babies were given a tongue depressor to play with – after an initial period of play the babies would hesitate. Winnicott found this hesitation to be of great importance, from this he drew conclusions that it was important the babies were allowed this period of hesitation in order to develop creativity. The concept of heuristic play, introduced by Elinor Goldschmeid in the early 1980s talks about babies exploring objects (and thus the properties of nature) from the ‘real world’, she leaves a lasting legacy in the form of the concept of treasure baskets – baskets containing household objects and objects from nature (see this great article for an explanation of how to put together a treasure basket). Elinor believed that babies ” suck, grasp, touch and feel objects, [rehearsing] behaviours which foster their earliest learning”.
The Environment and Us
Babies can learn so much just by being in our arms, they learn about movement, they become strong, particularly when held tummy to tummy (so much is muted about “tummy time” yet few parents realise a baby is still having tummy time when we hold them in a sling facing inwards!) and perhaps most importantly of all they learn about the environment around them, from the security of a base of human contact. Think about how fascinating a trip into town must be for a baby? or a walk in the country? so many new sounds, smells, sights that you may not appreciate but to a baby it is all new! The importance of holding a baby (facing inwards) is when this stimulation becomes too much they can switch off, when they are directly exposed to it (by facing outwards/not in contact with us) it can become overwhelming. The importance here is to allow the baby to develop and learn at his own speed. What must life be like for a baby in a bumbo in front of the TV? their body rigid in a position their muscles and joints are not yet ready for, unable to turn away in front of a loud and bright television set? what must life be like for a baby held artificially upright in an entertainment centre surrounded by bright plastic, tinny noises and flashing lights? where would you rather learn from? and in which environment do you think you would be the most naturally inquisitive and learn the most? the two examples above or held close to your mother’s chest, warm, supported in a physiologically correct cradling position and with her familiar scent, an environment from which you can explore but one you can return to and “shut it all out” when it gets too much?
When will we let our babies just “be”? when will we realise their true needs? I fear we will only depart more from their true needs in my lifetime.
Read more of Sarah’s articles on her blog HERE