Fresh Ideas: Time to communicate purposefully with infants

There’s a new baby in my extended family. Mom works and goes to school, and dad works, too. As grandma to 12 and great-grandma to four, I know infants, so I’m a caregiver a few hours a day, a few days a week for this little girl.

Almost immediately, I found a library book called “The Spiritual Child” (Lisa Miller PhD, 2015, St. Martin’s Press). I’m not a churchgoer, but life’s mysteries engage me, and I borrowed it, seeking insights. Dr. Miller’s thorough research indicates newborns have a deep, innate spirituality and a sense of transcendent oneness. I believe these ideas and think we grievously underestimate the intelligence and abilities of infants.

Years ago, I visited a couple with a new baby. The alert child regarded us with interest. After a few compliments, his mom said, “Yes, he’s going to be a good one.”

The tiny face screwed up, little fists clenched, and he burst into distressed tears. As I looked at him, his mind seemed to jump right into mine, on a surge of urgent, tense feeling, and I blurted out his message: “Oh look, he’s saying ‘I’m a good one right now!’” Infant telepathy? Well, he did immediately quiet down. And that little mind’s energy enveloped me completely, a glimpse of transcendent oneness.

I’ve read planning for the future and brooding on the past is uniquely human in the animal kingdom. This ability is a double-edged sword, for many adults spend way too much time in “then,” losing track of now. Childhood knows only now. That baby wanted acknowledgement in the present.

Like any baby animal, infants are endlessly fascinating. They are scarily tiny, fragile, helpless; also demanding, loud, messy and mysterious. Genetic traits (cupid’s bow lips, big eyes, and plump cheeks), and behavioral cues (smiles, gurgles, and laughter) trigger our sympathetic responses, encouraging us to be nurturing.

We want our kids to thrive. Their care, however, is a full-time job, demanding and confusing. How can you calm mindless screaming without losing control? How do you get through to someone who can’t describe their problem?

Even the most jaded caregiver knows healthy babies are intelligent, curious and engrossed in life’s adventures. Those little perfect fingers groping tentatively toward a hairdo or great-grandpa’s beard grab as well our delighted attention, and their first utterances enchant us.

I think their intelligence being hidden within a miniature, helpless, mute, newly-minted body fools us into doubting infants understand us. But they do hear complex emotional conversations while in the womb, and develop emotional understanding.

What they hear from grown-ups once they’re out, though, might be, “How cute/beautiful you are, so smart, we love you so much,” or perhaps, “Stop crying!” Loving comments help, but overall, we don’t provide substantive input for an emotionally responsive, highly aware and intelligent individual, functioning creatively.

Caregivers and parents can communicate purposefully with these new people. We must recognize our infants as real. They respond when we take them seriously, treat them with respect, and speak as if they do understand. Be kind, but inform your baby about what is or will be happening; for example: “Today the doctor gives you six shots, and it may hurt some.” Don’t lie.

Imagine being trapped in a body you can’t operate. You can’t speak, and your heart recoils in despair when no one hears your mental voice or participates in your wonderful sense of oneness. Holding a sleeping baby is a powerful experience of wordless feeling. I believe it’s about as close to transcendent oneness as a person can get.

Susan Stornetta is a retired archaeologist and a long-time Comstock resident.


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