Sometimes a company’s marketing department gets it right. A commercial for a baby soap that is currently running on network TV does a better job demonstrating why parents should engage with their infants than any lecture I’ve ever attended.
All you see is a charming 3-month-old little girl being caressed and bathed by a mother’s hands. The baby wrinkles up her little nose and eyes and smiles an absolutely angelic smile while surrounded by bubbles.
The voice-over is almost hypnotic. “In just this one moment, your baby is getting even more than clean. You are nurturing her mind and helping her development.” They are absolutely right.
When a client told me that he would only be able to relate to his newborn when she could talk, I got worried. Apparently he hadn’t been watching the baby soap ad. She needs him now.
Babies are not, as my client believed, little blobs of neediness who just have to be fed, cleaned up and kept quiet by being plopped in front of a TV until they can carry on a semi-adult conversation. No. They are little social and behavioral sponges. By watching and experiencing give and take with the people who raise them, they learn language, nonverbal cues and social rules. In fact, it is only by interacting with other humans that they learn how to be fully human.
Researchers have determined that children’s early experiences with those who care for them affect the development of their brain’s very architecture, creating the foundation for every dimension of learning throughout the rest of life. How we parent our children in those early years has a long-range effect on everything from future success in school and on the job to how happy they will be in their own marriages and families someday.
How can we make sure our children have the brightest possible future? Thinking about the responsibility we have to our kids can be daunting. But nature has done well making the job as rewarding for us as it is essential for them. When we connect, really connect, with our babies, we have the opportunity to take time out from the stresses of life and to participate in the give and take of pure love.
Fortunately my client was an interested learner. When he realized he had often had full “conversations” with his much loved (and non-talking) dog, he was open to reconsidering his notions about how to relate to his child. Over the next few weeks we went over these basic principles. Over the next few weeks, he was surprised and delighted with his new connection with his infant daughter.
Here are some tips for connecting with your baby:
- Take your time when spending time with your baby.
A good beginning is in that soap ad. Bathing a baby isn’t just about getting him clean. It’s an opportunity to stimulate all of his senses through loving touch. While you slowly massage and caress and play, his little brain is making important connections. As he gets used to how it feels to be slid into warm water, how you touch him, and the sound of your voice, he will gradually look into your eyes for longer and longer moments. Those moments of connection are deeply satisfying for you both.
- Talk to your baby.
Provide a running narrative about what you are doing and why. Bath time is a fine, intimate place to start: “Now I’m washing your little toes. Look at the bubbles. Doesn’t that feel good?” Do the same thing whenever your baby is with you, even while you do chores and when you are driving. You’ll both have more fun — and the synapses in the baby’s brain will be firing away, learning vocabulary and cause and effect.
- Take turns.
Sometime in the first few months, your baby will figure out the give and take of social interaction. A baby’s smile is one of nature’s great rewards. You smile. She smiles back. You smile some more. She babbles. You make eye contact and make sounds back. She will make more sounds. Her vocabulary may be limited to gurgles, cries and coos but she is trying out the basics of verbal communication.
- Teach emotion regulation.
You are the model for how to regulate emotion. Give your baby names for feelings. “Your smile tells me you are happy.” “You seem upset.” Show her how to calm herself by being calm when she is cranky or distressed. By talking in a soothing voice, rocking and holding her, you are helping her feel safe so she can get back in control. As she responds to you, you will feel better too.
- Read, sing and tell stories.
Start the bedtime story and lullaby ritual very early. Reading with the lights down low will help settle you both after a busy day. Your pleasure in reading and songs teaches your child that academics and the arts are pleasurable.
- Ditch the computer devices and TVs for babies.
Children need two-way interaction, not the one-way stimulation of whatever is bouncing on a screen. There is absolutely no data to support the idea that screen use before the age of 2 is helpful to brain development. In fact, if it is used by parents as a substitute for engagement, it can be destructive.
- Ditch your devices when you are with your child.
Yes, I know it’s tempting. Those message tones keep coming in from your cell phone. It may seem harmless to be catching up on the latest episode of whatever show you’re addicted to while giving your baby a bottle or rocking him to sleep. But time with your baby needs to be time with your baby.
If you are distracted by or engaged with your devices, you are depriving yourself and your baby of important bonding time. Your baby’s development and your connection with each other depend on your involvement.
The marketing department of the soap commercial is interested in selling a product. But the more important message is there all the same. As the voiceover says, “Why just clean your baby when you can give her so much more?”
Baby bath photo available from Shutterstock