As soon as my wife and I start to feel like we’re getting the hang of this parenting thing, we’re brought back to the reality that we simply don’t. One week our daughter takes lots of long naps, plays on her own and sleeps well at night. The next week she has trouble falling asleep at every nap, constantly wants to be held and cries seemingly for no reason at all. So we readjust our routine and try changing up the sleep schedule, the temperature inside or anything else we can think of that might help.
Even though things do manage to improve sometimes, I’m still not quite sure how much our decisions are actually the reason why. We read the research. We ask our doctor for all the advice she can offer. But at the end of the day, each baby is unique and unpredictable.
It’s helpful for me to catalog what the research tells me so I can at least try to let it aid my decision-making going forward. The real answers I need are going to take time and practice. There’s no test I can take to make me proficient at handling all my baby’s needs right now, when she’s too young to tell me what she needs or wants.
But even though she can’t verbally communicate yet, we can communicate in other ways, and research says it’s a good idea. Here’s why.
Making eye contact with your infant
A new study out of the University of Cambridge looked at the brainwave patterns of 36 infants, and the researchers compared this activity to the brain activity of the adults supervising the babies. What they found was that infants’ brainwaves were more synchronized with the adults’ brainwaves when the adult maintained eye contact with the infant.
Interestingly, the adult and the infant were most in sync when the adult’s head was turned away but eye contact was maintained. Essentially, by turning their head, the adult was giving the strongest indication to the infant that eye contact was a deliberate and intentional act. Even if infants can’t understand the mechanics of this, their subconscious picks up on the adult choosing to lock eyes with them.
Synchronizing brainwaves sounds interesting enough, but what’s the actual benefit to doing this? The lead author of this study, Dr. Victoria Leong, said the following:
When the adult and infant are looking at each other, they are signaling their availability and intention to communicate with each other. We found that both adult and infant brains respond to a gaze signal by becoming more in sync with their partner. This mechanism could prepare parents and babies to communicate by synchronizing when to speak and when to listen, which would also make learning more effective.
Even if our infants are too young to communicate their wants and needs to us in a way we can understand, encouraging them to try is important in their early development. Our child’s success now in developing speech and language skills is associated with greater success later on in reading, writing and social skills. This often-cumulative effect can pay off dividends in early childhood and even into adulthood. It starts, however, with encouraging communication well before our kids can effectively talk to us.
Long before our daughter is able to speak to us, she’ll understand what we’re saying to her. She certainly already understands the tones of our voices, and I think she may end up being a bit of a social butterfly. She enjoys talking to us, but I do notice she is far more talkative when there are no distractions around us. Whenever I’ve maintained eye contact with her, she’s been the most expressive and talkative. I’ve also noticed she tends to sleep after we’ve spent some time talking together. I don’t know if the talking makes her more tired. Perhaps it’s soothing to her, or maybe synchronizing our brainwaves somehow leads to more peaceful sleep for her.
I certainly don’t understand all the mechanics of it, but I do know how much she seems to enjoy our time talking together. I also know there are plenty of long-term benefits to continuing our little chats.
How to go about these conversations
Communicating should always be a two-way street, even before you’re able to understand what your baby is saying to you. Tell them something, then pause and wait for a response. Repeat your baby’s words back to them, even if they’re not really words but baby sounds instead. You should smile, laugh and mirror facial expressions of your baby, and try to imitate their gestures as well. Essentially, the back and forth is about repetition and learning.
If we show our babies we value their communication, they’ll be encouraged to keep talking to us. As a result, they’ll grow and learn at a faster rate. In addition to the long-term benefits, the sooner our daughter can tell us what she needs, the easier my life will be. Now, I better end this and go ask her why she’s upset this time. I’ll do my best to sound it out.
Jay McKenzie loves soccer, history and feeling great. He’s on a quest to eat better and exercise more, and he wants to share his experiences along the way. You can email him at [email protected] with comments or questions. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.