Baby Talk

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I gave birth to my first and only child when I was 35, a maternal age regarded as “last call” in 1986.

Sharing my semi-private hospital room the next day was a younger woman who had just had her third child. Our infants were brought in to us at the same time. I silently gazed at this creature who had been lifted out of me via caesarian section. Arriving that way spared him the misshapen conehead of so many vaginal voyagers, and I studied his nicely shaped pate, his full head of hair, and his plump, rosy cheeks. Everything else was as it should be. But that instant, hormonally induced baby love that’s supposed to kick in right on cue? I wasn’t feeling it. I quickly concentrated on the job at hand, or rather at breast.

Meanwhile, my roommate cooed in a singsong, nonstop patter at her son, a rather scrawny, jaundiced infant, truth be told. Before moving on to nurse, she spent several minutes lingering on baby talk face to face, despite his closed eyes and a rooting reflex that suggested he was after suckling. I couldn’t help but eavesdrop and wondered at her continued outpourings of love for this barely sentient life form.

The infants were soon collected and taken back to the hospital nursery. I shared with my roommate my admiration for her and my own self-doubts. I’ll be forever in this woman’s debt, because she laughed away my qualms. “Just pretend,” she advised, “and it’ll come. I didn’t fall in love with my first baby until he was three months old.”

She knew from experience that a warm engagement on her part from the get-go was key to the deep bonding and well-being that would follow. It didn’t matter what she said, it was the soothing tone. She was in control, putting off nursing for a few precious minutes to show her baby that their relationship was about much more than milk. She was also confident that the yellow tint to her little one’s skin and eyes was common, treatable, and temporary. He would soon be an adorable addition to the family, with a bright future ahead.

My mother, who had had five kids, and my sister, who had two, were adoring baby-whisperers; on top of that, they were local and available. But I was an independent woman, too sophisticated for that “goo-goo, ga-ga” stuff. I admit looking down my nose at women—and men—who talked baby talk incessantly to their infants and toddlers. I thought a chatterbox parent produces a child who never shuts up … or never gets a word in edgewise.

I confess, I didn’t spend a lot of time talking to my child. I consulted the baby-care books as much as any other new parent. At that time, during the latter half of the 20th century, topics ranged from fretfulness and whether or not to let the baby cry to the dangers of spoiling the baby. There were physical milestones aplenty, but not a lot on cognitive development and emotional well-being until about 18 months of age. Even the most avid followers of Dr. Spock,  America’s favorite pediatrician, emotionally seemed more on a par with Mr. Spock of Star Trek.

That’s where we were 30 years ago. Current science tells us that all the neurons in the gray matter of our brains are produced before birth and that while these neurons are poorly connected at first, they quickly produce an exuberance of activity—2 million new synapses every second. Such growth brings rapid achievements such as color vision, a pincer grasp, and attachments to key people.

Beyond the discoveries in neuroscience, we have a lot of new findings collected by experts who watch babies in action. Dr. Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, professor of psychology at Temple University, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and director of Temple University’s Infant Language Laboratory, explains, “We are just beginning to look under the hood. We have a lot more evidence on babies’ behavior, what they respond to or don’t respond to.”

Results show that the youngest brains are what she calls “socially-gated,” meaning that babies are attracted to other people and learn the most through engagement with their primary caregivers. “Babies’ brains are constantly responding to social cues. And when we respond to them,” she continues, “we are sculpting the brain.” The converse is also true, she cautions: “When we don’t interact with them, babies don’t pick up as much.”

But extremes at the other end, such as the abundance of modern analytics, pose other dangers. “We point cameras on babies all the time. We have them wear wrist bands to monitor if their hearts are functioning.” More than a bit much? Dr. Hirsh-Pasek recalls the Three Bears story: If the old common practice was ignoring baby, and the advanced methodology is obsessive attention, there’s a middle ground that is just right.

Dr. Hirsh-Pasek emphasizes the basics. Beyond a safe environment, stimulation, and nourishment, “babies are people, and people need people. They love to be touched, to be hugged, to be breast-fed—which is a form of touching.” After that, we need to pay attention. “We need to be baby readers. A responsive parent takes cues from baby, takes the temperature of emotional response. It’s relationship building.”

One practice she hopes all parents will adopt: “For two minutes a day, put the phone down. Look into the eyes of your child. Then do it for three minutes a day, then four, then seven. Those will become the most precious times of the day for both the baby and the parent.” As a coauthor of her most recent book, Becoming Brilliant, she defines success in the 21st century by healthy, happy, thinking, caring, and creative individuals who will become the critical thinkers, creative innovators, and solid citizens of tomorrow.

How to get this message and the resources into the hands of parents? No matter where they live or their personal networks, community and culture, or economic level, Dr. Hirsh-Pasek cites the elevated support—bipartisan support, too—for early childhood these days. “We need to focus attention even earlier,” she reflects, hoping that policymakers will recognize the need to invest in coaches, home visiting programs, and other kinds of support for parents with newborns to three-year-olds. “If we do that,” she promises, “our children will be the benefactors and will know how to learn-to-learn and to become good citizens in the world.” Until that day, she has two words that boil down best practices for families toward newborns, infants, and babies: “Love them.”

We’ve come a long way, baby, to get where are today. I love my own baby, now 31, and his wife, and hope I can look forward to being a doting grandma sometime in the near future. But babies, along with the communities in which they are raised, will be better off if we can all take advantage of the strides in the neuro- and behavioral sciences, the “it takes a village” mentality, public policy and investment, and a deep appreciation for the littlest members of society.

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Eleanor Levie
Eleanor Levie is a volunteer advocate for quality early childhood programs. Through the power of storytelling, she works to inspire communities and policy makers to lift up children and families. Eleanor is a member of the steering committee of the Southeast Pennsylvania Early Childhood Coalition, and a longtime leader and activist for the National Council of Jewish Women. Born and raised in Baltimore, she spent many years in the metropolitan New York City and greater Philadelphia areas, and now lives with her husband in Center City Philadelphia. Professionally, Eleanor has taught in urban secondary schools and Sunday schools, has written, edited, and produced dozens of books and magazines on needlework and crafts. She travels to quilt guilds around the country to present trunk shows and workshops to inspire out-of-the-box quilting. She is the founder of an online gallery, United We Quilt: Sewing Justice.

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