Respectful Communication with Infants: Laying the Foundations for a Life-Long Partnership

written by Laila Muller, NTNC Intern

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Even without words, your baby is constantly communicating with you. She communicates through body language, facial expression, and tone of voice. You use the same tools as your baby, but you also have speech.

Respectful communication has been shown to relieves stress in adults and to be is soothing to children. At NTNC we also believe that creating healthy habits around parent/child interactions lays the foundation for loving partnerships. Strong partnerships include observation, cooperation, attention, patience, listening, and acknowledging ideas and feelings.

The sooner we start talking to children as though they understand us, the less we will need to change our language when they actually do. Though your infant cannot yet understand your words, he is definitely attuned to your emotional state. Whatever you say (and don’t say) in his presence is understood in some way. Tone and rhythm are part of how we feel and what we understand in relationship.

What does respectful communication mean when talking to your infant? For one thing, it means not talking about her in front of her—this serves to exclude her from the conversation. Try talking directly, “Hello! You’re looking at me. You’re smiling.” When something happens, tell her story aloud, “You’re stretching. You sat up. You took a step. You fell down.” Describing what she does helps her to organize her experience and shows her that you are paying attention.

Talking to your child can help both of you to become calmer and more centered in times of stress. In these instances, you can simply state what is happening: “I’m washing your hair . . . you don’t like it. You are crying. You wanted to keep playing.” Telling the story of the event with compassion and care helps to clarify a messy emotional situation.

In fact everyday moments have the potential to be rich with connection and joy. One of the most powerful things that you can say to your baby is, “I see you.” You can say that in words *and* in actions; he will feel it when he has your full attention. For example, when you are diapering and talking on the phone at the same time, you are missing an opportunity to communicate with your child. Full attention is *not* multi-tasking. So try using diapering and other care giving activities as a time to be fully present with him.

Adult conversations will take place when your child is present. Simply check in with her and let her know what you are talking about or even say to her; “We’re having a grown-up talk.” This way you acknowledge her as a person.

Communication is an important part of any relationship, and the goal is to build healthy habits from birth. We want to talk *with* our children, not *about* them, even before they are able to respond to us in words. Infants comprehend a lot more than we think they do. Speaking in respectful ways with your infant will strengthen your relationship, now and in the future.