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Sensing baby

Teacher, writer and parent MIRIAM MCCALEB shares her insights into how Baby senses her world, and invites parents to meet her neurobiological needs by carving out time together and letting the senses reign.

Babies are born with incomplete brains. Many of us have received that memo, either through parenting magazines like Family Times, through the work of not-for-profits like Brainwave Trust Aotearoa and Love Grows Brains, or elsewhere. Father John Misty communicates this idea eloquently in his song Pure Comedy:

Our brains are way too big for our mothers’ hips
And so Nature, she divines this alternative:
We emerge half-formed and hope that whoever
greets us on the other end
Is kind enough to fill us in
And, babies, that’s pretty much how it’s been ever since.

Having spent years (decades!) giving talks and writing articles, and trying to find ways to turn complex science into a useful party, I am wowed by the succinct artistry of that verse. We emerge half-formed and hope that whoever greets us on the other end is kind enough
to fill us in. 

Sometimes I ask parents to imagine that their role is a bit like being a guide in a foreign land. I think it’s useful to sit with the image of arriving in a strange country, where everything is unknown and the language is a mystery. Who would you like to meet you and help you with your bag? And will they be ‘kind enough to fill you in’? To show you what’s what, who’s who, what to expect, and what’s expected of you. What the knife and fork are for!

But you have to work up to that. When our babies first arrive, and we are thinking of ways to be that receptive guide, we see that she has ways of letting us know that she’s hungry. Or tired, or over-stimulated, or hot. The mature guide in this relationship must pay attention.

You see, when babies are brand new, their experience of the world is entirely sense-based. Those incomplete brains of ours develop in a bottom-up way, with the more simple functions being wired up before we learn the complex stuff. We learn to roll before we learn to make cinnamon rolls. Dig?

The way Baby experiences the world will develop and mature just as her other abilities will. In terms of experiencing her world, Baby will one day be able to think about it, talk about it, and sing about it. She will use her hands and the rest of her body to interact with it.

But for now, Baby is sensing the world. That’s what she’s doing.

So let’s do our best to un-think about that. Which is to say, one of the more useful gifts you can give to your baby (and yourself!) is to carve out time to be together, heart to heart.

Your challenge: to try and meet her in this neurobiological space, where thinking dials down, and senses ramp up. Let go of the to-do list, distract the toddler, and wrestle this bit of time for you both.

Really give in to the scent of your baby. Take time to sniff that neck. Notice the feel of her sweet soft blanket and look closely at the profound perfection of her skin. Those pores! That glow! Bask in the sounds of her breath – all hail those sweet snuffles!

Being together in a space where the senses reign puts you on an equal footing as you begin the vital dance of developing your relationship.

And friends, there is nothing more important than that relationship. In the words of neuroscientific rock star Bruce Perry, ‘the attachment relationship is as important for development as the umbilical cord is in utero’.

So while Baby is tiny, take the time to connect with her on a sensory level. Cherish that relationship, and use all your senses to do so.

Miriam McCaleb is a teacher, writer and parent, and ‘a geek’ whose specialist subject is babies. A voracious student of child development, and an obsessive thinker on issues relating to parenting and family relationships, she loves nothing more than to provoke thinking about children’s well-being. She shares ideas and info about children, science, families and life on her blog baby.geek.nz.

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