I was at a home birth many years ago. The new mother had nursed the baby, and was just drying off after showering, and chatting to her husband about what had just happened, while I was quietly tidying the bedroom. As the parents came out of the bathroom, shining and clean, the midwife approached the baby, who was lying in a moses basket. With the parents' permission, the midwife was going to do the newborn exam. She leaned close to the baby, and said something like..."Hello - I'm Patti. I'd like to pick you up and weigh you and measure you." She waited a moment, then gently picked up the baby. Each movement during the newborn exam was preceded by an explanation of what she was doing. She moved slowly. She held the baby respectfully. "Babies are not fragile, but they are vulnerable," she explained to the new dad, as she moved her finger along the baby's spine. The baby was engaged, focused on Patti's words. The baby was content to be weighed and measured by these calm hands, washed by calm words.
I had always spoken to my own babies and clients' babies as people, as equals, but what Patti was doing took it to another level. "I'm going to put a diaper on you now (pause)..." She provided ample time for the baby to take in her request and respond. She was asking the baby to be a partner in a conversation, right from birth. She was also modeling a wonderful slow parenting method which the parents then continued with their baby as he grew.
When Jack and Finn were newborns, I didn't want to interrupt their time with their parents by holding them too much (unless a parent had been "touched out" and needed a quiet moment). Before picking one up, I would tell him what I was going to do and pause for a (then silent) response. I still go through a day with the boys, telling them what will happen next, what we've just done, and how our day will flow. The rhythm helps them to make sense of their world, and shows that we respect their need to understand the world. They are active, and now very vocal, participants in the conversation. "We'll go to grandmama's house, and then she will give us scones!" How we parent our babies at birth flows through the toddler, then preschool, then school years. Everything is connected.
Montessori teachers have practiced this for a long time. Michael Olaf says, "Gentle handling from birth on also builds trust in the world. Talk to the child gently, explaining what you are doing as you dress and change him. Provide soft clothing, peace, and soft lights, in the first days as the child is getting used to the world outside the womb. We can learn to listen to the sounds a baby makes, to watch quietly, observe, see what the child is trying to tell us, and to get to know this unique human, giving the message that the child is cherished and the world is a safe place."
Rudolf Steiner stated that a newborn is a "sense-organ" (she is a sponge for touch and sound and movement and taste). Parents should pay close attention to the sensual input surrounding their newborn, limiting their time outside in loud traffic or having noisy toys in the first years. Babies take some time to "come into their body", so our words and movements and their environment should be respectful and calm. I especially love Rahima Baldwin's book, "You are Your Child's First Teacher", which points to practical ways to bring this gentle Waldorf approach into your home. It was only after about two years that Jack and Finn were able to process the overwhelming sensory input of a crowded space. Slow and quiet outdoor green spaces were more their style, and we respected and honoured their needs by keeping the pace slow until they were ready for more.
Magda Gerber, one of the founders of RIE, said “We not only respect babies, we demonstrate our respect every time we interact with them. Respecting a child means treating even the youngest infant as a unique human being, not as an object.” Talking to our babies about what will happen next helps them to feel safe in the world, and helps parents develop a sense of rhythm. Describing what you will do next, calmly and slowly, will also ensure that you remain connected with your baby, and reminds you to slow down. You don't need swings or bouncers or extra props. With the RIE approach, a lot of pressure is taken off the parent. You can let the baby lie on the floor watching a sunbeam or the geometric line of a table leg. You can slow down and see the world from your baby's perspective. This is the start of child-led learning. For more info on the basics of RIE, take a look at Janet Lansbury's blog and see if her posts resonate.
Explore the ideas in the Waldorf, Attachment Parenting, Montessori, RIE and Slow parenting approaches and see what makes sense to you and your family. Each will offer you some great parenting tools...and, to quote one client, "There are some ideas that I just want to throw a book at!" Take what you like and throw a book at the rest.
Through these conversations with your baby, you will start to develop your own family philosophy, "the big picture", that will lead you through all the years of parenting. Our own slow family philosophy includes a lot of "Cs". I see us as caring for our children, with conversation, connection, consideration and consistency. Our children do not belong to us, they belong to themselves, but we're in this together. What's your family's philosophy? Or are you still pregnant and waiting to hear what your baby says?
Respect for our child's autonomy starts with our first conversation. "Here's my breast. This side is the appetizer. The next side is the entree. I think you might like it!" Wait...listen with your heart...and your baby will answer.