As infants grow into toddlerhood, we expect that communication will increasingly become a two-way street. Little ones can give us clearer signals of what they need and want so that we can, in turn, respond more accurately. How can you help babies learn to express their specific needs and wants more precisely, even when language is still in very short supply?
Observe to Learn
If we want babies to tune into their own body signals and to communicate their needs to us, we have to be able to spot even the tiniest signals. This set of skills-"decoding" baby signals when distressed or stressed and then responding promptly and appropriately to them-has been studied by Dr. Mary Ainsworth, the "mother" of attachment theory research. Her work has shown that the ability to do this can ensure that a baby will become securely attached to the teacher. So, as you tune into a particular infant's ways of showing neediness, your helpfulness will also be building a trusting relationship.
When the little one is stressed or needs assistance, you are the person whom the child will gesture to, toddle to, or call to.
Every teacher needs to become a seasoned "baby watcher." Perhaps a baby shows very minimal signs of need. He may only whimper a bit and yet be very hungry and gulp down the bottle of milk that you provide. Another baby might wake up from her nap yelling loudly as though she is really hungry, but she may only want a small amount of milk. Your acutely honed "noticing skills" help you individualize your care for each little person.
Tuning to Infants
Notice babies' needs. Suppose you have finished giving a baby a bottle, and you try to lay him down for a nap. He thrashes and cries and his tiny legs draw up against his tummy. This baby may have a gas bubble. Because you notice his need, you are able to rub his back or pat it firmly and rhythmically to help him get the gas bubble out. As you help, be sure to describe what is happening: "Your tummy hurts. You have a gas bubble that needs to come out. I am going to pat-pat-pat on your back and get that gas bubble to go away."
Respond to signals. If you are on the playground and a dog barks sharply as he runs by, a baby in your arms may stiffen and start to cry. With reassuring tones, say, "That was a doggie barking. He is saying woof, woof, woof Did that sound scary? You are safe here." The baby's stiffening body and frightened look told you that the barking worried him. Your words explained his feelings to him and also what was happening so he could calm down.
Support attempts at independence. Most babies eat quite well during the first year of life. They triple their birth weight during this time. When they push your hand away during feeding, they may be telling you that they want to feed themselves. Sometimes they can. Put some cereal on the high-chair tray for self-feeding. You can try compromising with a young baby whose wrist control doesn't allow self feeding but who is determined to try. As he bats away at the spoon you hold, say, "OK, honey. Here is a spoon for you so we can both get lunch into your tummy."
Working With Toddlers
Offer words to describe their needs. Although a toddler may not be able to tell you that he is tired, you notice him stumbling about, rubbing his reddened eyes. He may fuss and whine and need you to say clearly as you carry him over to the diapering table: "I will help you get all cozy in your crib for a nap. Let's go change your diaper and settle you into a nice soothing rest time." You are giving words to the child's needs, even though he may not be able to pinpoint his own needs!
Accept their body rhythms. Some toddlers are ready to give up a nap long before others. If you have an older toddler who needs less rest, you can let him quietly look at a book on his cot. Your acceptance of his body rhythms teaches him to respect his internal body signals.
Explain your actions. Sometimes toddiers are so much on the go that they don't want to be stopped-not even if they are wearing a soiled diaper! Be sure to tell the squirming toddler who is impatient to get back to his activities: "I know you really want to run around some more! I need to put a fresh diaper on you so your skin does not get red and sore. Thank you for lying still while we get you clean and ready to play again!" By your words, you confirm that you understand the toddler's wants but also need to keep him dry and free from diaper rash.