Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Understanding your baby's signals

This week a woman was on Oprah who says she made the amazing discovery that babies communicate their needs with a primitive form of language.

This news is not really so amazing if you speak to experienced mothers. So many mothers are being encouraged to fix strict schedules and set boundaries and limits, to show the baby who is "in control", that they are depriving themselves of the special opportunity to listen to their baby, and to learn who he/she really is. Communciation between mother and baby does not need to be verbal: in fact one argument suggests that if you are waiting for baby to verbalise (even in that primitive language) then you have missed a whole lot of non-verbal signals that can tell you the same sorts of information, giving you a chance to respond earlier. Baby is hungry or tired or lonely or in pain...a mother who is listening notices these differences, and learns to respond in the way that best meets her baby's needs. Learning to listen to your own baby's cues can actually help you have an easier life as a parent.

Take feeding cues as an example. How do you know your baby is hungry? Generally the answer parents give is that the baby cries, but in fact, if you wait till then, you have missed those non-verbal cues. Crying is the last sign of hunger.

But don't babies breastfeed "on demand"? We imagine this "demand" to feed will be made in a "demanding" way....like "I want my dinner and I want it RIGHT NOW! WAH! WAH! WAH!" But if you respond sooner, before baby cries, breastfeeding will definitely go more smoothly.

Studies of crying in babies have found that the baby’s breathing, oxygen concentration, heart rate and blood pressure are all affected negatively by crying. Cortisol, a stress hormone, is elevated and baby’s sucking pattern becomes disorganized. The tongue is pulled up into the mouth during crying, whereas breastfeeding requires the tongue down and forward. With all this stress, baby takes longer to settle for a feed.

What about the “good” baby, who sleeps well and doesn’t make “demands?” “Good” babies may not get enough milk, inadvertently, because their mothers are waiting for them to cry! Crying is metabolically taxing for baby, and without enough food, baby may not have the energy to cry.

So what to look out for? Mouthing movements, sucking hands, rooting or other increased activity, even with the eyes shut, all indicate baby will be receptive to feeding. When parents recognize and respond quickly to these early hunger signs, babies don’t need to become really“demanding”and state their needs unequivocally!