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Over the years, I have counseled parents on the importance of responding to a baby’s cry. My first article on this subject listed ten reasons for a quick response to tears, and discussed the importance of giving loving messages and emotional reassurance to a baby, who after all can only communicate pain or unhappiness with cries and body language. This article will explore another benefit of compassionate responsiveness to tears: helping the baby learn to talk.
As I wrote in my previous article, “A baby’s first attempts to communicate cannot be in words, but can only be nonverbal.” Yet only part of the baby’s nonverbal vocabulary is taken seriously by many in our culture. If a baby gurgles happily and then says “Dada,” we are likely to find a smiling father beaming at the baby, and encouraging more such attempts at speech. Everyone recognizes that parent-baby interactions of this kind can only serve to enhance the learning process, and allow the baby to progress at her natural pace. We all know that babies in orphanages who are left alone for long periods of time can develop speech problems. It just makes sense that encouragement and “conversations” with a baby are healthy and good.
However, if that same baby starts to cry, our culture tells us this is somehow different from other attempts to communicate. We are warned not to respond too quickly for fear of spoiling her. The baby is “coercing” us, “manipulating” us, or deliberately making us miserable, and it is up to us to “show her who’s boss.” Yet what is the difference between babbling, early syllables and words, and crying? All of these behaviors are attempts to learn to communicate. If we respond only to some of these behaviors, and not to others, we are telling the baby that only some communication is effective and valuable. The baby then receives harmful messages about which feelings can be safely expressed, and about learning in general: sometimes learning is acceptable, and sometimes it is ignored or punished. Sometimes attempts to express feelings with sounds are successful, and sometimes they are not. These mixed messages can only slow the learning process, and confuse the baby who is always, after all, learning about learning.
It is easy for parents and other adults to support and encourage a baby’s attempts to communicate pleasure; in fact there are few things in life more delightful. A smiling, gurgling baby elicits our smiles, creating a joyfully shared moment in time. When a smiling baby babbles, we encourage this learning with our own smiles and words in response. The baby says “Dada?” and we say, “Yes, here comes Dada!” But when the same baby tries to communicate displeasure or pain due to hunger, fatigue, loneliness, or some other ill with tears or babbles of hurt or fear, we are told to punish or ignore this communication, for fear of “spoiling.” Yet, tears are simply another attempt by the baby to learn to communicate feelings, and a step along the way to full verbalization. Ignoring a baby’s tears or vocal protests is not only unkind, it sets up artificial categories of “good” and “bad” communication, which can only slow a child’s linguistic development and affect her self-esteem. The best way for us to help a child develop at her optimum rate of growth is to be fully supportive of every step she takes.