The Infant "Need" Experts Don't Talk About

The Infant

“Why shouldn’t I hand my baby toys… or at least move them within his reach?” a mom in one of my parent/infant guidance classesasked.  I had gently suggested she leave the toys as I had originally placed them on the floor rather than move them closer to her 6 ½ month old, who lay prone. He had rolled from back to tummy, but otherwise wasn’t mobile yet.

I don’t like playing the role of the bad guy, but in this case, I’ll gladly wear the black hat. Here’s why:

1. When babies are playing, it’s next to impossible for us to know what they’re really up to unless they show us by “doing it”. For example, observing this 6 ½ month baby (who was facing away from his mom and towards me), I could see that he was not looking at the toy she was about to give him. He was looking across the room at something else. I’m not sure what he was focused on, but that hardly matters.

More often than not, when we offer babies the toys they seem to be looking at, we are jumping to a conclusion about their desire or intention that is false.  Even if we see the infant reach toward the toy, can we be sure that the child isn’t enjoying the process of stretching his arm toward the toy? Who are we to assume to know our child’s plans?

2.  In our children’s eyes we are extremely powerful, magical, influential. When we hand our baby a toy, we send this subtle message: “Rather than do whatever you are doing, take this. This is something that should interest you (or that I want you to be using).”

3. And the less subtle message: “Don’t bother trying to move, I’ll get that for you.”

4. And even more defeating:  “You need me to get toys for you.”

So, amazingly, by the innocent act of handing a baby a toy, we send discouraging messages that can hinder development and create unnecessary dependencies.

We also rob children of the invaluable opportunity to feel competent and experience mastery. This is the infant “need” few experts recognize or acknowledge, but it is at the heart of Magda Gerber’s Educaring approach.

More than forty years ago Magda Gerber espoused the vision of infants as competent people to whom we should demonstrate our respect and trust. We should believe in babies – trust them to initiate engagement with us and the world, explore, learn and develop at their individual, intrinsically motivated, self-chosen pace.  It is this model of competency, this powershe advised us to bestow on our babies at birth that has always set her infant care approach apart.

Whether they are attempting to self-soothe, develop motor skills or solve problems that might crop up while they play, our babies need to be allowed to try,and to do so with our support.  Mastery and the feelings of competence, agency, and self-confidence that come with it are vital components for a lifetime of health and happiness.  Mastery is possible for every infant. We just have to know how to facilitate it.

Experts like Alison Gopnik, Elizabeth S. Spelke, Paul Bloom and others have been verifying infant competency through their enlightening studies, but no one that I know of besides Magda Gerber has ever provided a plan to help parents help their babies reap the many benefits of mastery.  Here are some of the necessary ingredients:

1. Responsive, attentive, consistent care based on two-way communication (please see Ten Best Ways To Encourage Toddlers To Talk for details)

2. A safe, cognitively challenging environment in which the infant has complete freedom of movement.

3. Passive (rather than electronic), open ended toys and objects.

5. Observation. This is the key to understanding the difference betweenour thoughts, feelings and intentions and our child’s.

7. The understanding that young children enjoy “getting there”. They are fully engaged in processand do not need to achieve goals to have a profitable experience. An experience that might seem “incomplete” to us is usually “enough” for our children. We are the ones who unwittingly teach babies that they should “finish the task”.

Now, considering the example of the infant and the toy, you might ask, “What if my baby is clearly reaching for a toy and starts crying? Shouldn’t I help?”

Yes, of course we should help, but in a manner that supports and encourages continued attempts at mastery. This means acknowledging feelings (“You are working very hard and seem to be getting frustrated”) and offering breaks (“Do you want me to pick you up?”) or minor assistance (for example, subtly moving the toy a teensy bit closer, or lifting a chair so that the child can retrieve the toy that has disappeared under it).

With an older infant or toddler, this might mean talking the child through the problem rather than fixing it for her.  “Can you move your foot down the bar just below you? I’m here to make sure you don’t fall.” Then, maybe, “You’re having a tough time. I’m going to help you place your foot on the bar. There, can you get down now? Yes, you did it!”

We can never go wrong when we resist the “fixes” that are so easy for us and instead choose patience and trust.  Then we open the door for our children to not only fulfill their need for mastery, but to also surprise us, amaze us, make us proud. They need to do those things, too.

For inspiration, here once again is the must-see video from “Don’t Help This Baby”….



I share more about this revolutionary approach to infant learning in Elevating Childcare: A Guide to Respectful Parenting