Well hi there! It’s been a while since I’ve been able to post— life has been busy lately. But I’m back now, and ready to continue my series on positive parenting. This week I’m writing about the special needs of infants and toddlers.
According to child development experts, infants are children under age two. That may be surprising to some people! I know that it surprised me when I first learned it. By age two, most children know how to walk, run, talk (with a limited vocabulary), and yes, get into “trouble” and throw tantrums. Yet children under two years of age are still considered babies! The significance of this is that parenting needs to be different for babies than it is for older children. Most importantly, infants cannot be expected to behave according to adult standards. Not only do they not understand the world the way we do, but they lack the ability to control themselves.
In other words, children under age two are essentially incapable of truly misbehaving. They don’t intentionally do things that we consider “naughty.” Instead, they act based on what they think and feel. They are actually incapable of understanding that we have a different point of view than them. In their minds, we and every other person and thing that they see exists only for their sake. The world quite literally revolves around them!
When I was a nanny, I did not always see things this way. Many times I felt positive that the little 11 month old boy that I was caring for did things intentionally to bother me. When he threw his bottle, it was because he wanted to upset me. When he didn’t want to go down for a nap, it was because he didn’t want me to be able to rest. And as silly as these thoughts may sound now, they seemed logical then! Why? Because even as babies, human beings are intelligent. I saw his natural intelligence and let it convince me that he was just a miniature person. But the truth is, while babies are people, they are not fully developed people. While they are intelligent, they are not capable of the same complex kinds of thoughts that we are. And babies don’t misbehave intentionally, because they don’t understand what misbehaving even is.
The point is, there is no place for discipline of any kind when it comes to caring for babies. Infants need responsive care and a safe environment to explore. Discipline can (and definitely should) come later, when the child is capable of understanding it.
So what is responsive care, and why is it so important? According to a famous developmental psychologist, Erik Erikson, children go through two stages of psychosocial development in the first two years of life. The first stage is called “trust versus mistrust,” and it is experienced during approximately the first year of life. In this stage, babies must learn to trust in their caregivers and the world around them. They must develop a sense of security in this first year of life if they are to grow up with the best possible outcomes.
The second stage, experienced in the second year of life, is called “independence versus doubt and shame.” In this stage, young toddlers must develop a sense of independence in certain areas, such as learning how to care for themselves to some degree. Learning to use the potty, put on clothing, feed oneself, and explore independently from their parents are some of these important skills. If toddlers are allowed and encouraged to try to do some things for themselves, they will develop a sense of independence. If they are overprotected, discouraged, or shamed, them they will likely develop a sense of guilt and a lack of confidence.
Using these concepts, we can understand that the most important thing for parents to give young babies is consistent and responsive care. This means that babies should be picked up promptly when they cry, and their needs taken care of. Sometimes, babies cry even when they aren’t hungry, in need of a diaper change, or uncomfortable. This doesn’t mean that they need attention any less. In a way, it can be said that babies sometimes cry to test their caregivers. This is not intentional testing, of course, but it is the way in which babies develop that sense of security that I explained earlier. They learn that if they cry, and then receive attention, then they can trust their caregivers.
There is a method known as “cry it out” that some caregivers use, and I myself have used in the past before I began studying child development. When a baby is crying, the caregiver ensures that he is not hungry, has a clean diaper, and is not otherwise uncomfortable. After the baby’s physical needs are met, and the caregiver cannot find a way to make him stop crying, the caregiver will put him in a secure place such as a crib, and then leave him to cry. This is especially used when trying to get young infants and toddlers to nap. Unfortunately, this method ignores the psychological needs of the infant, including the need to develop a sense of security! As harmless as it may sound, I would not recommend using “cry it out” when caring for an infant. Although all of a baby’s physical needs may be met, she still has emotional and psychological needs that are important. Even if a baby continues to cry as you hold her and try to comfort her, the fact that you are trying is what’s important. Through the process of soothing the infant, you can show her that you will always be there to comfort her.
As babies grow older and become toddlers (still infants, technically speaking!) they need care that changes to match their needs. Toddlers need to develop a sense of independence, which happens best in a safe environment for them to explore. Since toddlers learn rapidly, they need a variety of interesting things to play with and space to freely explore. Since they are also innocent to the dangers of the world, they also need very close supervision and a caregiver who will ensure that the playthings and spaces the baby has access to are safe. Toddlers should never be scolded or put in time out, and especially not for getting into things that are “off limits.” It is the caregiver’s job to ensure that the baby doesn’t have access to such things. If a toddler does manage to get into things that are “off limits,” as a result of his natural and healthy curiosity, the caregiver should simply redirect him to something more appropriate.
As an infant approaches his or her second birthday, and then continues on through childhood, there is a period of transition in which caregivers must learn to gradually introduce positive discipline. Obviously, a child doesn’t instantly become mature enough to understand rules and discipline overnight on her second birthday. Instead, she slowly but surely becomes ready to accept guidance and learn self-control. Caregivers must patiently adapt to a child’s needs and growing abilities, introducing discipline when the child is ready.
In my next post I will write more about this transition period, including how to introduce proactive guidance techniques and begin to establish rules.
What do you think is important in infant care? What kinds of things have you learned from experience? Post a comment below to share your thoughts!