The phone rang midway through the morning, two days after my granddaughter’s birth and hours before the prescribed ‘discharge time’ from the hospital maternity unit.
My daughter’s quiet voice came over the phone line.
“Mom, I’m afraid.”
“Of what, honey?”
“Mom, I can’t do this. The nurse just came in, they want me to get ready and take the baby home.”
Ignoring my laughing inner voice, I said, “Of course they do, honey. That is what happens when you have a baby…you get to take it home!”
“But how am I going to know how to take care of her?”
The words of my daughter echoed through the years to my own fear-filled self, standing over my newborn daughter, freshly dressed in her going home clothes. Even though I was an experienced newborn nursery nurse who confidently taught a newborn care class each day, this was different. This was my own baby. Somehow I needed to understand her needs, take care of her, feed her and keep her safe. She was totally dependent on me, like a stranger in a strange land whose language I did not speak.
Fast forward thirty-one years and I realized that this young woman, competent in every other way during her life, was looking at her freshly dressed newborn daughter and facing the same fears. How do you care for a vulnerable person and understand their needs when you do not speak their language?
Dating from the writings of Aristotle, babies were considered to be born with no cognitive or behavioral traits in place. The words used to describe a newborn were tabula rasa, which translates into English as ‘blank slate’ and refers to a wax tablet that could be written on, heated up, erased and written on again.
Today, research into the behaviors and early cognitive abilities of a newborn baby has brought us to a different understanding.
Newborns, in all the most important ways, are competent individuals who have the ability to communicate their needs. They are able to make their needs known and continuously learn from interactions with the environment around them. The natural environment for a newborn baby is in the arms of a parent as the center of their focus and attention.
This validates for me the answer I gave my daughter and years before myself. “You will learn. Watch how she moves her arms and legs, watch her little hands, watch her facial expressions and look into her eyes. She will talk to you.”
The first two months of life with a newborn baby can be an overwhelming uphill journey. The baby’s constant care consumes every minute of every day. However, their uniqueness captures us into a relationship like no other we have ever experienced. Indeed, they are so incredibly fascinating that we often spend hours just looking at them. Even when we are so bone-weary tired, at our wit’s end and sure we are failing the motherhood test. It is in the hours spent looking at our newborn, feeding and caring for her, watching her responses to our touch, that we slowly begin to learn her language.
On the other side of the intense first weeks, is understanding. Perhaps it is the very intensity and constant-ness of the contact a newborn brings, that builds the language bridge between parent and child. In constant attention we discover the gift of our newborn’s language; we begin to understand her.
Research is now beginning to acknowledge the role that initial, constant contact plays in establishing the relationship for adoptive parents, too.
As you gaze into the clear eyes of your newborn baby, it may be that the first thing she is saying to you is simply, “Hi mom, I already love you…give me a few weeks and I will help you learn my language!”
Debbie Jensen RN, BS, M.Ed., IBCLC, has 40 years of experience as a nurse and lactation consultant. The babies in the photos are (top) Reilly Rose Jenson, daughter of Debbie’s daughter, Jessika Jenson; at the bottom of the article is a photo of Gideon Jensen, Debbie’s son’s second child.