My third child, now 9 months old, was not very happy about being born. It was a lovely calm home birth in water. According to the ‘rules’ he should have been calm, staring into my eyes with fascination and then, when he was ready, searching around for his first blissful feed. But it was not to be. As soon as our midwife lifted him from the pool, my beautiful son screamed. Like a banshee. The first thing I said, in my exhaustion before I even turned around to look at him, was, ‘Teeny babies aren’t supposed to make that sort of noise, they’re supposed to mew like kittens’. I’d never heard anything like it from a newborn. As it turned out, this was the first indication of the difficulties we would have with him. In that first hour, all he wanted to do was snuggle up to me (or Daddy) with his eyes closed, and *not move*. If I tried to reposition him slightly so he could reach my nipple, he screamed. If anyone so much as touched his foot, he screamed. And when he did finally try to feed, *I* nearly screamed. Looking back, I think he was born with a crick in his neck, or some other discomfort in his body, and putting his head back properly and opening his mouth wide and putting his tongue forward so he could properly attach to the breast was very uncomfortable for him. Eventually, after a very nasty first week that involved cracked nipples and mastitis, we finally found a way to attach so he wasn’t doing me damage and was actually milking my breast.
One of the things we did in that process was to teach him to open is mouth and put his tongue forward on cue, by playing an imitating game.
When he was calm and alert, I would say, “Wide mouth” and open my own mouth wide and stick my tongue out, My baby would copy and I would smile and act excited. I started doing this on the advice of an Australian Breastfeeding Association counsellor when he was four days old. Within a day he had learnt to associate the words ‘wide mouth’ with the action of sticking is tongue forward. With the help of another trick or two, he got on the breast properly and my nipples started to heal. A couple of days later, I saw his first definite smile.
Someone on Facebook shared a beautiful photo of a newborn, still covered in vernix, beaming at the camera. You can see the photo here.
When my Facebook friend shared the smiling baby photo, it was immediately assumed, by commenters, to be either Photoshopped or ‘wind’. I’m not a good enough judge to say for sure it’s not edited, but there’s no way that smile is wind. Where would a minutes-old baby get wind anyway?
Granted, it is rare for a baby to smile this young. None of mine did – although, come to think of it, if you don’t count the oldest (who was born not breathing and ended up spending a couple of days on a ventilator) or the youngest (who was born screaming), then really only the middle one was in a position to smile that early on. But she didn’t. Or if she did, I didn’t recognise it. You certainly don’t hear of it happening often.
But why do we think it’s impossible? It is considered the ‘scientific’ view, but where does it come from? In fact, according to the book How Babies Think by developmental psychologists Alison Gopnik, Andrew Meltzoff and Patricia Kuhl, babies are able to imitate sticking out their tongues and opening their mouths from birth. Yes, the researchers had pagers and ran to the hospital to conduct their research within hours of the birth of their ‘subjects’ – in one case, the baby was less than 45 minutes old. They say,
For many years “experts” who, in fact, knew nothing systematic about babies, took a certain perverse satisfaction in assuring parents that their new babies’ minds were somewhat less sophisticated than that of a slug. Babies couldn’t really see; their smiles were “just gas”; the idea that they recognized familiar people was a fond maternal illusion…
So why am I raising this on a discipline blog? Partly because I thought you’d like to see the beautiful photo 😉 But also because I think it says something about the way we view, and therefore treat, our children. Remember in old movies how they always slap the baby at birth to make it cry? Somehow our culture seems to think it’s good for kids to cry from birth, but not to smile. What does that say about our view of childhood?
I think it contributes to, or comes out of, the unspoken belief that children, and especially babies, are not real people – and therefore cannot have real emotions like happiness. In fact, we sometimes go even further, and discount the reality of their negative feelings, too. As a teenage girl said cheerfully, “They’re made to cry.” What?!? Why? Why would God make a child with the ability to communicate non-existent pain? God is not the author of confusion. If a baby, knit together by God’s wisdom in his mother’s womb, is expressing distress, surely we should assume that he is in distress? As my story above illustrates, a baby who cries is not happy and there is a reason, even at birth, although there may be no way of knowing what it is or being able to fix it.
And surely, if God (or evolution, if you prefer) has designed our kids with the ability to communicate when things are not right, wouldn’t it make sense to build in a positive feedback mechanism as well? Doesn’t it just make sense that a newborn should be able to smile?
And here’s a short Youtube video of a 1-week-old smiling.
When did your baby first smile?