Now Is the Right Time!
As a parent or someone in a parenting role, you play an essential role in your infant’s success. There are intentional ways to grow a healthy parent-infant relationship while building essential listening skills in your infant.
It may seem that the only things infants are capable of in these early months of life involve eating, sleeping, and crying. In fact, they are learning so much that your infant’s brain will double in size in the first year of life. They are deeply engaged in building the foundational social and emotional skills that will set the course for their lifetime.
Your infant’s healthy development depends upon their ability to listen and understand what you and others are communicating even at these early stages. Listening skills support your infant’s ability to engage in healthy relationships, to focus, and to learn. For example, infants need to feel that they can successfully communicate with you and also understand what you are saying for their very survival. Each time you are responsive to your infant’s cries and needs, showing them love and care, they feel understood and learn about the two-way nature of communication.
Infants come to better understand themselves through their interactions with you and other caregivers. Infants are in the process of learning their strengths and limitations, why they feel the way they do, and how they relate to others. Parents and those in a parenting role share in this learning and exploration. This is a critical time to teach and practice listening skills.
Yet, we all face challenges when it comes to listening. With screens, including mobile devices, engaging us for hours of our day, opportunities to interact eye to eye with your infant and exercise listening skills may be missed. Listening skills require other important skills like impulse control, focused attention, empathy, and nonverbal and verbal communication.
For parents or those in a parenting role, the key to many challenges, like building essential listening skills, is finding ways to communicate so that both your needs and your infant’s needs are met. The steps below include specific and practical strategies to prepare you in growing this vital skill.
Infants learn about who they are and how they relate to others through sensitive, caring interactions with you. These interactions impact their ability to listen, to communicate effectively, to learn about and manage their feelings, and to trust in you as a caregiver. Soon you’ll be faced with a fast-moving child who needs to follow your instructions to stay safe in your home and in your neighborhood. Your focus on listening and communicating with your infant will lay a critical foundation of trusting interactions.
Today, in the short term, teaching skills to listen can create
- greater opportunities for connection, cooperation, and enjoyment;
- trust in each other that you have the competence to manage your relationships and responsibilities; and
- a sense of wellbeing and motivation to engage.
Tomorrow, in the long term, working on effective listening skills with your child
- develops a sense of safety, security, and a belief in self;
- builds skills in self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationships, and responsible decision making; and
- deepens family trust and intimacy.
This five-step process helps you and your infant cultivate effective listening skills, a critical life skill. The same process can be used to address other parenting issues as well (learn more about the process).
These steps are done best when you are not tired or in a rush.
Step 1. Getting to Know and Understand Your Infant’s Input
Infants cry between two and three hours everyday. In fact, their primary form of communicating with you is through crying. Paying close attention to your infant’s facial expressions, movements, and sounds helps you understand what they are trying to communicate. Your efforts to learn from your infant create empathetic interactions that promote healthy listening skills in you and your infant. In becoming sensitive to the small differences in your infant’s cries and expressions, you
- are responding to their needs;
- are growing their trust in you, sense of safety, and sense of healthy relationships;
- are improving your ability to communicate with one another;
- are growing your own and their self-control (to calm down when upset and focus their attention); and
- are modeling empathy and problem-solving skills.
Consider how the distinct sounds of your infant’s cries connect with their body language. It is okay if you are unsure or don’t know what your infant is trying to communicate with you. Every infant is unique, and it takes time to learn. Check out these common cues and see if they match your infant’s feelings and associated needs.
- If an infant is uncomfortable, they may use a less intense, short, whiny cry like “eh, eh, eh.”
- If an infant is in pain, their eyes may be closed or may open for a second and look blankly into the distance. Parents often feel a greater sense of urgency with this cry. If it’s gas pain, they may scrunch up their face and pull their legs up.
- If an infant is scared, their eyes may remain open. Their head may move backwards. They may have a penetrating look and an explosive cry. They might suddenly extend their legs, arch their back, and then curl up again — an involuntary startle response.
- If an infant feels angry, their eyes may be half open, half closed either in no direction or a fixed location. Their mouth may be open or half open. Gestures may accompany crying, and they may arch their back to show they are upset. Intensity gradually increases.
- If an infant is hungry, they may produce a cry that looks either similar to anger or discomfort depending on the intensity. Cries can be short, low-pitched, and rise and fall.
- If an infant is tired, they may rub their eyes with them closing and opening. They may pull at their ears and yawn.
Working to identify their specific cries and physical cues can help you be responsive to their needs. For example, if an infant is uncomfortable, respond by loosening or changing clothing or swaddling or changing their position and see if it helps to soothe. If your response to your infant’s cues doesn’t seem to help, that’s okay. Test another response and see if it helps to soothe. It takes time to learn what your infant is communicating with you. As you practice, you’ll get better at recognizing their style of communication. They will feel a greater sense of your understanding and responsiveness, so that your interactions become more two-way instead of one-way.
Decide on a plan for calming down when you are the only one with your infant. Research shows that infants cry less when their caregiver is less stressed. Ensure your infant’s safety, then close your eyes and breathe deeply. A child’s crying and frustrations can be challenging, so be sure and take breaks when you need them.
Step 2. Teach New Skills by Interactive Modeling
Infants are learning how to be in healthy relationships through your loving interactions, which include learning how to listen effectively. Skill building takes intentional practice. Learning about developmental milestones can help you better understand what your infant is working hard to learn. Here are some examples:1
- 0-3-month-olds require lots of daytime and nighttime sleep. They take their first bath, show their first authentic smile, lift and hold up their head, and begin to make gurgling noises to communicate beyond crying.
- 3-6-month-olds seem to “wake up” and become more aware of their surroundings and more capable of a range of interactions with their caregivers. They participate in conversations with coos, laughs, and make spit bubbles. They are discovering their wiggly body parts and learning about who they are as an individual including their emotions through every interaction with you.
- 6-9-month-olds are eager to communicate through facial expressions, sounds, and gestures. They imitate you as they learn. They are interested in grabbing objects and examining them. They attempt to move and may begin scooching, crawling, or even cruising on furniture backwards and forwards.
- 9-12-month-olds can engage in conversations, listening to you and adding their sounds, gestures, and beginnings of words. Asking questions and allowing time for your infant to respond promotes two-way communication. They are gaining a sense of cause and effect in basic terms such as, “If I put my hand in the water, it will get wet.” They may be more upset now when you leave them. And, they are becoming highly mobile either cruising or taking their first independent steps.
Teaching is different than just telling. Teaching builds basic skills, grows problem-solving abilities, and sets your child up for success. Teaching also involves modeling and practicing the positive behaviors you want to see, promoting skills, and preventing problems.
- Model listening while interacting with your infant. Modeling listening skills can be one of the greatest teaching tools.
- Share the focus. As you spend time with your infant, follow their lead. As they pick up new toys or explore a different part of the room, move, notice, and name what they are exploring.2
- Notice gestures and listen for thought and feeling. Attempt to figure out what your infant is trying to tell you through their sounds, gestures, and facial expressions.
- Infants require your attention to thrive. So, why not build a special time into your routine when you are fully present to listen to what your infant has to tell you? Turn off your phone. Set a timer if needed. Then, notice your body language. Ask yourself, “What is my body communicating, and how am I demonstrating that I’m listening?”
- Talk to your infant.
- Talk clearly and slowly. Exaggerate your words for clarity and understanding. Don’t use “baby talk,” which can be difficult to understand.
- Label what you see. “I see a duck. Quack, Quack. Do you see the duck too?”
- Research confirms that talking to an infant enhances their language development.3
- Narrate your daily routines. As you prepare breakfast at home or go shopping together at the store, talk about what you are doing each step of the way. Involve your infant by asking questions. For example, “I am getting out your favorite cereal bowl. I think we’ll have some cereal this morning. Does that sound yummy to you?”
Establish a routine for both you and your infant to calm down when frustrations or upset arise. What will you say? For example, “I need to calm down.” What will you do? Keep tools at hand such as a calming app, gentle music, a sound machine, plush animal toys, or soft blankets.
Step 3. Practice to Grow Listening Skills for Healthy Relationships
Your daily conversations can be opportunities for your infant to practice new vital skills if you seize those chances. Each time your infant works hard to practice essential listening skills, they grow vital new brain connections that strengthen and eventually form habits.
Practice also provides important opportunities to grow self-efficacy — a child’s sense that they can do a task or skill successfully. This leads to confidence. It will also help them understand that mistakes are part of learning.
- Initially, your infant may need active support to encourage listening skills. Engage in listening activities together like listening to a simple audio book or a song and then reflect on what you heard together. “I heard a tapping beat.”
- Recognize effort by using “I notice…” statements like, “I noticed how you listened to my direction to stay on the rug. That will keep you safe.”
- Making animal sounds can be a fun, engaging game for you and your infant as they attempt to match what they hear with their own growing ability to make sounds.
- Read or chant rhymes or poetry to your infant particularly ones with repetitive words and sounds.
- Make music together by putting on a song and offering your infant a rattle, tambourine, or other simple instrument to play along.
- Read together. When you read stories together, you engage in a listening activity that can be deeply connecting for both of you. Reflect on the story, and you’ll take the learning opportunity one step further. “Do you think Little Red Riding Hood was excited to go to Grandma’s House?” Involve your infant in selecting the book, holding it, and turning the pages to build ownership and interest in reading.
Step 4. Support Your Infant’s Development and Success
At this point, you are developing your infant’s skills in listening, and you are allowing them to practice. Now, you can offer support when it’s needed by reteaching, monitoring, and coaching. Parents and those in a parenting role naturally offer support as they see their child fumble with a situation in which they need help. This is no different.
By providing support, you are reinforcing their ability to be successful and helping them grow in their listening skills.
- Learn about your infant’s development. Each new age presents different challenges. Being informed about your child’s developmental milestones offers you empathy and patience.
- Stay engaged. Trying new listening strategies can offer additional support and motivation for your infant especially when communication becomes challenging.
There are so many amazing changes and developments to celebrate with your infant. Each little achievement is something worth recognizing and celebrating.
Taking the time to recognize and celebrate can promote safe, secure, and nurturing relationships. It makes children feel secure and loved, which helps their brains develop. It builds a foundation for strong communication and a healthy relationship with you as they grow.
Though it is easy to overlook, your attention is your infant’s sweetest reward. Your recognition can go a long way to promoting more positive behaviors and expanding your child’s sense of competence. You can recognize and celebrate your infant with the following actions.
- Smile at your infant.
- Make eye contact.
- Use caring facial expressions.
- Be physically gentle and caring with your infant.
- Use words to celebrate and encourage. Recognize and call out when all is going well. When your infant is listening and following your instructions, call it out: “I notice you listened when I asked you to back away from the staircase. I know you’re curious about climbing, and I am glad you are keeping safe.”
- Build celebrations into your everyday routines. Promote joy and happiness by laughing, singing, dancing, hugging, and snuggling to appreciate one another.
The first year is filled with amazing changes — and not just for your child. Don’t forget to recognize and celebrate your own development and milestones as a parent.
Engaging in these five steps is an investment that builds your skills as an effective parent to use on many other issues and builds important skills that will last a lifetime for your child. Throughout this tool, there are opportunities for children to become more self-aware, to deepen their social awareness, and to work on their relationship skills.