Can we understand what babies want before they can speak?

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Trying to understand what your baby thinks and feels before they can speak makes for better relationships. Sheena Hastings reports.

IF you think it is sometimes frustrating to be the parent of a small baby, the chances are that your child is also frustrated.

After all, they’re born with all the brain they’ll ever need, and they’re using it from the off – exploring themselves, you and the world beyond. But at times they’re probably wondering why their blockhead parent doesn’t just put down the red brick and pass her the green one, when it’s obvious that this is her favourite colour.

As parents we can be so focused on developing our little ones’play skills that we miss the signals they give about their likes and dislikes. The kind of sensitivity to what a child wants, needs and feels was given the name “mind-mindedness” some years ago by psychologist Professor Elizabeth Meins, who has just moved from Durham to York University.

Basically, mind-mindedness is the concept that right from birth our children are individuals whose needs are not just physical but mental too. Years spent observing babies and parents have shown that when a parent tunes in this recognition of the child’s active mind leads to a more secure bond.

Prof Meins is one of seven academics across the country who have been awarded funding to help parents understand what their babies might be thinking or feeling.

She will use the Economic and Social Research Council’s (ESRC) £600,000 award to develop materials aimed at improving parents’ ability to tune in to their babies. She is planning an animated film, short book and a smartphone app to explain the technique.

“Current interventions to improve parenting are very costly and fail to reach those families who are most in need,” she explains. “By using new technology, this package will deliver the intervention in a user-friendly manner, giving parents easy-to-follow advice.”

So what exactly is it that this mind-minded parent does that is so special? Prof Meins says they pay attention to their baby’s gaze and interest in objects, imitate their infant’s actions, react to the baby’s attempts to communicate and comment on what the child seems to be thinking or feeling. For instance, if the baby is looking at a toy camel, the parent might say: “Do you remember the camel we saw at the zoo? Wasn’t that fun?”

In earlier research she and her team found that if a mother interacts in this way with her child at six months old then at 12 months that child will be neither too clingy nor too independent. “When a parent comes into the lab to play with their child, we get them to voice what their child is doing, narrating needs and feelings.

“Parents are often very concerned about teaching things to their baby, pushing an educational agenda, when they should take time to sit back and observe her. Where is she looking? What are her facial expressions or body language suggesting?

“Some parents might have a view about what the child should be doing next, but an attuned parent will see what the child is looking at and say: ‘Oh, you want the pink rabbit?’ You have to be collaborative.”

Prof Meins hopes the materials she is developing will eventually be available at antenatal classes and at parenting classes. “Using a phone app that teaches mind-minded communication with your baby is a fun way of learning. We shouldn’t only engage with our children when there’s a problem, treating interaction as an exercise in trouble-shooting.”