I learned a new word yesterday. My daughter Alex, half way through her first pregnancy, wanted me to brush up on my knowledge of baby care. It’s not as if I’m inexperienced—but “best practices” change. The way our parents took care of us is not the same way we take care of our children or our grandchildren. The new word parentese refers to how we speak to babies.
Early 20th century, modern mothers bottle fed their babies formula. Caregivers were told not to automatically pick up baby when they cried. Parents put baby to sleep in a separate room. In the 1980’s, when I started my family—I breastfed, kept my infants close to me in a Snuggli (infant carrier), and put them to sleep in a basinet next to my bed.
I was working as an antiques dealer then and a freelance journalist. I brought my babies with me to work (at the antiques shop and to shows) and crouched next to them on the floor writing, while they attempted to roll over and crawl. While they sat in their infant carrier, I talked to them about projects I was tackling and showed them some of my favorite purchases slated for resale. They stood, walked, and talked early—so evidently I was doing some things right.
After the birth of my first child, my mother-in-law wanted to know when I was going to purchase belly button bands—something I had never heard of so I did a little research. I learned that it was common practice in the 1940’s to put a band around baby’s waist, thought to prevent hernias, but no longer done in the 1980s. She also suggested I put baby to sleep on his stomach because it provided a sense of security. The research showing the dangers of putting an infant to sleep on their stomach (increasing the potential for Sudden Infant Death Syndrome) was not publicized until 1992 ( the year Alex my youngest child was born).
Fortunately, nothing bad happened to my older children. We also didn’t know to remove all stuffed toys and “bumpers” from the crib or or the hazards of using antique baby furniture. Now in the “information age” safety concerns are better publicized. Today’s parents and grandparents buy new baby equipment. Products are continuously being upgraded to become safer.
Back to that new word parentese. Scientists at the University of Washington were interested in studying how the way parents talk to babies affects child development. (Notice the root word “parent” in the new word) Speaking with “fully grammatical speech that involves real words, elongated vowels and exaggerated tones of voice,” provides positive interaction between parents and their babies according to the study results published in an online article about the research conducted at the Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences (I-LABS) . Parents were specifically coached on how to talk to their infant, to steer them away from using nonsense words and to emphasize the higher registers of the voice.
One video on infant care I watched, courtesy of my daughter, emphasized the importance of animated interaction during the day and subdued interaction at night. This makes sense, as initially an infant doesn’t differentiate night from day. As a writer who loves words, I’ve always been one to recite poetry and sing songs to babies. As an infant gradually adjusts to the world around them, what they hear provides security and comfort, reinforced by cuddling and touch.
Taking a look at baby supplies, I noticed an interesting vocabulary change. The term “receiving blanket” has been replaced with “swaddling blanket.” Parents are now instructed on the importance of giving baby a sense of being wrapped within a close embrace by swaddling baby in a thin blanket, the first few months of life. For more specific information on when and how long you should swaddle baby and other questions on baby care, consult your pediatrician.
One disturbing trend I’ve noticed in childcare products, is a reliance on automated music, sound, and vibration to sooth baby. They’re even coming up with a car seat that will have these features to enable parents to quickly coax their baby or toddler to sleep. In my opinion, this de-emphasizes the human interaction of personally talking and rocking your baby. It can also has the potential to create sleep problems at night.
Part of enjoying the adventure of life is learning something new. We all express our love in different ways– but what a gift to prepare for the arrival of a new little person in the world.
Here’s a link to my short piece “Love in the Kitchen” published in Pareidolia Literary Magazine. You can follow me on twitter at SN Maril.