What exactly is respectful parenting, or otherwise known as positive parenting? Some parents think that it's parenting without spanking, but positive parenting goes much deeper than that. I would say it's a philosophy, a lifestyle, a parenting technique all rolled into one. There are several definitions of positive parenting on the web, but this got to be my favorite - "Positive parenting is focused on developing a strong, deeply committed relationship between parent and child based on communication and mutual respect. Positive Parenting focuses on teaching children not just what but also why."
We have been a respectful parenting household for 3 years now (we started on this journey when T was 1.5 years old), and it was truly a game-changer for us. Prior to respectful parenting, I was pretty lost as a parent. I knew nothing about parenting techniques, I didn't know what parenting style we should adopt, I didn't know what would work for us as a family and what would not. When T was nearing 1.5 years old, he started to express himself more through actions and facial expressions and a simple word 'No!', I knew I had to start reading up. I discovered respectful parenting and everything else was history. I wrote a 3-part blog series on what respectful parenting is all about and how we integrated it into our household - read here Part I, Part II and Part III.
Let me give a little backstory of my own personal experience.
When T was a newborn, I was a first time mom. I had prepped myself with knowledge of how to change diaper, how to shower a newborn, how to swaddle a newborn, what are the red flags to look out for. I had everything I needed to perform physical caregiving tasks. But no one prepared me for the emotional and mental stress of having to deal with a newborn's constant cries and screams. There were tons of advice thrown at me:
Don't carry your baby too much. He will get too used to it.
Carry your baby the moment he cries, you don't want him to scream for too long, he will become gassy.
Wait a few minutes before carrying your baby if he cries.
Is he already fed and changed? Then he must be crying just for attention, ignore him.
It was overwhelming, to say the least. His cries and screams got to us, we were (almost) constantly frustrated, irritated, helpless and of course, coupled with sleepless nights, truly exhausted. We rushed to him the moment we heard his cries. Is he hungry? Is he tired? Is he sick? Is his diapers full? Is he too cold? Is he too hot? Are his clothes not comfortable? It was a million questions through the head, and a trial-and-error process to eliminate the different possible reasons for his cries. The longer we took to get to the right reason behind his cries, the louder his cries got, and the more panicky and out-of-control we felt. Sounds familiar?
We stumbled our way through. We were also the first amongst our families and close friends to have a baby, so it was tough for us to ask for advice from experienced parents we were comfortable with. We googled everything and took our best attempt at parenting during that first year. And we got through it. There were definitely pockets of joy during T's newborn stage, but it was mainly chaos.
Going into the baby phase a 2nd time round, we are equipped with parenting principles and techniques now. We had discovered Respectful Parenting 3 years ago (hallelujah!), and we have been practicing respectful parenting in our household for years now with our boy T. So when our baby girl H was born, we knew what we had to do. We will integrate positive parenting techniques from day zero.
In this post, I want to focus on positive parenting from age zero to 1, or otherwise known as the baby stage. Yes, you can definitely start positive parenting with a newborn!
What Is Positive Parenting for Babies?
Positive parenting for babies means developing an awareness of our babies, as Janet Lansbury rightfully summed up. We perceive and acknowledge them to be unique, separate individuals. We respect their needs, and we recognize that babies sometimes have feelings that they want to share, and will express them in their own ways with our encouragement and support.
We, as parents, nurture them with love and care to start building a respectful and trusting relationship with them from day 0.
Why Is Positive Parenting from Age 0 to 1 Important?
In their first year, babies are learning to focus their vision, understand their fine motor abilities, explore their surroundings, and observe everyone and everything around them. At the same time, the first year is when their cognitive, social and emotional development starts. Cognitive development refers to the learning process of memory, language, thinking and reasoning. Learning language is more than just making sounds (mama, dada), it also encompasses listening, understanding and communicating. While your baby can't talk to express feelings and needs, she is communicating often with you through smiles, cries, eye contact, actions and facial expressions. These are also early social and emotional skills which are still in development.
Positive parenting during a baby's first year, is essential to help the baby develop these skills at their own comfortable pace, in a safe and nurturing environment. It also lays a good foundation for you to implement positive parenting at the toddler phase.
Positive Parenting Techniques from 0 to 1
Here, I want to share some positive parenting techniques which you can start implementing in your baby’s first year, from day 0!
Simply put, talk to your babies in your authentic normal voices, with proper but simple language.
You do not have to take on a very high-pitched tone. Your baby can hear you perfectly well at your normal tone.
You do not have to constantly do baby talk to her, she is a human being just like me and you. When I discourage friends, relatives or fellow moms from carrying out baby-talk to babies, the most common comment I get is "Even if I talk normally to them, they won't understand anyway". If you own a pet dog, do you talk normally to your dog in your own language or do you make barking sounds at them all the time because you assume they do not understand your language?
It is the same for babies. In the first year, they are constantly learning and listening and observing. Their brain development is progressing at an exponential pace, and carrying out proper and constant communication with them would enable more progressive language development. They are also constantly observing your facial expression and listening to your tone of voice.
So when you say "I love you darling", more often than not, your tone is soft and gentle, your facial expression is gentle with a smile. Over time, they will associate the word "love" with positive emotions.
When you say "Please do not touch that, please do not do that" etc, more often than not, your tone is firm, your facial expression is unsmiling and stern. Over time, they will associate the words "do not" with limits and boundaries.
Inform and Ask for Permission
Just like with toddlers and older children, inform your baby about what you are going to do with her or to her. Here are some examples.
Instead of just abruptly carrying her up from the cot and hence interrupting whatever she was doing (she could be playing with her fingers, or observing the shadows on the ceiling), inform her "I'm going to carry you now" before picking her up.
Instead of abruptly placing her on the changing table, inform her "oh your diaper is looking full, I'm going to change it for you now".
Instead of abruptly inserting a feeding bottle into her mouth, inform her "you look hungry, so here's your milk. I'm going to feed you now".
The examples above are all necessary care-giving tasks, the baby does not have a choice in it, hence informing her is the most respectful way of managing these tasks.
For other activities, ask for permission. It might sound and feel weird to ask a baby for permission, but you will be surprised by how capable she is in responding to you. Of course, she must first be capable of expressing herself through baby sounds, gestures and facial expressions, which usually happens around 6 months old. Here are some examples.
If a friend or relative wants to carry her, ask her "My friend wants to carry you, can she?" Your baby would usually respond by turning away (no, I do not want) or by leaning her body slightly towards the other party (yes, I am ok with it). Follow her cues.
If you have a few activities laid out in front of her, for eg a music instrument and a soft toy, ask her "which do you want to play with?". Observe where her eyes are looking at, and look at where her hands are gesturing towards.
Observe and React Accordingly
Whenever your baby is crying or screaming or throwing a fuss, observe first before reacting accordingly to meet her needs.
Many a times, parents react immediately with preconceived notions or assumptions of what THEY think the baby needs. I'm guilty of this as well, even till today.
How many times have you thought and jumped to the conclusion "oh she's crying because she only slept 1 hour instead of her usual 2 hours"? Is that so? Is your baby rubbing her eyes (a sign that she's sleepy) while crying and screaming, or is she putting her fingers into her mouth (a sign of hunger or teething discomfort) while crying and screaming?
Take a moment, step back, and observe your baby's gestures and body language before coming to a conclusion on what she truly needs. Then react accordingly to meet that need.
When H turned 6 months old, there was 1 week when she suddenly started crying whenever she was in her car seat. I was surprised because prior to that, she had always been calm whenever she was in her car seat. I immediately assumed that she just decided she did not like the car seat, so I did everything I could to distract her during the entire car ride. But she couldn't stop whining and fussing. On the 6th day of dealing with this, I decided to take a few moments and observe first. And I noticed that while she was whining and fussing in her car seat, she was furiously rubbing her feet against each other. It was like a lightbulb went off in me - she hated wearing her socks!!! We had just started wearing her socks for her then whenever she entered the car because of the air-conditioning. True enough, the moment I pulled off her socks, she calmed down.
Allow Your Baby to Develop at her Own Pace
Every baby is different, and every baby develops at her own pace whenever she is ready. This is especially true with physical milestones, which tend to be the focal point of development in the first year.
Just because your friend's son started crawling at 6 months old, does not mean your child has to start crawling at 6 months old. Just because your cousin's daughter started standing at 11 months old, does not mean your child has to start standing at the same age.
Allow your baby to discover her body and her own physical abilities at her own pace. She would flip when she is ready. She would sit up when she is ready. She would crawl when she is ready. She would take her first steps when she is ready.
Acknowledge and Validate Emotions
I will be the first to admit that a baby's cries and screams are discomforting and frustrating. But the first step you need to do is to keep calm and acknowledge her emotions.
Talk to her in a calm controlled voice.
Acknowledge what she's feeling - "I know you are upset".
Validate her emotions - "I will be upset too if I am hungry and I have to wait for my food".
Then, inform her (back to the point above) what is going to happen - "The milk is being warmed up and it will take some time".
It is important to react to your baby's cries calmly and gently. Hearing your calm and gentle voice, will help your baby calm down as well.
In acknowledging her emotions, also cuddle and hug her to let her know you are here for her, and that it is ok to cry.
Remember that a baby's cries is largely their main way of communicating to you that she needs something.
Encourage Uninterrupted, Self-Directed Play
In their first year, a baby is observing and exploring her body and her surroundings a lot. An object as simple as a tissue box might be extremely fascinating to her, even if it is boring to you. If she is tinkering and exploring the tissue box (or any other objects/toys for that matter), give her all the time and freedom to do so. Do not take the object away from her just because you assume "oh it has been 10mins, she must be bored with the tissue box, let me remove that and give her another toy".
Allow your child to direct her own play. If she's ready to move on to the next object, her body language will say so. She would turn away from the object and focus on another object. Or her gaze will start to wander.
It is important to encourage uninterrupted and self directed play from the first year. It not only helps to build focus and concentration in the child, it also enables the child to learn how to play independently.
Trust Your Baby and Follow Her Cues
When in doubt, trust your baby and follow her cues. Remember that positive parenting is about respecting your child as a unique individual. She will know when she's sleepy. She will know when she's hungry. She will know when she's uncomfortable. She will know when she can play independently by herself, and when she needs you to cuddle and hug her.
"Crying It Out" is a pretty common technique that parents use to "train their babies to be more independent" or to "train their babies to sleep by themselves". Crying-It-Out is not in line with positive parenting. Crying is a baby's main form of communication during her first year. By ignoring her cries, you are ignoring what she is trying to tell you, and hence inadvertently you might be ignoring her needs as well.
Again, trust your baby and follow her cues. If she cries, she needs something, respond to those cries accordingly and appropriately. Responding to your baby's cries also help to build a more trusting relationship between you as the parent and your child.
I hope the above tips help!
I would like to wrap up by emphasizing that you do not need to wait till the toddler phase (where tantrums typically start) before starting on Respectful Parenting or Positive Parenting with your child. It is an ongoing journey, and starting from day 0 will help build a good foundation for Positive Parenting in the household. Practice makes perfect, so it would be easier to implement these techniques to deal with toddler tantrums when that phase rolls around.
Positive Parenting is a game-changer for us, it improves our relationship with our children and it makes us happier and more confident parents as well. And I truly hope that more families out there would advocate these principles in their households because every child deserves to be treated as an unique individual respectfully.