Learning to Read Your Baby

Esther Schiedel

I overheard a conversation in the locker room of my fitness center—two older women were talking, and one woman said, “With a bottle you know how much the baby is getting.” I’ve heard that statement before. I was tempted to say something, but I didn’t know the women and thought my comments might be considered rude. I could understand the women’s need for a measurement. It can be scary when a baby isn’t gaining weight appropriately. What I wanted to say was that there are several ways to determine if baby is getting enough food. These ways are focused on the baby.

Focusing on the baby, rather than the amount of milk in a bottle or time on a clock, doesn’t come easily to new parents. Part of the difficulty comes from not realizing that we can learn much of what we need to know by simply focusing on our babies.

Instead of seeing babies as being full of information, parents today are encouraged to see babies as empty notebooks—blank slates—on which they need to write everything. The old idea that babies can’t do anything themselves persists. Parents still hear that they need to make their babies eat and sleep according to a schedule set by some outside “expert.”

The reality is that babies are born with the ability to have their needs met so that they can grow and thrive. Each baby is a unique individual and needs to be treated as such. As parents, our job is to recognize and respond to what our babies are telling us. We need to learn to read our babies. How do we do this? Much in the same way we learned to read.

Reading has value

We learn early in life that there are such things as books and that they are worth reading. Children who grow up in a house with books and magazines, and who see their parents reading, easily learn to read.

We get a head start on learning to read our own babies by witnessing how other parents pay attention to and respond to their babies. Edwina Froelich, one of the Founders of La Leche League, shared a story about a new mother who had called her and had a lot of questions. Edwina found out the mother lived nearby and suggested she come over. The mother arrived (without her baby) and Edwina talked with her while tending to her own children—including her own baby whom she comforted, nursed, and carried around. The new mother suddenly asked Edwina, “Do you consider that baby normal?” Edwina was taken aback but replied, “Yes.”  The mother said, “I don’t think I need help; I just didn’t realize babies needed that much attention.”

Understanding child development, infants’ natural abilities, and the meaning of certain instinctual behaviors can help us look at babies with appreciation and attention. Years ago, when I first gave birth and was learning how to breastfeed, I noticed my baby’s hands kept getting in the way. I’d try to push her hands away, and my daughter would move them towards her mouth again. I didn’t learn until very recently that newborns use their hands to help them locate and move toward the breast. Tucking a baby’s hands out of the way actually makes it harder for the baby to nurse. Newborns also instinctively need to feel stable and supported to open their mouths widely. By reclining and placing the baby on top of the chest, the baby is fully supported and can latch onto the breast and nurse effectively.

Word building

My grandson brought me a storybook when he was about three or four years old. We opened it up together, he pointed to a sentence, and said, “Read that.” From having been read to, and from noticing the adults pointing to or directing their gaze at the written words, he had figured out that those marks on the page were what indicated the words. Recognizing that letters create words was a big step towards learning to read.

It may be easier to value paying attention to infant behaviors when we have been paid attention to, listened to, and had our needs attended to as we were growing up. Even if we didn’t feel heard and understood as children, feeling heard and understood as adults can help us comprehend the value of paying attention. It appears that having consistent, caring helpers during pregnancy, birth, and the postpartum period results in parents feeling more confident when learning to breastfeed. When we receive attention from others, it can help us pay closer attention to ourselves. We can use our own instinctual behaviors to help us learn to read our babies.

Honor the process

Children don’t pick up a book and suddenly know how to read. Learning to read is gradual and is often facilitated by other people. Teachers and parents make suggestions such as, “Sound out the letters,” and give recognition of a child’s effort and success. Adults express confidence that the child will learn to read.

Similarly, new parents need support and affirmation on their parenting journey, especially when learning how to breastfeed and respond to their babies. One way in which La Leche League Leaders help parents in the learning process is by respecting every individual’s knowledge and ability. La Leche League Leaders encourage parents to care for themselves and meet their own needs so that they can, in turn, meet their babies’ needs.

Consult a dictionary

When we read, we sometimes come across a word we don’t understand. In these instances, we go to a dictionary or other reference source to help figure out the meaning and help us understand context.

When we are breastfeeding (and ever after as parents), we may come across behaviors that we don’t understand. Why is my baby fussy after nursing? What does it mean when my baby starts waking at night after having slept all night last month?

It’s important to consult reliable, research- and evidence-based resources on breastfeeding and parenting. La Leche League International is one. The organization’s new website is a launching pad to accurate breastfeeding information, reputable additional resources, and importantly, knowledgeable, accredited La Leche League Leaders. In the new, online Breastfeeding Forum, you will find other parents who can empathize and share their own experiences. Likewise, you can find a supportive community at in-person La Leche League meetings.

La Leche League Leaders view the parents they help as intelligent, competent experts—on themselves, their babies, and their families. Leaders listen first and acknowledge the complicated emotions of life with a baby. Then, La Leche League Leaders share evidence-based information and strategies that have helped other families, while respecting each individual’s personal decisions. Official La Leche League meetings and online groups are nonjudgmental and supportive.

Read anything good lately? Pick up a baby!

Esther Schiedel is a La Leche League Leader in Corvallis, Oregon.