What Everyone Needs to Know About Infants

By Betsy Stalcup, founder and executive director of Healing Center International


In today’s post, we will continue to look at how understanding child development—even at a rudimentary level, can help us interact with children well. Last month we looked at the needs and tasks of children aged four to 12. This month we will look at infants, from birth to age four. The information I am reporting here came from five sources: 1) The book Living From the Heart Jesus Gave You has short maturity charts that are quick and easy to read. 2) Jim Wilder’s book, The Complete Guide to Living with Men, which has sadly become harder to find. 3)The work of psychiatrist Allan Schore, and 4) The Growing Child Newsletters [i] which I used in raising my own children; and 5) My own personal experience. 

Today we will look at the needs and tasks of infants so we can be aware of what our little one can and cannot do. My goal is to help you see the children in your world with compassion. Our culture seems to dismiss the needs of children. To overestimate their capacity. Knowing what they can and cannot do can help ensure that our relationships with our children or grandchild (or any child you interact with) is a source of joy to the entire family.

Wilder defines the infant stage as lasting from birth until age four. Mastering these tasks happens gradually between birth and the child’s fourth birthday. For example, a newborn is born without any ability to regulate his own emotions but should—if he receives the support he needs—be able to do so by age four. 

What! you may be thinking, I can’t do that now and I am an adult! I know. I had the same reaction the first time I read this. Sadly, our parents can’t give us what they don’t have, but we can recover and become the kind of people who can help infants master this task.

As we have talked before, infancy is a crucial time in the life of a child. Her brain is growing, configuring itself based on what she experiences. Her attachment style is determined by what she experiences during the first two years of life. Let’s look at five easy-to-remember infant needs and tasks:

When a baby’s need for unconditional love, social interaction, food, warmth, cuddles, and sleep are consistently met, he will develop over time into a child who is confident that his needs will be met. As Mom, Dad and Baby interact they bond in love. [1]

What does this look like?
Example One: Beth was astonished to see Molly’s face brighten as soon as she stepped into her room. She locked eyes with her baby and gave her a gentle smile as she lifted her from the crib. Molly smiled back even though her cheeks were still wet with tears. Beth put 6-month-old Molly on her hip, filled a glass of water, and sat in a rocker. Molly is learning to trust me, she thought. She used to cry even when the nipple was in her mouth. She wailed until she could feel some milk in her stomach. Now she can wait a minute or two happily as long as I am holding her. She knows milk is coming. 

Example Two: Hannah knew that her baby needed to bond with her if he was going to develop a secure attachment, so she took six months off from work and stayed home with Kevin. Although her husband wanted to go to Cancun for their fourth anniversary, she explained that this was a particularly important time for their baby to bond with them and promised that it would not always be like this. For now, Cancun could wait.

An infant learns that it is safe to receive when her needs are gladly met without resentment. Someone is tuning in to what she needs and giving it to her gladly.

What Does This Look Like?
Example One: Meghan smiled when she heard Eliza babbling from her infant seat on the floor. She heard the tone of the babbling become a little louder. “Do you need some attention, little girl?” she asked coming closer and looking her daughter in the eyes. Meghan knelt down by the seat and began to mirror her baby’s facial expressions. She babbled back and forth with Eliza as both of their faces lit up at the sheer joy of being together. Anyone watching us would think I am crazy, thought Meghan, but I do not care. This feels wonderful. 

For an amazing example of this back and forth communication watch this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yn8j4XRxSck

Example Two: Two-year-old Kayla clung to her mother and did not want to be put down. Her mom was trying to hold her with one arm and put groceries in the freezer with the other. There. That task was done. Mom found a comfy chair and relaxed, telling herself, We’ve been crazy busy lately, I think Kayla needs some extra cuddles. This is a stage that will pass. I need to be willing to meet her needs right now while she is little.

Being Known
One of our deepest needs is to be known. By paying attention to our baby’s facial expressions and reactions we can learn who he is. Who is this unique person that God has given me to love. What is he thinking or feeling? What does he love to do? What interests him? What are his hopes and dreams?

What Does This Look Like?
Example two: Uh Ohh! I think I startled Sophia! Betsy had been playing a rhyming game with her great niece on her knees but when she bounced her high at the end, Sophia let out a yelp and wriggled to get away. Betsy was startled too, she had played that game with many small children before, and they had always laughed at the big bounce. But right now that did not matter, Sophia was overwhelmed and needed comfort. She ran to her grandfather and looked back at Betsy. Betsy matched Sophia’s facial expression, tipping her chin down and making a little frown that said, I am sorryI am going to remember this next time, she thought. I don’t want to overwhelm anyone.

Example Two: Penelope was driving with her mind on the road when she noticed that Isabella was singing something. She listened. It was a children’s song. She must have learned it at preschool. Her three older children had never done that before. It was so easy to overlook Isabella with all the driving to school events, and soccer and baseball games. She’s got great pitch. I should get some children’s music to play in the car and see if she likes it.

Allan Schore says that the primary task of childhood is for a child to learn to regulate his emotions. This begins in infancy as caregivers comfort and calm babies and toddlers when they are in distress. This includes all of the negative emotions—fear, sadness, anger, shame, disgust, hopeless despair—as well as positive emotions. Yes, sometimes we need to bring someone who is over stimulated down from a high that has gone on for too long.

What Does This Look Like?
Example One: Ann was so tired! And now the baby was crying again. Her mother had urged her to let little Noah cry it out, but Ann knew better. She knew that her baby was still learning to regulate his emotions, so she rolled out of bed and soothed him, then got back in bed and slept hard until morning.

Example Two: Three-year-old Emma was in tears. They had looked and looked and could not find her doll. Maggie was lost. Emma’s father scooped up his little girl. “I know you miss, Maggie. She was a good companion to you.” Emma cried a bit more, “It’s okay to cry, Emm. Maggie mattered to you.” Emma looked into her father’s eyes and saw compassion. She snuggled against him and then went to sleep in his arms. I am hungry, he thought. But I am going to let her have a little rest. Her doll was important to her. Lord, help us find Maggie.

Living in Joy and Shalom
We all need to live in alternating rhythms of high-energy joy and low-energy shalom. [ii] We experience joy when someone is glad to be with us. We experience shalom when we are able to quiet our hearts, minds, and bodies. A baby learns to live in joy and shalom through experience. If a family pays attention to everyone’s energy levels, so that no one gets overwhelmed, the baby will learn that taking a break to rest is normal and good. Parents who have more capacity need to read the baby’s cues and synchronize with her state—happy and playful? Ready to rest? Wanting interaction?

What This Looks Like?
Example One: The whole family had been to visit and after playing with his older cousins all day, Trevor was now in such a high state of joy that he was running in circles. If I let this go, I am afraid he will have a meltdown, thought his father. As much as his father hated to leave the crowd, he forced himself up, picked up his son, and carried him out to the garage where he strapped him in the jogger. “Hey buddy, let’s go for a walk.” Trevor protested at first but within 100 yards he had fallen into a much needed nap.

Example Two: It hadn’t happened at first but after a few months, Laurie realized that Liam did better if there was some kind of routine. Dinner at 5:30, bath at 7:00 and then stories and bed time. They were training their bodies to expect food and rest at certain times each day. They didn’t always follow their typical routine, but as she saw how life-giving it was to the whole family they became more committed.

Remember we are taking small steps every day. We don’t push children to get them there, we support them as they grow. Imagine a 6-inch-high rose bush you have planted in your garden. Don’t look for roses next week. It will take months, maybe years to grow and bud and bloom. Just as the rose bush needs water and sun, fertilizer, and pruning, so we all need to meet the needs of infants. This includes all of us. Parents of infants need a break, a listening ear, and supportive words.

We also need to remember that infants are not capable of logic and aren’t ready to share.

One last word, this does not mean that we always give in to our toddlers, it means that we show compassionate concern for their point of view, knowing that there are times when we simply cannot give them what they desire. 

Here’s an example. Madison did not want to get in her car seat. “No!” she said firmly standing next to the car. Her grandmother, Judy, knew that Madison was too young to be asked to do hard things. She knelt down by her side, “I know you don’t want to get in the car seat. But we have to go pick up Mommy from work. Would you like me to comfort you?” It was not so much the words but her grandmother’s eye contact and voice tone that soothed her. Judy pointed out some birds in a nearby tree. “Cardinals!” Madison cried with joy. Judy noticed the shift in attention. She let her granddaughter enjoy the birds for two more minutes, then said, “Okay, Madison, let’s get in your seat so we can go get Mommy.” This time Madison climbed up into her seat and let her grandmother buckle her. 

I want to close with one more example for grandparents.

Grandma Debra’s children were long grown before she learned about maturity and the need to learn how to regulate emotions. Debra had grown so much in the last five years since she joined the HCI community. She deeply regretted the many mistakes she made with her children and realized that she expected too much and was often fearful and angry as a parent. She sees her deficits in her adult children. This makes her sad. She prays for them because she knows that she cannot fix them. Her son and his wife have a one-year-old girl. Both parents work outside the home and the baby is in daycare. Although grandma Debra has a full life herself she is committed to this little one. 

For the first year of her granddaughter’s life, she’s been driving across the state once a month to stay with her son’s family and simply serve them. She lets her son and his wife have a break. She practices good eye contact with baby Beatrice, and she brings the family a few meals that she has prepared at home. She listens to her daughter-in-law without judgment. She knows that our culture puts a lot of pressure on young mothers to do it all and that that is simply impossible. Mostly she prays for them. When she prays she senses God saying that he has it all and that she can rest knowing that she is doing her part and that God has her son and his family in his loving care.

I hope this month’s blog post has been an inspiration to you and your family.

I would love to hear your stories and consider your questions. Please post your comments.

[1] Or mother or father-figure.

[i] https://growingchild.com/growing-child