WHAT STUCK-OUT TONGUES TELL US ABOUT THE BRAIN
Why imitation is good for you and for your baby.
It is quite common to hear parents say that they find the first days with their newborn boring.
It is also quite common to hear the same parents say that they find the first days with their newborn extremely stressful.
Does parenting immediately give you a double personality disorder, or is there something more to these affirmations?
Could it be that we waste some precious time being bored and then, when a problem comes up, we are totally unprepared to address it? Could we be doing exactly the same thing we used to do when we were 15, getting bored during class and arriving unprepared for the exam? Most excitingly, what if we discovered that “preparing for the exam” was actually a lot of fun?
It turns out that it is! Newborn babies are anything but boring: if you learn a few tricks and become a little bit more skilled at observing your baby, you start reading her signs more successfully and responding to her in a most fun and efficient way!
Forget about lists teaching you to decode your baby’s cry to understand whether she is hungry, tired, bored or overstimulated. First, it does not have to come to crying before you start paying attention to your baby’s cues. Second, a baby’s experience is a little more complicated than a four-options story anyway.
Instead, train yourself in empathy and mind-mindedness (the act of treating children as individuals with minds, whose acts are meaningful—motivated by feelings, thoughts, or intentions. Learn about it here.) And what better place to start than observing and imitating your child? It’s easy, it’s fun and it is incredibly useful.
Andrew N. Meltzoff, one of the most influential developmental psychologists of all times, knows this very well. In fact, he has built a career studying infant imitation and trying to figure out what it tells us about brain development. He famously stuck out his tongue at hours-old babies and they famously answered back (more here)! If you have 20 minutes and would like to hear him talk about his mind-blowing research, go ahead and watch the video below.
Neuroscientists still argue about whether imitation is an innate ability or rather something acquired through association and experience (read an excellent review here). As parents, we can sit back and let scientists carry on with their research until they find conclusive evidence regarding the onset and nature of imitation. In the meantime, we can already get on with the knowledge that imitation rocks! Babies enjoy it. They are entertained by it and, most importantly, they learn loads from it.
As parents, we can be aware that our newborn might not really be imitating us in the first few weeks. She might be coincidentally reproducing our facial expression or simply sticking out her tongue to any interesting sticking-out objects, as a precursor of a reaching action, or who knows what else. But we can live with this. Imitation games are still fantastic opportunities for us parents to get our observation skills going and to begin wondering what might be motivating our child’s actions.
If we regularly stimulate our children and gradually learn what they are able to copy as they develop, we will learn a lot about who they are and what they can do. This will inform us about what is reasonable to expect from them, what they like and dislike and how they usually react to certain stimuli.
This information is incredibly useful when it comes to nurturing your child’s thirst for knowledge: humans learn most from stimuli they are interested in. Knowing what she likes will empower you to follow your child’s interest and feed her what she is ready to learn (more on this in a further post on motivation).
Knowing where your child is in terms of motor and social development also comes in very handy for crisis prevention and resolution. First, it will enable you to set your expectations and demands at an appropriate level, avoiding understimulation (hence boredom and frustration) and over-demandingness (hence stress and disappointment). Second, it will help you offer your child comfort and distraction in the unavoidable moments of distress.
To guide you through this and many more activities for you and your baby in her first year of life, a new app is about to be launched. Have a look here if you are interested and would like to request your copy. Fun and satisfaction along the way are guaranteed!
To sum it all up, forget about decoding your child’s crying and get going with imitation, empathy and mind-mindedness!