5 October 2020
Conversations with an infant…
by Anita Homewood
When was the last time you had a conversation with an infant? You know those moments, looking into each others eyes, and just chatting? When do you find the time? I am reminded of something Nathan Wallis speaks about often; he says that infants learn in partnership with us. In terms of supporting their communication and language development, this is so true.
Of course, first of all, you need to see the infant as capable of holding a conversation. It was a huge aha! moment for me to learn this, and after embedding this into my practice over the years now, it feels so natural.
So what do we talk about? When infants are at exploration and play, I wait until they look my way before engaging in conversation; I want them to initiate our interaction. Usually I make a comment about what they are exploring - “you are working hard banging those blocks together”, or if they have made a discovery, I acknowledge their hard work - “you did it, you figured it out”. It may seem matter-of-fact, but it helps to build on the infant’s learning of language. I wonder if, next time you are with an infant, you might consider resisting the urge to say anything! Just sit, wait and be in awe of how much that infant is already communicating - both non verbally and verbally.
Capturing moments when you are changing an infants nappy, or feeding them their kai, or preparing them for their sleep are a great opportunity to talk with infants. Magda Gerber termed these the ‘wants-something times’. Throughout each moment, the teacher talks to the infant, letting them know what is going to happen, involving them in the process, and waiting for their response. This is all part of the conversation. For instance, when it is time to change an infant’s nappy, I would invite them into a conversation, so they know what is going to happen next. Then I would wait for a response. Sometimes I might give the infant a choice, then wait for a response,. Remember to give authentic choices, and choices where the ultimate goal is what you need them to do. For example, “I see you need your nappy changed, would you like to walk or shall I carry you?”. This allows the infant to hear you, and to have a choice, which most time they choose to walk! It is also important to note here that when you ask the question, it is a choice and not a yes/no. When you ask an infant if they would like to do something, you have to be prepared for their answer to be no, and then what do you do?! Respect means honouring their response, so always think about before you ask! Waiting is the key; infants take a wee while to process what we have said or asked of them. What I have noticed when talking with infants through these care moments, is that infants begin to let us know when they are ready for a nappy change, or for food, or a sleep. They begin to initiate the conversation; granted it may not be verbalised at first, but more in their non-verbal communication, and the fact that they have made their way to the change room, or the table, or the sleep room.
Even in those moments when the infant is experiencing some discomfort or displeasure, engaging in a conversation is the first step in a respectful response. An experience I had of an infant who had just started with us, and had just been dropped off by her mum, reminds me of the importance of authentic, respectful conversations that allow children to feel heard. While we were having a cuddle together, we looked at each other and I said “I see you are sad. Your mum has gone, you weren’t ready to say goodbye”. The infant calmed down, just for a short while, and looked at me as if to say, “you understand”. Then she continued crying for a little while longer until she had worked through the sadness of saying goodbye to her mum.
These moments are opportunities to build the infant’s emerging literacies, in particular their emotional literacy. Talking infants and toddlers through these challenging moments, letting them hear the words to describe what they might be experiencing, builds the foundation for conversation and communication.
We are challenged by the research coming through now, telling us that one can predict the success of a person at the age of 35 just by the number of words they heard in the first year of life. Nathan Wallis said the quality of the words count - there is a difference between engagement between children of the same age and engagement of an adult. It is the kind of response and interaction with the adult that makes the difference. Infants are learning about kindness, about emotions and how we respond to one another through our interactions and our conversations with them. Imagine this: would we talk to our best friend they way we talk to infants? What are they learning about relationships by watching and engaging with us? Once again, this learning happens in partnership with us, so we need to ensure we are engaging in authentic, meaningful conversations with infants. Enjoy a conversation today!
Note: For the purpose of this blog post, infants are defined as being aged from birth up to three years.