Learning Expressions: What Infants Learn by Looking at Us

During one of my son’s early checkups, his doctor asked me if he smiles and laughs at home. I replied, “yes, all the time.” At the next checkup, she asked the same question. And then again at the next…until I started to wonder, why does she keep asking me this? What would it mean if he didn’t? Does she think I’m lying?

The next time she asked, the conversation went something like this…

Doctor: Does he smile and laugh?

Me: Yes, all the time. Out of curiosity, why do you always ask me that?

Doctor: He’s typically very somber here; so, I need to know if he smiles and laughs at home.

Me: Well, he’s a pandemic baby. He’s been around no one but myself and my husband since birth. He doesn’t go anywhere with the exception of this office, which isn’t often. He’s probably super confused by these masks, and nothing here is familiar.

Doctor: Right, that makes sense.

Then she told me something that really sparked my curiosity about the correlation between infant emotional development and facial expression. She said that doctors often smile at babies to see if they will smile back because children that smile do it because someone at home smiles at them.

At home, where he has been with me since he was born, my son smiles when I or my husband smile; if we laugh, he will even start laughing with us. He knows our faces. He recognizes our smiles. The lady in the white coat that he has only seen for 10 minutes a handful of times in his life is likely not very familiar to him.

After this, I started to think about my behavior. When my son, Zain, was about four or five months old, we started to notice that he watches us. When my husband and I spoke to each other, he would look back and forth, watching everything we did. Sometimes, he would just stare.

I started to think about how my reactions and tone of voice must have a major affect on him. How does he process this? If I’m upset, does he know? Then I decided to dig a little deeper…

learning expressions begins at birth

Studies have shown that newborns can distinguish between the face of their mother and the faces of others within hours or even minutes after being born. It’s likely they pair her voice, which they recognize from their in utero days, with her face. I was surprised to learn that it only takes a few days for them to tell the difference between expressions like happy, sad, angry, etc.

Roughly half way through the first year, infants can match emotions depicted through facial expression with its vocal equivalent. Has a child ever turned to look at you abruptly when you say something in a more assertive or angry tone? They are likely expecting a certain facial expression when they look at you. They recognize tonal changes and look for verification in physical expression.

By the age of five, children can typically read and process facial expressions with the same understanding as adults. How they pick this up so quickly is still unknown. There are theories that children are simply born with it; others say they just learn what they see all the time. 1

Why is learning expressions important for children?

Facial expressions become a vital part of their learning process starting as early as six months. As babies begin to explore, they run into obstacles that instinctively make them cautious. How do they weigh that caution? Typically, they look at mom and read her facial expression.

Zain is almost 10 months old. He’s not crawling, but he reaches for anything and everything in sight. He has fallen over and bumped his head a couple of times. It has always been very minor, and when he does, I try to smile and keep my tone calm. I’ve noticed that if I jump up and react with distress, so does he because he always looks for me first. My reaction directly influences his.

Of course, if it hurts, he still cries, but he gets over it much more quickly if I’m calm and smiling.

what does this mean for parents?

In truth, it means we have an even bigger responsibility than simply keeping our children alive. Our interactions with them in the first months and years of their lives play a vital role in forming who they become.

“The foundations for attention, perception, language abilities and social development are built in the first year of life.”

Lisa Scott, BOLD

To be honest, when I first read this I had flashbacks of every time I turned on Storybots and put Zain in the activity table so I could get something done. The “mom guilt” is always lurking around the corner, just waiting to undo all the hard work I’ve putting into feeling like I’m doing my best. Occasionally, I have to slap her back in her corner and keep on.

In reality, we all have lives and things that keep us busy. Two working parents is not at all uncommon here. Not having every waking moment to spend with your child is absolutely normal. To be honest, it’s necessary; we all need time for ourselves. What’s important is what we do with the time we have with our children.

Studies show…

Photo by MART PRODUCTION on Pexels.com

I’m going to link a few articles from academic studies on the importance of those first few years. Parents living in the United States should make note of this and pressure their policymakers.

I certainly do not want to step on a soapbox, but the reality is that the U.S. does not properly care for new parents. Our standards for maternity and paternity leave are rudimentary and negligent at best. We pale in comparison to every other developed country because our policymakers do not consider the science behind these formative years.

If you’d like to learn more, check out this study from the National Library of Medicine. More related studies are linked below the abstract in that link.

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  1. The Conversation. “Face time: here’s how infants learn from facial expressions.”
  2. BOLD. “The importance of faces for infants’ learning.”

How I Easily Got My Baby to Sleep Safely Through the Night and Regained My Sanity

To be honest, I’m the not the person that leapt right into motherhood with optimism. 2020 beat me down, and I was white-knuckling my way through most of those first few months of motherhood.

I was 32 years old when I married and 35 when I had my son last year. I had all those years to live for no one but myself. Going from that to a wife and mother was an adjustment to say the least.

Photo by David Veksler on Unsplash

Something as simple as getting my baby to sleep through the night did wonders for my mental health. I felt accomplished and was finally able to find time for me again.

wade through the noise on the internet

Swaddle…don’t swaddle. Get a Doc-A-Tot…do not get a Doc-A-Tot. Make sure you have a jumparoo…never buy a jumparoo! For your own sanity, do yourself a favor and don’t turn to Google for answers. Every search turns up thousands of pages. Every page will tell you to do something that the previous page told you was dangerous and neglectful.

If there’s one sure fire way to feel like you’re failing as a parent in your most vulnerable state, it’s by listening to parenting advice on this internet.

Photo by Victoria Heath on Unsplash

I’ll give you an example. I bought my son a crib when he grew out of his bassinet. One night, he got his foot stuck between the bars. I went online to look for a crib bumper to line the inside, and this is what I saw…

Crib bumpers cause suffocation!

Crib bumpers save lives!”

Don’t get a crib bumper, your baby will get fingers caught in the ties!

Get a mesh crib bumper so they won’t suffocate!

No crib bumper is safe!

I didn’t get a crib bumper, and my baby lost a leg…

Not a single baby item exists that hasn’t been discredited or disapproved. You’ll go crazy trying to figure it out. I assure you, this is not that kind of blog. As a new mom, I would never give another mother unsolicited advice, and I am certainly in no position to judge.

Look, let’s be honest, four house plants died under my watch in less than a year before I had my child. I’m just grateful that I’ve kept him alive and overjoyed that he’s healthy. I’m no expert in childcare, but I’m an eager learner. I also was able to get my son to sleep through the night, safely, and I’m happy to share how. I hope that it helps some other parent currently desperate for sleep.

first, I tried the owlet for peace of mind

When I was pregnant and anxiety-ridden, I was sure I had to have an Owlet Smart Sock for my baby. If you don’t know what that is, it’s a tiny monitor that wraps around your baby’s foot and sends readings of baby’s vitals to your phone. It monitors heart rate, oxygen levels, etc…the important stuff.

It also has a base that you put in your room. The base will sound an alarm to wake you if the baby’s vitals dropped. It sounds great; I thought I would sleep more soundly. My internet connection had other plans.

It turns out that if the base loses its wifi connection…you guessed it…the alarm goes off. After a couple of lost connections and short-lived panic attacks, I gave the Owlet to my pregnant sister and became obsessed with safe sleep practices.

Disclaimer: This was not the fault of the Owlet. It is an amazing product! My sister has loved it. The problem was my terrible internet service (a problem that has since been remedied).

sleeping through the night starts with routine

Those first couple of weeks that we were home, routine seemed impossible. Once we were able to get our bearings, we started to remember what day it was and how it felt to be human again. At that point, we started working on a routine.

We called it BSBB:

  • BATH. Every night at 7:30, we gave him a bath. Sometimes, it felt impossible. I was exhausted and just wanted to skip it, but I just felt that if I didn’t stick to the routine, all my hard work would be for naught.
  • SWADDLE. I said “no thanks” to the manual swaddle and got myself a couple of Swaddle Me Baby Wraps. LIFESAVER!
  • BOTTLE. We made sure to space his feedings so that we did not feed him too close to bedtime. That way we could give him a full bottle right before bed.
  • BED. Into the bassinet he went, alone. No pillows, toys, or blankets.

He did not sleep straight through the night immediately, but slowly he started to wake up less and less. By the time he was three months old, he was sleeping six to eight solid hours without waking up. It was a HUGE relief.

reap all the benefits…

Photo by Alisa Anton on Unsplash

Nighttime routine not only helped him sleep soundly through the night, it gave me much needed alone time. I would put him to bed by 8:00 and have time to relax, watch tv uninterrupted, make myself something to eat (uninterrupted), eat (uninterrupted)…you get the point.

Ultimately, getting my child on a routine, where he was sleeping alone at the same time every night, did wonders for us both. Those few precious hours at night when I got to be Kristan, not just Zain’s mom, are still so important and beneficial for me. I would argue that every parent needs them…

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Baby Led Weaning and Purees: What Works for You?

If you are a parent, by now you have likely heard of baby led weaning. It’s the most popular of the “baby vs solids” trends. Like any new parent, as my baby approached the appropriate age, I started thinking about how I wanted to start the weaning process.

I was surprised when his pediatrician told me at his four month checkup that I could start him on solids at his age. So, I decided I was going to make his food myself…be the “all organic” mom and break out the fruits, veggies, blenders, and containers. I tried. It sucked. I quit.

To be totally honest, every new milestone gives me anxiety. Introducing a baby to solids means figuring out if your baby has allergies. My husband is self-employed, so I made him stay home every time we tried a new food. I hated the process.

In truth, I didn’t start at four months. I googled it, saw a consensus that anywhere from 4-6 months was fine, and procrastinated (in true ADHD fashion) until he was six months. By then, I decided I wasn’t going to spend all that time cooking and preparing purees just for him to not like something. Then who’s going to eat the blended broccoli? Not me. Enter baby led weaning…

I did my research and learned all the techniques. Then we tried it. Let me tell you why it didn’t work for me. More importantly, let me tell you why it’s okay not to push yourself to do what doesn’t work for you just because every “supermom” fishing for someone to criticize on social media says you should.

What Is Baby Led Weaning

Photo by Harry Grout on Unsplash

The short of it is that your baby learns to feed himself/herself from the time you start to wean them off strictly liquids. The recommended age for baby led weaning is six months, and that’s because babis typically start reaching for food at that age.

If you visit babyledweaning.com you’ll find that it seems so simple. What a great idea! Skip the mushy food, and have your baby eating like a toddler before the first year! Let’s be honest, we all want to think our babies are ahead of the curve.

However, keep in mind, this method takes patience and persistence. Motor skills as six months are lacking. Very little hits the mouth. Most of it ends up on the floor or in the lap.

A Few Things You Need to Know About Baby Led Weaning…

First, I want to say that this is not a BLW bashing post. I actually think it is a great way to start your kid on solids. I just want to offer as much information about the process as possible because I tried it and have the experience. Here a just a few things I learned along the way:

  • The bites. It might sound like you just cut up some food and give it to your baby, but the size of the bite is important. Long pieces make it easy for the baby to hold on, and small bites are more likely to cause choking. Slice everything into narrow rectangles.
  • The mess. This one should have been obvious, but what can I say, I’m a new mom. It’s a baby, so who really cares, but just keep in mind that they will get food everywhere. In BLW, they skip the sippy cup phase as well, and they start drinking water. They make cute tiny cups for them to pick up with their cute hands (and spill everywhere).
  • The gagging. This is the one that got me. Anxious parents, this one will freak you out. Keep in mind that they don’t have teeth, and they are learning to move food from the front of their mouths to the back to swallow. It’s new, and they are not great at it in the beginning, so they gag a lot. It sounds like choking and might freak you out.

All in all, this is a great way to start your baby on solids. The key is to make sure it works FOR YOU, too.

Why It Didn’t Work for Me and Why That’s Okay

I started the BLW journey because I love the idea of teaching my child to be independent. I think every parent does. That’s the appeal of it, and that’s what made it hard for me to accept that it was not right for me.

I may have mentioned this approximately 50 times, but I’m not exactly a laid-back person. For someone like me, the gagging was too much. I worried constantly that my son would choke, and even though I know how to do the baby Heimlich, my mind always went to the worse case scenario.

With all that being said, the moral of this story is that every parent has their own personal limitations. I don’t feel bad that I couldn’t handle diving right into baby led weaning.

Photo by Suzi Kim on Unsplash

My son drinks water from a transition sippy cup. At nine months, he eats cold pressed, pureed baby food (a blend of organic fruits and veggies), and he loves eggs, salmon, and chicken, which I feed to him in tiny bites now that he has six teeth.

I did what was right for me, and he is happy, healthy, and thriving. Sometimes it’s hard to remember that we have to take care of ourselves as well. “Mom guilt” is not a myth! However, I’ve learned to find balance and try to keep in mind that worrying about being a good parent is what makes me a good parent.

The Food That Works for Me

FYI, if you do want to go the puree route, I went on a journey to find the best baby food. All organic. Free of toxic metals and ingredients. Click here if you’d like to read my post about Once Upon a Farm, cold-pressed baby food.

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