For most parents, the question would seem ridiculous. Of course they know their baby! What kind of parents wouldn’t know their baby? They know when they were born, they know the schedule they have put the baby on, they know the baby eats the food they have decided to give baby, and they often know when baby needs a diaper change. But does this really constitute knowing your baby?
How well do you know your partner? Your siblings? Your best friend? Likely you know them inside and out—the things that make them giddy with happiness, how long they can go before becoming hangry, what they need to help them feel better after a bad day—and through this knowledge you are able to help them in myriad ways. How did you get there though?
What did you do to gain this knowledge?
Did you read a book on friendship or dating and follow the guidelines to a tee, ignoring the other person and yourself in the process? Did you hear what others said about what their partners/friends liked and then assumed the same worked for your partner/friend? Likely not. In fact, I sincerely hope not. Likely, you spent time with this person. Lots of it. Not only did you spend time, but you paid attention to the cues that this person gave in order to help learn about what they liked or disliked. When your partner made a face when looking at a dish made of fava beans, you learned that this was not something s/he was keen on. When they always asked to watch drama movies, you learned this was the genre of interest. When they were sad and wanted to cuddle in the bedroom with you, shutting out the world, you learned this was the way to help him/her feel better, not the million other ways that other people find helps them. In short, you learned about this particular person in front of you.
But what of your baby? When I ask if you really know your baby, I’m asking if you know that little person in the same way you know your partner or best friend. As hard as it may be to hear, I don’t believe many parents really do know their babies. Not in a way one would hope.
You see, when parents turn to “experts” and popular books and other parents to learn “how to parent”, the underlying assumption is that your baby will be just like every other baby. No unique interests or needs. No unique temperaments that will influence how s/he responds to everything in the world. Just another baby, like every other baby, and as such you can treat this baby as you would any other baby that you happen to come across on the street.
If you assume this – even implicitly, for I don’t think parents are even consciously aware of this – then you are missing out on the most precious of things: Real time with your baby. For at birth you’ve only just begun the process of getting to know each other. For birth mothers, your baby does know some of you through having heard your voice and heartbeat in the womb and knowing your smell outside the womb, others have to start this process from scratch at birth. Regardless of who you are, you still know very little about this tiny, amazing creature. So you must begin the “getting to know you” process which takes time, lots and lots of time.
Like any and all relationships, this can’t be done from a book or from only hearing what other babies are like and respond to. This requires that you spend lots of time with your baby, getting to know what they like to smile at, look at, or hear. Getting to know how close they want to be with you, what toys they like to play with, and how they like to sleep. As you spend this time and learn about your child, understanding how to help your child and work with your child through difficult periods becomes far more doable. You also get to feel more confident in your own abilities to help your child, just as you hopefully feel confident in helping your partner and friends thanks to the intimate knowledge you have of them. Like anything, asking questions of friends or trying to get help is not without reason and certainly not something to be frowned upon, but it simply cannot replace the time you take to get to know your baby. It is advice that you take to see how your baby responds to it instead of treating it as gospel (and hopefully considering ethical issues of whether or not you would treat another, older person this way).
Hopefully you want to spend this time with your baby, but this means giving up the idea that your life post-baby should pretty much continue as it did before baby or that baby should really just fit nicely into your world with no give by you. It doesn’t mean it’s all give and no take, but rather that the balance of life is shifting as it should when a new, incredibly important relationship begins. Just as when you first met your partner, your life pre-partner didn’t continue with that person simply fitting in where s/he could. You changed your life in order to spend time with that person and get to know them, making sure they became a central part of your life. You didn’t completely forfeit your previous life and the people in it, but by necessity, it had to change. So it happens with a baby. In fact, it’s even more necessary as your baby actually depends on you for survival. Not just pleasure, but life itself.
If we want to be the kind of parents that know our babies, that know how to help them and be with them, and we want to feel confident in our abilities as the parent to our children, we need to spend time with them. We need to be willing to put other things aside and relish the time with our babies, taking in every cry, coo, smile, and sleep. Without this, our babies will remain people we “know”, but only in the most superficial of ways.