The Importance of Talking to your Preemie

talk to your preemie

I picked up a well worn copy of the book "Bringing Up Bebe" at the store the other day, remembering that I had enjoyed listening to the author speak on the radio not long ago.  I was curious to read more of what this American mother learned from raising a child among French culture.  

Flipping through the pages, I landed on the part about talking with babies, and I was captivated. Delighted.  She was discussing how often French parents talk to their babies, and the way that they talk to them:

"I hear of several cases where, upon bringing a baby home from the maternity hospital, French parents give the baby a tour of the house. French parents often just tell babies what they're doing to them: I'm picking you up; I'm changing your diaper; I'm getting ready to give you a bath. This isn't just making soothing sounds; it's to convey information. And since the baby is a person, like any other, parents are often quite polite to him."

Why is this so delightful to hear?

Because here was a description of something I've done forever, something I felt was important but never knew why. 

I love talking to babies!

And I don't mean baby talk. I mean I talk to them as if they're real (little) individuals who deserve to be respected. Not that I think they actually understand my words, but I believe they pick up on the feeling behind it. It's a feeling of trust & respect.

When I am first meeting a baby for the day, for example, I'll probably say "Hi there little one, how are you this morning? You look adorable in your cute little onesie. How was your night last night? Your mommy is on her way in and will be here soon! Let's take a look and see if you need a diaper change....." or something along those lines. 

I'm not speaking in ooie gooey baby talk, I'm just saying hello, not just ignoring them as I check their vitals and change their diaper. I'm talking to them, and I always have. 

It's about respect

What I gleaned from the book, Bringing up Bebe (which I haven't read in full, to be honest) is that the beauty of French parenting stems from a respect for babies, even when they seem too young to comprehend or make their needs known. The French believe that babies are not unintelligent lumps, but rather rational beings who can communicate, in their own way, what they’re feeling. They encourage parents to observe their babies, try to get to really know them and what they're communicating non-verbally. And they also treat their babies with dignity.

And this all feels so very right to me. I think parents who speak to their babies with a sense of honoring that little individual end up having stronger and happier relationships, because they're starting off from a place of respect, trust, and faith in the baby's intelligence. 

It's also a great way to calm them

I feel that sometimes babies cry out because they're feeling separated from their caregiver, and talking to them does wonders to help them feel safe & secure, which in turn helps them calm down.  

So when you have a baby who is angry and wailing, ask her "What's wrong, little one? Is something bothering you? Tell me all about it..." No, I don't expect they'll answer you, but they'll feel the intention and it makes a world of difference. They'll know they're not alone. 

While we're on the topic, can I ask a teeny little favor?  Please don't just tell a screaming angry baby "You're fine!" I know I'm a baby nerd, but that's a huge pet peeve of mine. You don't tell adults who are obviously pissed off or extremely sad "You're Fine!" That would be pretty rude, right?  A screaming baby is not fine. You may think the crying is unnecessary, but obviously the baby doesn't. So here's a subtle way to respect your little one. 

Isn't taking to babies good for language development?

Yep, it definitely is. Hearing language helps babies develop language. It helps with their reading and comprehension. So it's really a win-win. In fact, there are many efforts across the country to encourage more parents to talk to their babies. For more information about the benefits of talking to your baby:

In the NICU - what to do?

You can start right away. I know the world of the NICU is intimidating and you may likely feel that all eyes are on you as you talk to your tiny preemie, but do it anyway. Check with the nurse to be sure your baby's medically stable enough at the moment for you to talk to her, and then start talking.

What would you say?

  • Hi.  How ya doin? You're looking mighty fine today! 
  • I miss you so much. I can't wait until we're together all the time.
  • I'm thinking about you all the time, and thinking of all the amazing adventures we're going to go on some day. Someday we'll go to Alaska, and Paris, maybe Rome...
  • I love your little fingers and your little toes.
  • Look how cute your belly is! Now let's see if you need a fresh new diaper...
  • Have I ever told you about grandma Jane? She's the most amazing person - she knows how to cook and knit and throw the best parties ever....
  • So last night we had pizza and I bet you're gonna love pizza....

The point is, talk to your baby about anything! And definitely talk to your baby about the things you're doing with your baby. And when you're talking, it's generally fine to use a soft voice; you usually don't have to whisper, but definitely try not to use a booming loud tone either. 

Reading books aloud to your baby is another fantastic way to include your voice in their world! If you want some suggestions for great books to choose, you can check my 75 favorite read-aloud books over here at Every Tiny Thing. 

After the NICU - What to do?

Once your preemie is home, keep up the talking! 

I liked to talk to my babies as if they're a good friend, because that's what I hope they'll be someday. (So far, so good!) Tell 'em about your day, teach them about squirrels and leaves and jet planes and opera, ask them what they think about that funny looking dog.... whatever. 

Don't believe it matters? Research shows it does:

"Children whose families were on welfare heard about 600 words per hour. Working-class children heard 1,200 words per hour, and children from professional families heard 2,100 words. By age 3, a poor child would have heard 30 million fewer words in his home environment than a child from a professional family. And the disparity mattered: the greater the number of words children heard from their parents or caregivers before they were 3, the higher their IQ and the better they did in school. TV talk not only didn’t help, it was detrimental." New York Times

And who's to say exactly why the kids who heard more words did better? Perhaps it was exposure to a broader vocabulary. But perhaps those kids who had been hearing a loving voice talking to them all that time felt better, more secure, and had been hearing all sorts of important things to boost their sense of self-respect & dignity. That couldn't hurt, now could it!

Bottom line

  • Talk to your preemie, starting right away.
  • Don't stress out about what to say, just treat your baby as if he or she is a dear friend who you want to share your thoughts with.
  • Model good manners by being polite to your infant; don’t use a condescending tone. And say things like please and thank you, even if you feel a bit silly saying please and thank you to a baby. You're showing your baby that good manners are important and it's never too early to start that.
  • And please don't dismiss your baby's feelings. Don't tell a baby who is upset that he's fine - he's not. And he deserves a little more respect than that. 

You can find that book Bringing Up Bebe here on Amazon