Body language is such an important part of a baby’s life. Even before they learn to sign, babies are watching people for their expressions, temperament, fluidity in their movement, level of tension, overall character, their overall softness or hardness and much, much more. Have you ever wondered why babies take to some people and not to others? Do you think they make up their mind at random? Hardly. It has been said that “colic” is related to a baby’s ability to adapt to and adjust to variations in their environment. Some babies are just better than others, but by about 6 months of age, most babies have become accustomed to whatever extremities exist, and are better able to adapt so “colic” subsides significantly. In other words, the research shows that colic likely has little or nothing to do with gas, milk intolerances, or acid reflux and everything to do with a baby’s natural ability to adapt to his environment.
To me, who has had a long term interest in body language, this makes sense. Babies that have more consistent and quiet environments with relaxed parents, can help baby’s with colic calm down faster whereas new mothers who aren’t yet accustomed to their baby’s and tense up or become agitated, often exacerbate the problem. The second element of course is the relative temperament of the baby. Some babies can deal with just about anything such as loud noises, busy public places, changes in routines and so forth, so don’t exhibit symptoms of colic. Other babies, on the other hand, will become upset to the point where they can’t be easily calmed with small changes in their routine such as a feeding time that has been delayed.
My point in raising the issue of body language is so that you can properly use it in conjunction with sign language to lessen the burden on verbal expression, especially in more trying times. Far too often, we feel that we need to put on happy faces even when we are upset, but what message does that send our little babies? Why should we burry and hide our feelings? Might they not resurface with greater vengeance later? In a lot of cases this is true, and talking about your feelings is much more constructive than always burying them behind smiling faces.
Teach your baby the appropriate face for the mood you are in. When you are upset with your baby, use a frowning face and do the sign for ANGRY. Catch them in their various moods and encourage them to label their emotions properly. You can create what’s called “emotional integrity” by doing just this. Always couple your verbal expressions with nonverbal expressions that are congruent. That is, your facial expressions, body language, and emotions should all match to send a clear message. When you say “no” to a baby, use a headshake and scowling face. When you are happy with them, nod your head in approval and smile. This will encourage them to continue doing good things. It’s likely that your facial expressions need “reworking” due to years of hiding them in efforts to be polite so keep this in mind as you move forward.
When my son does something new or potentially dangerous, he always “checks” with me for “permission” to see what sort of reaction I will make. Usually he pauses, looks at me, and often will even sign and say “Dadda.” From there he will gauge his next move, be it to speed up, if I don’t look too worried, or hesitate a bit if I show my mean / worried face! He has grown to learn the difference between something he really shouldn’t do, and when he can afford to test the limits. He gains all this knowledge effortlessly from my facial expressions and I deliver them effortlessly also. If you are always smiling no matter what they do, your baby will simply become confused. Worst yet is when you initially find amusement to something your baby does which you later find to be inappropriate – something that seems cute on the onset, but later becomes disruptive or destructive. A smiling face that says “No, stop that’s dangerous” is very hard to take seriously. In fact, a smiling face coupled with “no” is what we do when tickled. Do we really want the other person to stop? Sometimes we do, sometimes we don’t! Best not to leave your baby guessing. Decide how you feel about something and stick to it.
Above: Stop: In the ASL sign for STOP the vertical edge of the action hand comes down on top of the flat palm up hand.
When you do use facial expressions, be sure to couple them with appropriate sign language commands such as NO, STOP, WAIT and so forth. Let other parents shout and scream while you silently mold your child. You will be pleasantly surprised by how much more effective silent communication is when delivered confidently and assuredly. It’s as if children have an inborn ability to comprehend “hidden signals” – and naturally they do – we all do.
Using appropriate body language strengthens your silent strength and is a useful tool to get your baby to respond appropriately without having to resort to verbal means. When done properly, your baby will know exactly what you mean, each and every time, inhibiting testing and challenges to your authority.