What to Do With a Baby

“What do I. . . DO with her all day?”

A slightly baffled mom asked this question about her newborn baby in a RIE® Parent-Infant Guidance™ class. We all laughed—including her—but I also knew part of her was very serious.

No parenting class had prepared her for this part of being a mom. After the diapers, feeding, bathing, dressing… what was she supposed to do with the kid?

Parent holding baby's hand

If you’ve ever wondered this about your baby, you’re not alone.

You could take him to baby gym classes. Or baby swimming classes. Or show him baby flashcards to try to smarten him up.

Or you could stay home and do (almost) nothing.

As strange as it might sound, I want to suggest to you how very engaging, rewarding, fascinating, educational, and fun it can be to do less with your baby.

Here’s the short version of what I recommend to all new parents (read on for more details):

1.     Make your caregiving time count.

2.     Minimize time away from home.

3.     Build in some “wants-nothing” time.

Is it Possible to Look Forward to Diaper Changes?

Practitioners of Magda Gerber’s Educaring® Approach, or RIE®, are fond of saying that in early childhood, caregiving is the curriculum.

 Not baby classes, or baby brain boosters, but caregiving.

Caregiving is a large part of how we fill our days when our baby is tiny—yes. But it can be so much more than just an endless, mind-numbing string of diaper changes.

Respectful parenting folks love to use diaper changes as an example because parents do so many of them, and because most of us so often think of them as something to get through at best, and distasteful, annoying, or even enraging (as our babies get older and less compliant) at worst.

But since we do so many of them, instead of treating them as a necessary evil on the way to the fun stuff, why not make the most of them?

Baby getting respectful diaper change

Every diaper change is an opportunity for a short—or long, depending on how you handle it—period of connection and learning with your baby.

  • You can take it slowly. (And build a little breathing room into your day, whether there are tears or peaceful acceptance.)

  •  You can make lots of eye contact. (And smile.)

  •  You can tell him about what you’re doing. (And wait for a response, however small it may be at first.)

  •  You can invite her to participate: “can you lift your bottom so I can slide the diaper out?” “would you like to put the tab on?” (And then marvel at what she can do.)

This same approach works beautifully for other caregiving activities like bathing, feeding, and dressing.

Each time we slow down, involve our child, and communicate in this way, we show him that we respect his body, and we acknowledge the fact that we are doing things to it and with it all day long. In doing so, we communicate his value, and build his self-confidence. We also start to demonstrate consent, and its importance to us.

Can We Leave the House or What?

Even though I love the Educaring Approach, I’m the first to argue that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to any aspect of parenting. When and how much to venture out with a new baby is no exception.

Having said that, I will also argue that the time you spend outside of your home should be kept to a minimum when your baby is small.

Here’s why.

In the early weeks and months following your baby’s birth, she is doing hard work to get acclimated to the world. And so are you—you just got born as a mom to this particular human, whether it’s your first time at the rodeo or not.

So much of what sets up young babies for easeful infancy and toddlerhood is established during these first months: nighttime sleep, naps, solid feeding habits, routines, and those ultra-important things like felt experiences of safety, security, and trust.

As a parent, you are also learning all about this new baby in those first months—what she needs, what she likes and dislikes, when she gets fussy or feels relaxed, and what all those many cries might mean.

This doesn’t mean that you can’t leave the house. But if you make being out and about in the world the rule instead of the exception, it can be easy for both of you to put off some of the foundational work of getting settled.

Here are a couple of suggestions on how to keep yourself from getting too stir crazy during this time, if you decide to follow this advice:

  • Invite a mama friend or two over to your place. Lay your babies down on their backs on a soft blanket with some simple play objects nearby, and watch the baby show while you connect with one another.

  • Take a RIE® Parent-Infant Guidance class, where you can practice observing your baby in a calm environment as well as learn from a respectful parenting expert and other thoughtful parents.

WNQT? What’s That?

Magda Gerber called caregiving time “wants-something quality time,” because it’s time when we want something from our baby, like to change his diaper or bathe him. We make it quality time by the respectful, attuned way we approach these tasks.

But she also recommended that parents spend another kind of quality time with their babies: “wants-nothing quality time.”

This time is special because we want nothing from our babies other than to be with them and get to know them better.

Infant toy

When your baby is tiny, you can spend a little time every day just observing her. Sometimes it can be hard to put our babies down in these early days; it’s so wonderful to hold them and you might notice that your baby seems to want nothing else.

Do hold your baby lots and lots. And also see if you can lay her down for a little while each day in a safe space where you can just watch and be with her. 

On her back on a blanket or sheet, she is free to stretch and move her body however she likes, and to look in almost every direction (including over her head!).  At first she needs nothing else; she might look at the light coming through the window or a little later, at her hands.

When she gets a little older still, some simple play objects like a peaked cotton napkin or an O-ball could be placed nearby for her in case she takes an interest.

All you need to do during this time is sit nearby at watch. If you spend a little of this wants-nothing time each day, you will notice the most subtle of changes in what she can do and what she notices. Now she plays with her hands. Later she rolls slightly to one side. Then she rolls all the way over. And on it goes.

Isn’t your baby amazing?

Babies grow and develop at different rates and in their own time.* But whatever pace they take, observing them as they do it without helping or getting in their way can instill in us the deepest respect for our child’s capabilities and inner motivation. We also learn to attune to him in ways we couldn’t do without this kind of focused observation. And it makes us curious about this little being. Who is he becoming? And what will he do next?

Respect. Attunement. Curiosity.

Sounds like a pretty good start, doesn’t it?




* If you have any concerns about your baby’s growth or development, be sure to talk with your pediatrician.

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