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Learning to 'Talk Baby'

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Parents often say that they wish babies came with an instruction manual. Our children's workers are taught that 'the baby is the instruction manual'. Babies are communicating with us from the day that they are born, and if we can understand their 'cues' - the movements and expressions that reveal how they are feeling - we can learn to care for them better.

Babies rely on adults to respond to their physical needs, to ensure they are warm, comfortable and fed. They also need us to respond to their emotions, to soothe them if they are upset or stressed. When we do this, we help the baby learn how to manage his or her own feelings. If we don't react appropriately, this can have long term effects on the child's emotional and social skills and mental health.

If a baby cries and cries and nobody comes, he or she will eventually stop crying. They won't stop feeling upset, but will keep this feeling locked up inside. As an adult, this person may be less able to cope with stress.

So, learning how to 'talk baby', to recognise and respond to a baby's cues, is a really important role for parents or caregivers. Many parents can do these things naturally, but not everyone. If a parent has emotional problems or experienced poor parenting themselves, or if they have problems such as substance misuse or domestic violence that preoccupy their thoughts and their feelings, then they may struggle to attend and respond to their baby.

Parents affected by problems like domestic violence seldom get adequate support to deal with their own problems, let alone help to respond to their babies' needs. Society spends huge sums of money treating children and young people with social and emotional problems, but hardly anything investing in their early development, and preventing things from going wrong in the first place.

It is possible to help parents to develop secure bonds with their babies, even in the most adverse circumstances, and there are a host of examples of good services that can make a difference. One example of such as service is 'Minding the Baby', a service developed in Yale, and which the NSPCC is now piloting in the UK. In this service skilled social workers and nurses work with vulnerable young mums to support them during pregnancy and the first years of their child's life. Alongside offering a host of practical support, the practitioners help the mums to observe their babies' behaviours and think about what this reveals about how they feel and what they need.

Caring for a baby isn't rocket science, nor is it easy and it doesn't come naturally to everyone. It's one of the most important things any of us ever does. That's why we believe it's critically important that new parents are given some help in 'talking baby', and we're calling on Governments and health services across the UK to take this issue seriously.

Find out more about the NSPCC's work with babies.

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