Your baby coos and kicks as you speak softly to her. Inside her young brain, countless connections are being made.

Every day we learn more about the incredible capacities of infants. Babies react to noise, changes in lighting, and new people—from the very beginning proof that they are aware of sights, sounds, and other people in their lives. Although your baby cannot tell you in words that she is hungry or needs a diaper change, she expresses her feelings and needs through the sounds she makes, her facial expressions, and movements.

Caring for infants on a day-to-day basis presents special challenges and opportunities to promote children’s learning. Families are looking for centers or home settings where the staff ensure children’s safety and comfort while also fostering their physical, sensory, social, emotional, and intellectual development.

Good caregiving results in more and stronger connections in the infant’s brain—connections that last a lifetime. And by connecting with warm, caring adults at the start of life, babies also begin developing the ability to connect with others throughout life.

Infant development

From the beginning, infants show a wide variety of physical abilities. During the first few months, they gain control of their hands and feet. Soon their movements become more coordinated and purposeful. Movement is exploration. Pulling, reaching, kicking, grasping, and releasing are babies’ learning activities. As they roll, scoot, rock, and bounce, they discover how their bodies move and feel. They respond to rhythm, music, song, and a pleasant tone of voice.

Babies may follow objects and people with their eyes, but they do not look for objects when they are hidden from view. They have not yet developed what scientists call object permanence—that’s why a game like peekaboo is so exciting for them! With the support of a parent or other skilled caregiver, babies begin to recognize familiar objects, events, and people, then to anticipate their return.

Most of all, babies enjoy warm human contact. They know by the tone of voice whether a person is friendly, sad, or angry. In their own individual ways, they respond to the emotions of people around them. It may not be immediately apparent, but babies are forming a foundation for relationships they will develop throughout their lives.

Good caregivers support infant development

Like parents, good teachers know that babies grow and learn best when they feel secure. That’s why it’s important for adults to respond consistently. Infants develop trust and security when they know their teachers will be right there to help if they are hungry, wet, or uncomfortable.

Teachers must become familiar with the eating and sleeping rhythms of the individual babies in their care. They also must stay in tune with the rapidly changing needs of each baby. For example, young infants usually enjoy being held and cuddled, but when they can move around by themselves, they may push someone away in order to be on their own.

Before infants become mobile, they can’t do very much to provide themselves with interesting objects and experiences. A strong knowledge of child development and of each individual infant, allows teachers to sense when experiences are not challenging enough and when they are too overwhelming. Once older infants begin to use words, teachers often support these early attempts at communication by repeating what they say and adding to or elaborating upon it (Child: “Milk!” Teacher: “Milk? You want more milk?”).  Teachers also name things and actions, and watch and listen carefully for other cues.

The teacher-family partnership

Many changes occur in a baby’s first year. It seems that at one moment she is clinging to you at the sight of a stranger and at the next she’s off exploring on her own. As your baby becomes more independent, you may be delighted, but wistful too.

A good relationship between parents and teachers helps ease parents’ minds and helps children begin a lifelong pursuit of learning. The more families and teachers communicate, the better they can provide for the child’s changing needs.

Babies benefit from continuity between the home and child care settings. This occurs when parents and teachers, on a daily basis, discuss feeding, toileting, and other events. Teachers and parents should communicate daily about what has occurred in children’s lives since their last meeting and what is coming up. Many teachers write notes—in a journal or on a computer or tablet—about a baby’s daily experiences to facilitate communication with parents.  Some take and share digital photos or short videos. Still others rely on good discussions at the beginning and end of the day. As long as communication is thorough and consistent, families and teachers will grow to trust one another. 

An infant’s day centers around routines. Activities such as hellos and good-byes with parents, diapering, napping, and dressing are in effect the curriculum that helps infants develop and learn. Skilled teachers use routines as opportunities to talk with children, explain what is going on, and build closer ties. They respond to children’s communications too.

Good teachers show respect for a baby’s home language and culture and the parents’ childrearing style. If disagreements or misunderstandings occur, parents must feel free to talk openly with the teacher. When the home language of a child is different from that of a teacher, parents and teachers must work together to create an environment that is best suited for the child’s long-term development.

Adjusting to a new teacher

Every infant reacts differently to a new care setting. Some make the transition with relative ease. Others may express their strong feelings about separating from a loved one by crying, sometimes inconsolably. Still others show their concerns in less obvious ways. If they have never been left with strangers, they may be afraid that their parents are not coming back. Skilled teachers help babies and parents work through this critical period of adjustment. The goals are for babies to feel comfortable, secure, and confident that they can cope with their new surroundings and for parents to understand that their child is in good hands and will receive nurturing care.

The transition does not occur magically. Your child’s age influences his or her ability to adjust. For example, infants 6 months and younger often adjust readily, but between 6 and 15 months, many babies experience more intense separation anxiety. This may not be true in every case—each baby is different. Those identified as being at risk, such as preterm infants and babies with chronic illnesses or genetic or congenital disorders, may take longer to become comfortable in their child care settings.

A good relationship between parents and teachers helps ease the transition for all those involved. Parents may have a difficult time separating from infants, particularly when the baby is distressed or when they have not gone through the separation process before. Older infants who have learned to enjoy the company of other babies and adults may be so busy exploring, they will barely notice when parents leave. (This can hurt parents’ feelings too.)

Parents can find out ahead of time how a program handles transitions. Some programs encourage parents to leave children gradually, starting with just a few hours a day. Others invite parents to stay all day, then to leave for short periods of time, which helps children understand that they will return.

Helping parents cope with transition is another aspect of good caregiving. A good teacher reaffirms that nothing can substitute for a parent’s love and that strong bonds with a few warm, caring adults help children thrive. If adults demonstrate trust and respect for one another, babies will adjust more smoothly.

 

© National Association for the Education of Young Children — Promoting excellence in early childhood education