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(p. 245) The New Baby: Getting to Know Your Baby 

(p. 245) The New Baby: Getting to Know Your Baby
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(p. 241) Original Broadcast Scripts
Author(s):

Donald W. Winnicott

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date: 21 October 2017

(p. 245) The New Baby: Getting to Know Your Baby

The broadcast script of the eighth talk in the series The New Baby. BBC Home Service, I. Benzie (producer). Wednesday, 14 November, 1945.
Winnicott contributed this talk—a summary of his first BBC series from the previous year—and ‘Looking Forward to Baby’s Arrival’ [CW 12:3:4a], in this series of twelve broadcasts for expectant mothers. See [CW 12:Introduction].

Your baby is different from any other baby that’s ever been born. Isn’t that interesting!

You’d hardly think it possible, considering that just flesh and bones go to make a body, and any face has but two eyes, a nose and a mouth. How ever can there be room for millions and millions of babies each one unlike any other? Yet, it’s so; even twins who look alike are never exactly alike in temperament.

Of course, people who are not used to babies find it difficult to distinguish one baby from another, but you as a mother would have no trouble if you had to pick out your baby from a number of babies, that is, once you have had the chance to hold him and to feed him. In other words, it comes naturally to you to get to know your baby, and you start right away after you have recovered from labour.

I would like to be able to help you start to get to know your baby, not so much quickly as accurately. Quickly is all right, and it’s certainly fun to study the very early steps, but the really helpful thing is to be able to observe what there is to observe accurately and to keep this distinct from what you can imagine.

You can imagine all sorts of things. For instance, many newborn infants look wise, and they look as if they are lying in their cots wondering what the world will be like. There is no harm in our enjoying these ideas of ours, but we really know, don’t we, that babies are not either wise or philosophical, and they have not yet the knowledge of the world which they would need in order to think out whether it’s a good or a bad place to be born into. Good and bad don’t begin to have any meaning for them till they are some weeks or months old.

It seems to me to be perfectly sensible to weave fantasies round babies, but as you can do this better than I can I’ll leave you to it. I’m more likely to help you to see the facts, and these are quite interesting.

Babies are all the time developing, and they can be said to be developing in four ways. Firstly, they are growing physically: their bodies are using food, and in a most complex way building up bones and muscles and brains, and all other kinds of tissues. Secondly, they are developing skills, such as the ability to follow a light, to recognize a face, to smile at someone, to kick in the bath, to sit, to catch hold of objects, later on to stand, to walk, and to feed themselves. It’s (p. 246) very interesting to compare infants with each other in these respects, because they differ greatly from each other; some walk at ten months, while others don’t even sit at their first birthday, and don’t walk till they are a year and a half old.

Closely bound up with this matter of skill is the development of intelligence. Here again, there are wide variations. Some babies develop obvious intelligence early, being able to learn from experience, to adapt themselves to the demands of reality, to understand mother’s point of view. In contrast, other babies develop their attributes slowly, spending most of their time asleep, or apparently dreaming or thinking, and yet they can have as good a capacity for being clever eventually as have the others who show early cunning. People tend to be very pleased when babies come on fast, but I’m not one for saying that speed of development is either good or bad. I suppose the trouble is people tend to fear their child may be mentally defective until they see clear signs that [illegible text] is working well, so they like to see evidence of intelligence as soon as possible.

I’ve spoken of bodily development, of the development of skills, and of intelligence. The fourth kind is the development of personality. This last is by far the most interesting to watch, and it is just here that babies are especially individual and unalike. I’ll go into this a little.

In this talk I can only deal with the beginnings. In the first stage of personality development, your baby is only starting to be knit together into a whole person. You’re getting to know him as a human being, but he doesn’t know himself yet. Let’s try and see what it feels like to be a baby. It can’t really be put into words, but let me say that as he lies in his cot he’s a bit of skin that’s itching, he’s a pair of eyes watching a moving curtain, he’s a colicky pain, an appetite. In the same way you are a face, a shadow, a way of handling him, a bath, a towel, a rocking movement. He’s not yet become one whole person, nor are you one whole person to him. He’s just a collection of feelings, bits of what will one day become himself, and you, for him are bits of what he will one day piece together and call ‘mother’.

How tremendously important it must be in these first days and weeks of his life that you look after him yourself, so that he experiences no unnecessary complications! Several faces, a varying bathing technique, dissimilar toilet routine, if these complications can be avoided they are avoided with advantage. (I knew a baby who was seriously disrupted by the fact that mother was left handed while mother’s mother, who also looked after him, was right handed.)

You may well ask what brings about this process, eventually, whereby the baby feels he’s one whole person and feels you are a whole person too? This takes place in the course of time through the ordinary repeated experiences of infant life. Because of this mothers find themselves setting up an ordered routine, and sticking to it. There quickly comes into existence a sequence of feeding, bathing, napkin-changing and sleeping, and this is the basis of nursery life. And mothers take infinite pains to see that complications don’t muddle (p. 247) things up. If the door bangs on two occasions just as baby is going for the nipple the baby naturally concludes that this going-for-what-you-want gives a pain in the ears, and he goes off feeding. So you shut the door carefully, and in many other ways you see that the general atmosphere round the early feeds is calm and controlled. Only against this background of monotony can you safely and usefully add your daily dose of personal richness.

These repeated experiences of your management gradually gathers him together into a person. But also there are the acute experiences which involve the whole baby, such as excitement over feeding. Just as a baby feels gathered together when you lift him up, so he comes together when he gets hungry, and goes for your breast, swallows the milk and digests it in his tummy. The feeding affects his whole body, and this helps make him feel he’s one person. Even rage can be valuable in the same way, since a baby in a rage is, for the time being, pulled together into one person by his rage. When he recovers, he goes back again into a state of peace and of not minding much if he’s one person or many bits. You might feel sorry for him, but on the whole he won’t mind being in bits as long as from time to time he comes together; but we grown-ups get an awful feeling of madness, when through tiredness or illness we feel ourselves disintegrating, going back into the state that we were naturally in, after birth, we call ‘going to pieces’ and ‘not being all there’.

At this early time, your baby is also discovering his own body. As he begins to become a person he begins to know that he has skin, and how nice it is to be warm. He knows that he can be hurt, and begins to distinguish pin-pricks that can be got away from, from colics that have to be endured till they go. He finds he can satisfy himself quite a lot with his own fist or finger when he suddenly wants a feed and he can’t get anyone to come to the rescue quickly enough. By the age of six months he may know that what he gets rid of he has previously eaten, but by this time he is a long way on in his development, well beyond the early stages I am describing today.

In these very early stages your baby is also coming to terms with reality. In this task you have already started him off well if you and he have clicked with each other over feeding. I want to explain what I mean. Just having the will to feed your baby isn’t enough, you’ve got to live an experience with him to bring about that human tie which is the first in the baby’s life and which is so important for all his future. In fact there are two distinct things that have to be brought together. He’s hungry and has ideas. You are real and have food ready. He’s in need of something, and at that moment you come along with breast or bottle and good milk. But it’s touch and go whether he’ll feel that what you have is what he has in his mind to want. Only you can manage this tricky moment with him. Forcing is useless and harmful. But suddenly it works, the baby accepts your breast as the thing he wants to attack, and through this and its frequent repetition he gradually gains confidence in the likelihood of his being able to find in the real world the things he acutely needs.

(p. 248) Some babies never satisfactorily solve this problem of cooperation with mother; the two never hit it off. Perhaps they may manage with a bottle instead of the breast, but often a baby loses almost all zest for food and mechanically takes just enough to keep body and soul together. Another will take well, but in a spirit of compliance rather than of healthy greed, fitting in with mother’s offer of good things, but never really feeling that what he gets is what he wants.

[Missing text] … holding yourself in readiness for days did you feel that you and the baby had come to terms, and that he had started to accept you as the object of his primitive greedy love.

Now what is it that I am saying? I’m trying to make it clear that very early after birth, before a baby has the ability to know you, to be pleased when you come and to be sad when you go, and before he starts to have fears and guilt feelings, he needs you terribly much. At this very early stage he needs the simplest possible environment, to be protected from complications that he cannot yet understand and allow for. You are more likely than anyone else to feel this is worth doing. To do this you don’t have to be clever. You only have to be able to be natural and interested in your baby because he’s yours. If you have it in you to be possessive, now’s your chance.

Looking at it this way, you simply won’t allow a neighbour to rush in on you when you’re feeding your infant, or when you are in the middle of the routine of changing him. You simply won’t allow all and sundry to have a go at bathing him. At first you will do as much as you can yourself, till the infant has had enough of you to begin to build you up as a collection of experiences with which he comes to connect your face. If you feel like yourself doing all you can you will reap a reward later on.

If you feel your baby is someone you like getting to know, you are on the right track all along. You are there with your warmth and strength and generosity, and there too is the baby with his growing needs. You and he may form a partnership which is valuable to both of you, but for this to happen you have to find each other. And as the baby is in a primitive state of development and you are mature, it must be you who at first makes the relationship possible by your patience and tolerance and your understanding of what is happening.

It is the same with training him to be clean as it is with feeding. You can train almost any baby at first by regular holding out, but this is not very valuable. Sooner or later you will have to see your baby’s point of view on the subject. Sometimes he feels like cooperating, sometimes he doesn’t. Sometimes he has a good reason for being in a mess. At other times he likes to please you or to give you something; and sometimes he’s scared of what comes out of him and wants it taken away quickly. If you are enjoying getting to know your baby you will find out all these thing as you go along.

Some people will tell you everything depends on your starting off on the cleanliness-is-next-to-godliness principle, and they will tell you to act according to rules, and to make the baby obey these rules. Be sure these people don’t (p. 249) know babies; and they certainly don’t know your infant, for you are the only person who has had a chance to get to know him. He needs you as a person, not as a set of rules and regulations. Guiding rules are a help, but each baby needs someone who knows him and who is interested in his point of view. Gradually your infant will become interested in your point of view too, but the foundation for this is your getting to know him, and so being able to wait for what is so much more valuable than goodness and compliance, the baby’s own gradually developing sense of minding what results from his actions and thoughts.