Like many parents, as my son’s first birthday drew close, I spent a lot of time thinking of and researching the best gifts for the first birthday. My wish list included wooden stacking blocks, a tricycle, and musical instruments. Then one day, while observing my almost one year old, I realized that the best gifts for the first year cannot be bought; they are not material, but psychological.
The best gifts for the first year are the Basic Trusts. I learned about the Basic Trusts in my AMI Assistants to infancy training. They were not called gifts or described as such, but as I have gone through the first year of parenting, I realize that they are gifts that we give our child from their day of birth – perhaps even from conception. These gifts are made even more special because they can only be given in the first year and only under the right conditions.
The two Basic Trusts are the trust in the environment and the trust in self.
Basic Trust in the Environment: This is the first basic trust. It is usually acquired by the end of the second month of life, which also marks the end of a very important time in the child’s life, the period of adaptation to his new world. During this time, the mother and the child depend on each other to meet both physical and psychological needs. This stage lays the foundation for the child’s personality and his view of the world and life. A child who has basic trust in the environment will approach life with optimism, security and trust in the world as a good place where he can thrive.
Basic Trust in Self: This is the second basic trust. It is usually acquired by the ninth month, which marks the end of extero-gestation or the external pregnancy. The child would have spent as much time outside the womb as he spent inside. The basic trust in self lays the foundation for confidence and a strong self-esteem. The child who has basic trust in self will approach challenges with confidence in his abilities. He will not be discouraged by failures. He will be curious and approach the world with an exploratory attitude.
How can the parent give the child the gifts of these Basic Trusts? I will discuss them individually.
Basic Trust in the Environment
The mother’s womb is the child’s first environment. Feeling accepted by the parents makes the environment more comfortable and welcoming. One of the ways the mother can make the child feel accepted in the womb is by being happy. When the mother is happy, her body releases hormones, which the child can feel. The child also feels accepted when both parents talk and sing to him, rub the belly and generally interact with the baby positively.
The Birth Experience
The child’s birth is his entrance into the world and into life. The process can significantly influence the child’s view of life. The birth process can also affect the mother’s ability to bond, breastfeed and provide the care the child needs for a positive adaptation, which then leads to the acquisition of Basic Trust in the Environment. It is important to make the birth experience as positive as possible for both mother and child. There are many ways to increase the probability of a positive birth. They include preparation for birth, surrounding the parents with a strong support system, and being flexible. It is very important to realize that birth is unpredictable and remain flexible, in case things do not go as planned. Being flexible makes it easier to adjust to and accept one’s birth experience regardless of how it goes.
As part of my preparation, I read Birth without Violence by Frederick LeBoyer. I highly recommend this book. The following are some of his suggestions that I chose to use:
- Giving birth in a dark or dimly lit room. The child is not coming from bright light and so needs to adjust slowly.
- The room should be quiet and all speech should be in hushed tones as the child adjusts. While the child could hear in the womb, the sounds were filtered by water and so when he comes out to loud voices, it is like roaring to his ears.
- The child should have immediate contact with the mother’s body, ideally put on her belly as soon as he comes out. Again this helps him adapt and adjust slowly.
- His head “which has borne the brunt of the catastrophe” should not be touched but supported.
- The umbilical cord should not be cut until it stops beating.
- “We must speak the language of love to the newborn.” This language is Touch. He just came from a cocoon. We should hold him and wrap our arms around him.
The First 6-8 Weeks
This is a period of adaption for both mother and child and they both benefit from a positive attachment to each other. Physically, the mother nourishes the child with breast milk by breastfeeding. As a result, her uterus is triggered to shrink to its normal size. Psychologically, holding the child helps the mother get over the feeling of emptiness that might result from no longer carrying the child in her womb. The child remains attached to his mother and the points of reference from the womb, which are his mother’s voice and heartbeat. This attachment helps him to adapt positively to his new environment.
The act of holding the child and breastfeeding are two of the steps in giving the gift of Basic Trust in the Environment. Breastfeeding is such an important part of the attachment required at this time because breastmilk is tailored to each baby’s specific needs, and the act of breastfeeding builds a strong bond and attachment between mother and child. When the child is breastfed on demand and held, his need for food and direct contact with his mother are met. It allows him to rediscover the points of reference (mother’s heartbeat and voice) from his prenatal life, which helps his adaptation. If for any reason the mother is unable to breastfeed, she can still spend a lot of time holding the child and find other ways to build this bond and attachment such as baby wearing or co-sleeping. During this time, the child’s biological rhythms should be respected and he should be allowed to sleep on demand.
The child also needs order, which includes having a place for each object; a place associated with the different processes of daily life (feeding, diapering, movement); and the sequence in which these processes are carried out. He also needs sufficient space and opportunity to explore the environment with his senses.
The parents should be affectionate and communicative when handling and caring for the child. It is important to realize that the child cannot be spoiled during this time. All his cries should be attended to. It is vitally important that the environment responds to the child. This is what helps the child achieve Basic Trust in the Environment, and provides the sense of security that leads to positive separations in future.
While the mother plays the lead role during the symbiotic period, the father or other primary support person also has an essential set of responsibilities. His involvement includes supporting and protecting the mother from unnecessary strains, as well as loving and caring for her so that she is free to breastfeed, hold, and give affection to the child. He can also play a big role in the handling of the child. While he can’t breastfeed, he can change diapers, bathe the baby and take advantage of these times of care to communicate and be affectionate.
When all of this is takes place during those first few weeks, the child receives the gift of Basic Trust in the Environment. Its acquisition can actually be observed. There is usually a change in the child. I have experienced this period of transformation in the child twice.
The first time was during my training. As part of the required observation, I observed five-week old M. He cried a lot during the observations and while it must have been really hard for his mother, she always responded with love, holding him, singing to him, saying his name lovingly. She breastfed him, changed his diapers frequently and just wrapped him in love, never letting any frustration reflect in her response to or care for him. He only had eyes for her.
After 3 weeks of observation, during his 7th or 8th week, they walked into the room and you could immediately sense the difference. Where he would only look at his mother before, he looked around the room and seemed to be taking in all the details and faces for the first time. He was passed around from student to student. We were all excited to finally interact with him. He was quiet, observing each face as he was held. He did not cry that day or any day after. He was showing the signs of having acquired the Basic Trust in the Environment. He seemed to have realized the world was a good place where he was welcome. That his needs would be met and that his mother would be available when he needed her. I believe he had acquired the basic trust in the environment.
The second time I observed the basic trust in the environment was in my son. Unlike M, my son did not cry a lot in his first weeks and was generally happy but even with that I still noted the subtle change when it happened. I remember that morning. I walked into the bathroom and when I walked back into the room after about 8 minutes, he was staring at the bathroom as though he was waiting and knew I would be returning through that door. As soon as he saw me, he smiled. I am almost certain that he thought to himself, “I knew she would be back.” From that time, I could leave him alone for little stretches of time and he would not cry or fuss but instead, engage himself and wait patiently. He trusted his environment and knew he was in a good place.
Basic Trust in Self
The parents can give the child this gift by helping the child develop independence and providing opportunities for movement, exploration and communication. To do this, they require knowledge of the child’s development. It is with this knowledge that they can prepare the environment that will enable the child acquire Basic Trust in Self. It is also important for the parent to observe the child in order to notice changes and then make the changes to the environment. While the role of the parents remains paramount, any informed caregiver of the child can support the parents in giving of the gift of Basic Trust in Self.
In the mother’s womb, which is the child’s first environment, until he becomes too big, the child has freedom to move. Pregnant mothers know that they can cause the child to respond with movement by providing stimuli such as touch, laughter, a sneeze or even music. This can even be a way to communicate and bond with the child.
Unfortunately for a lot of children, after enjoying this freedom to move in the womb, they come into the world and their movement is severely restricted by excessive swaddling, bouncy chairs, walker, jumperroos and other unnecessary baby contraptions. Instead of hindering the child’s movements, a safe environment should be provided to allow the child move independently and explore his body as well as his environment.
The movement mat and floor bed are the Montessori solutions to providing a safe environment for movement and exploration to the infant. The low bed is used instead of a crib. It can be a mattress directly on the floor or in a bed frame, but without legs or railings. Very early in life (for my son it was at three and five months respectively), the child learns how to get out of and into his bed independently.
The movement mat is a soft mattress, blanket or rug placed next to a mirror mounted on the wall and a low shelf containing a few attractive materials. A developmentally appropriate mobile is also hung over the movement mat. In the beginning, the child lays on it and spends time looking around, at the mobile, the items on the shelf and just exploring his entire room visually. He also watches himself in the mirror. He can see everything but he can’t touch. The first mobiles are visual and match the child’s visual development (high contrast, primary colors, shades/depth perception and so on). He watches them as they sway in the air, inadvertently developing his ability to track visually.
Then one day, when he is about two months old and his hands are moving more, albeit reflexively, he hits the mobile. It is unintentional the first few times but then he realizes what is happening. Now the parent, whose role after preparing the environment is to observe the child, notices this and hangs up a mobile that will provide him with tactile and auditory feedback: the bell on the ribbon. Again, the child’s hand will randomly hit the mobile, but this time, it will jingle. The child will think: “Wow! I think I did that. I added music to the environment. I wonder if I can do it again,” and he will try and try again until he succeeds and intentionally bats the mobile. Gradually his reaching will become very intentional and accurate, he might even bring the bell to his mouth to taste it and then another tactile mobile, a ring on a ribbon will be provided. In the same way, he practices until his grasp is accurate. Each time he succeeds, a deposit is made in his Basic Trust in Self. It is important that the parents do not interrupt the child or try to “help” the child by putting the bell or ribbon in his hands. In addition to creating himself and building his basic trust in himself, the child is also building his ability to concentrate. This process should be respected.
He has been spending a lot of time on his mat, sometimes on his tummy and sometimes on his back and then one day around 3 or 4 months, maybe while reaching for a mobile or even reaching to touch his reflection in the mirror, he rolls over! The child thinks: “What just happened? I can move myself,” and then he practices and perfects this ability. He then thinks to himself, “Surely I can reach those beautiful items on the shelf. I am tired of just looking at them. I want to touch them, taste them and move them.” And so he sets his mind on this goal and he reaches and pushes himself and he moves! He’s slithering! Slowly but surely. The shelf is just far enough that it is a challenge to get to it but close enough that it is achievable. He gets to it! “I did it! I can move myself! I can get what I want! I can set a goal an achieve it.” Another deposit is made in his Basic Trust in Self, his confidence, and his ability to persevere.
Once he is able to sit and shows other signs of the sensitive period for weaning (teeth, drooling, watching the parent’s mouths while they eat, reaching for and even grabbing food of the parents’ plates etc.), a small table and chair just the right size for him is set up for him. Utensils just like the ones he sees people around him using but in his size is provided. No longer does he have to be carried all the time and have only his feeder’s face to look at. He can sit across or beside others. He can socialize and look around. Then he is taught how to use the utensils and a small glass, and he learns to bring food and water to his mouth. I can nourish myself! Another deposit.
By the 9th month, he is able to crawl and pull up to a stand. He is no longer limited to his movement mat or to his room. He can explore his home, which has been prepared for him. In every room, he has an area where he can explore safely and participate in family life. He knows he is a member of the family and belongs in the home. He can reach more things and have more experiences. He can fall and stand up. He can climb stairs! He can do so many things. He can use his hands in different ways to pick up items of different shapes and sizes. He is allowed to explore them with his senses. He can also make choices because his parent always ask him to choose what book or what clothes he would like to wear. He is a human being with abilities.
His parents continue to prepare and modify the environment to meet the child’s developmental needs. It balances challenge and the ability to succeed. It also provides the child with feedback for his actions. They also continue to model the right behaviors and social expectations for him. They talk to the child, sing to the child and even more importantly listen to and converse to the child. When he coos or babbles, the parent listens and waits for him to finish. She may repeat the sound and this act tells the child that not only does what he says matter (she stopped to listen), but he’s also being heard (she repeated what he said). The parent observes the child for verbal and non-verbal cues to hunger, care, sleep etc. while responding and providing language. Gradually, he improves his ability to communicate. It may be a word, or a sign, or a gesture like bringing over his bib when he is hungry. He knows he can communicate and make his needs known – another deposit in his Basic Trust in Self.
And then one day, before he’s one, you are together and he smiles at you and walks or crawls away. He looks back at you now and then but continues to move away with purpose. He goes out of sight and you wait for him to come back but he doesn’t. You go to check and you find him. He is sitting down and working at his shelf, or sitting at his table and having a snack. Maybe he’s drinking from his glass or sitting at his reading corner and flipping through a book that he has chosen by himself.
And then you realize that he has received the best gifts for the first year. He trusts the environment and himself. He is optimistic and knows that the world is a good place, and so is not afraid to venture away from you. He trusts in his abilities and is not afraid to explore independently. The foundations for a good life of happiness, lifelong learning and exploration have been laid.
I was privileged and lucky to receive my training and hence this information while I was pregnant for my son. I continue to experience the advantages of this knowledge even now with my 3rd child. It has truly been a gift and my dream is share this information with parents everywhere. The next Understanding and Supporting your Infant Course starts on Monday. I hope you’ll join us!