Babies are like cats.
Adults who love babies would love it if babies were more like puppies: eager to meet kind strangers, excited to play and interact, easy smiles (and wagging tails...).
But babies are like cats.
They are often apprehensive around new people and can be initially guarded around known people they don't see every day like aunties, uncles, and grandparents. With these kinds of expectations, it's no surprise that many loving adults end up with hurt feelings, especially when parents attempt to intervene.
But I believe that if we can shift our thinking, if we think of babies like cats, our approach will change and the results are incredibly different, leading to happier adults and babies.
So here are 5 steps on how to approach a baby. It also works with cats.
1. Acknowledge baby's presence briefly.
"Hello, baby", gentle smile, eye contact, and move on to say hello to everyone else.
Now baby knows that, while you've noticed them, you're not going to intrude into their personal space. New experiences and people can feel overwhelming for babies. Say hello and let them get used to all the newness.
2. Enter into conversation with mom/dad/caregiver.
Babies carefully watch their primary caregivers and often look to their parents for reassurance before exploring the world or entering into new relationships. This is called "referencing". Until you've gotten the "okay" from mom, wait.
3. Be patient.
Babies signal readiness for socialization through vocalizations (cooing or making a loud sound to get your attention) and with physical cues (reaching out to you, wanting to show you something, pointing, smiling). Be patient and wait for baby to initiate social contact.
4. Gently engage baby with vocalizations/physical proximity.
Gently engaging with baby means following baby's lead. If baby has pointed at something, you can say, "Oh yes, there goes a squirrel," while pointing at the squirrel and looking at baby. If baby wants to hand you something, play the game of 'give and take': Baby hands you something, you hand it back (x infinity...).
5. Increase contact/engagement.
If this interaction seems positive (eye contact, smiles, cooing), you can try to engage more with baby. Move toward physical proximity with baby by playing with baby's feet (five little piggies) or some other physical game. Games with songs and rhyming tend to work best. When you're ready, pick up and hold baby with confidence. Keep parents in baby's view. Parents can help by providing positive reinforcement (i.e. smiles, nods, "That's nice. Nana loves you so much").
If baby needs a little more space (pulls away, starts to cry, etc.) listen to baby's cues and respond accordingly. Once baby calms down, try again.
You did it! These steps can happen quickly (within a few minutes) or take longer depending on the temperament and developmental capacity of the baby.
Encouraging loving adults to approach baby in this way reduces baby's distress, respects baby's bodily autonomy, and encourages adults who love babies to attune to baby's signals and cues.