A newborn baby is a pearl, a treasure in a family and loved dearly; sought after by parents, especially mothers. This ‘love’ comes after pain, after a nine month long pregnancy which can only be experienced by women. That is why in all religious and cultural traditions the mothers’ position is higher than the fathers’. ‘Paradiselies at the feet of the mother’, said Islam’s Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him). Mothers have to be particularly careful about their health, food habits, diet and their lifestyle during pregnancy. It is a ‘sacrifice’ many women cannot afford to undertake in the rush of life and individualistic frame of mind in the consumer culture of today’s world. But this unique experience to feel and see a living being growing inside one’s own body is thrilling. Her life changes irreversibly from the start of conception through birth and until the baby turns into an adolescent. The nurturing of the embryo transforms into raising the baby into adulthood and is a long process; humans have the longest gestation period.
Once the baby is born, mothers can become crazy out of irresistible love and due to the sheer pressure of dealing with the tiny little ‘bundle of joy’ that only know how to demand. Learning to take just the physical care of the little one, e.g., feeding and nappy-changing, can be overwhelming. Life’s routine changes, less sleep and shortage of rest can create fatigue and post-natal depression. In a two-parent family, fathers share the burdens; in one-parent families single parents have to learn the skills to manage. Extended family members may be of good help, if they are around. Life gradually becomes normal.
These demands have their benefits. Babies have a magnetic attraction because of their innocent looks, smile and cooing sound. Their dependence on the parents give parents the worth and importance in life. Whatever the demand, parents, particularly mothers, provide physical closeness and give them all the love and security babies need most in their tender age and in a world which is totally new and daunting to them.
As babies grow, a gradual and natural ‘programme’ for their independence needs to be adopted. This requires careful planning and positive parenting in all the stages; basic parenting ‘skills’ are essential.
Babies by nature know how to communicate and as they grow they learn ‘techniques’ to meaningfully relate to the world. They recognise their mother, father and other members of the family. They see, observe, hear, respond and keep on learning. Countless pieces of information pile up in their brain and tend to overwhelm them about the meaning of the world. All these contribute to the building of their unique personalities. Babies are dependent, but not ignorant or totally helpless. They can express when they are happy, hungry, tired or in pain and they signal these with their smile, cry or body movement. Parents must take their young children’s physical well being, e.g., safety, immunisation, very seriously. So should be their emotional, spiritual and intellectual upbringing. In this formation period of a human being’s journey the newcomer should have a strong grounding on all areas of life.
Newborn babies need continuous company. They like to be rocked and talked to. Mothers are at the forefront of this closeness to make sure that the baby is clean, well fed and given fresh air. The first two years are crucial for rearing a child. Mother’s milk is vital in the early stage, not only as it contains uniquely balanced and rich nutritious ingredients for the little one, but also for the close bonding that breast-feeding creates between a mother and her baby. A baby should not be deprived of mother’s milk unless the mother is required to take certain drugs. Breast-feeding should continue until the baby is two, according to most traditions.
Parents learn to deal with their babies by watching them, listening to them and observing their reactions. Babies’ range of signals is limited, so parents need to make extra effort to make sure that babies recognise their signals. Thus, forming secure attachments with babies is most important. It would be unfortunate if mothers are tempted to shy away from their basic tasks before this attachment is secured. Unless absolutely needed, mothers are advised in many cultures not to let their children to be raised by child-minders. Many developed countries now have longer maternal and paternal leave from work which was long overdue. One thing that must not be allowed to creep in parents’ mind is that rearing children is an inferior job, compared to working in the outside world.
Plenty of time and attention is needed for babies for their nurture, especially in the beginning. Parenting, thus, requires careful noticing, interpreting, communicating with the baby and responding to their various needs – physical, emotional, mental and spiritual. As a baby grows, the demands on the parents change. No sooner the parents learn the delicate art of responding to their demands than they suddenly realise that they are dealing with toddlers, and then infants. Parents have to be creative to adapt themselves as to how they handle their child in different phases. Putting them to bed with ‘bed time stories’ is a wonderful practice that helps the children to imagine and think.
Babies like to play and put things in their mouths, nose and ears. As such, all dangerous items, small or big, should be kept out of their reach. They should not be left on their own or unsupervised at these times. All parents must learn a few basic rules of first aid and use common sense at times of emergency. The demand is ever changing and the pressure is varied. It requires extra patience and creativity from parents to take care of an active toddler.
Things become more challenging when babies start going to nursery when they come across other people in their life, other infants and adults. This is the time when parents and adults need to be more innovative in dealing with them. Their physical activity grows and so increases their quest for knowing more. The excellent practice for the parents in this period is to play and enjoy and allow the children to ‘learn through fun’. According to the Prophet of Islam (peace and blessing be upon him) there is generally a three-stage guide to bringing up children – one) for the first seven years of their children’s life, parents should play with them, two) for the next seven (until the age of 14) they should teach them, and three) from the age of 14 to 21, they should be their friend.
Children have a sharper memory than adults. Memorising nursery rhymes or religious texts is easier in the early childhood. While parents should take advantage of this, a child should be equipped with the power of thinking that challenges their brain. Nations rose through promoting creative thinking and fell due to lack of it. Providing children with thinking skills is thus essential; this includes equipping them with personal, physical, social, visual, linguistic, scientific and philosophical intelligence. ‘Your mind is like a parachute. It only works if it is open’, says a common proverb.
Children are naturally curious and they should be encouraged to be so. They will think and ask questions about many things including the meaning of life. Curiosity sharpens their mind and gives them information processing, reasoning and creative skills. ‘Every child is born a genius’ says– Albert Einstein.
Children should be guided to consume healthy food with sufficient nutrition, take regular exercise and engage in intelligent games. A happy life depends on balanced physical and mental growth. In the days of permissive and consumerist culture young children could easily be glued to a TV or computer or now more so with their smartphones. Uncontrolled use of these gadgets with immersive screens could insulate their mind from the broader world. In addition to making children physically inactive, they can make them dull and socially passive for the whole of their lives.
Children are born with many natural skills, and some may be gifted with a particular one in abundance. Parents and teachers need to explore this in their children and help them in excelling in specific skills.
As parents wield overwhelming influence on their young children, some may feel ‘possessive’ and be tempted to assert too much control on the young ones. This can impoverish the creativity of the children. The best parents are those who not only give their children good education and manners, but also provide them with the ability to think.
* Dr Muhammad Abdul Bari is a community activist, an author and a parenting consultant (www.amanaparenting.com). He is a founding member of The East London Communities Organisation (TELCO), Chairman of the East London Mosque Trust, and former Secretary General of the Muslim Council of Britain (2006-10).
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own.