Welcome to the Best of Birthful. Creator and host Adriana Lozada curated and edited each selection in this playlist of the show’s most popular episodes. It’s a tailored introduction to the expansive catalog she amassed over the first five years of Birthful’s 300+ shows.
Specialist and educator Carrie Contey explains what you need to know about how babies communicate their needs to us. Learn how you can tune into and translate their messages, and how it begins with tuning in— to yourself!
Powered by RedCircle
- What’s Your Baby’s Temperament? PsychCentral
- Carrie at TEDxAustin
- Carrie’s YouTube channel
- Carrie’s website, including a wonderful resource page full of articles she has written
- CALMS: A Guide to Soothing Your Baby, by Carrie Contey and Debby Takikawa
- The Happiest Baby on the Block, by Harvey Karp
- Touchpoints: Birth to Three, by T. Berry Brazelton
- The Wonder Weeks, by Frans Plooij
- The Whole-Brain Child, by Daniel J. Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson
Sign-up for a FREE copy of my
Related Birthful episodes:
- Your Baby’s Fussy Phases
- Your Baby, The Mammal (Part 1)
- How Your Baby Mammal Sleeps & Starts Solids (Part 2)
- The Baby’s Birth Experience
- Your Baby’s Calming Reflex
[Best of Birthful] How to Truly Understand (and Calm!) Your Baby
Hey, Mighty One. With nearly 300 Birthful episodes in over five years, it may be hard to know where to begin listening to the show. To make it easier, we’ve put together the Best of Birthful series, which showcases some of our favorite or most relevant episodes. This is one of those. If you enjoy what you hear, make sure you subscribe. It’s free, and that way you won’t miss a thing. Enjoy.
My guest today is the fabulous Carrie Contey. Carrie, welcome to the show. I’m really happy to have you here today.
Carrie Contey: I’m so happy to be here. Thank you. Thank you.
Lozada: Yay. So, we’re gonna do this a little bit different today and I’m gonna have you tell us who you are and how you got into this, came to the side of babies, the baby world.
Contey: Wonderful. I would love to. So, I come to it a little differently than most. My journey did not… I didn’t land here because I got pregnant and became a mom and just got thoroughly enchanted by that whole world. It was more an innate calling that I really tapped into as a little child, so when I was seven, I got the whole… I was always interested in babies. Whenever my mom would bring out the birthday cake from the time I can remember, four, five, six, my wish was that my parents would have a baby, because I was just thoroughly smitten, and I just wanted to know what they were about. And people would give me dolls, and I just… That was not satisfying at all. I needed a baby.
They never had any more children, but my neighbors down the street did, and when I was seven, we got to go visit right after this little one was born and this mom, for whatever crazy reason, put this little person, he was maybe five days old, into my arms and there was just this ignition, this sort of feeling that came up through my body, and my whole being just sort of lit up with joy that I was really doing this thing that I was loving. And so, for the rest of my time living with my parents, from childhood through teenhood, I was the babysitter, mother’s helper, I was just with these moms and these children really practicing my observing and getting a really clear sense of what it means to grow, and to be a parent, and all that.
And then I went on to get a master’s here at UT in health education, and then I went and got a PhD in prenatal and perinatal psychology from Santa Barbara Graduate Institute.
Lozada: And what I find fascinating because, so I am a birth doula, been so for about 10 years, and my daughter is 12, and when… I see this a lot in my clients and I saw it in myself that once I had a baby, like when I was pregnant and ready to have a baby, I had had very, very, very little contact with newborns, and had really almost no idea what to do with them.
Contey: Right. I think that’s common. Yeah.
Lozada: Yeah. And so, we always talk about how it would be great if newborns would come with a manual, but now fast forward a few years later, and I’m sure you’ve known this for a gazillion years, that they actually kind of do, because they’re constantly and very specifically communicating their needs.
Lozada: So, what are some of the ways they do that?
Contey: The paradigm I operate from, and it’s really based in my studies and just my life, is that the old way of thinking was that they arrive as a blank slate and you don’t really have a person. You just have a baby, and until they can do all the things that you need to teach them to do to be a person, quote unquote, that they’re not really there. But what we now know, and I knew this even as a kid, but we now have science to back it up, is that we arrive conscious, and that we are what I call the big being in the little body. That even though we can’t use the body and we don’t have the neurology or the muscle structure to do all the things that the adults or even the kid people do, it doesn’t mean we’re not there, and it definitely does not mean we’re not communicating meaningfully.
So, when you do arrive in that very primitive, very small body, and you are bringing the awareness of the universe with you, what they do have is they can make sounds with their voice. They don’t speak a language yet. That has to be wired and learned and wired in, but they can make different sounds, and they also are moving their bodies, and they’re using their eyes. I mean, they’re doing everything they can with the limited capacity that they have to make sure that the people around them get to know them and get to know their cues, so that they can communicate and ultimately survive and thrive.
Lozada: Yeah, so what are some ways that parents can tune into or help learn this language and figure out those cues to help respond to their babies?
Contey: Beautiful. So, there’s kind of two facets, and this will… People, you can take this with you through every stage of parenting. There’s what you do with the other, what you do with the child, the baby, the person, and honestly more importantly, what you do with yourself. So, I’ll start with self, because when it comes to parenting, you want to become reflexive, and this will take time, and it’s a skill that you learn over time, but you want to at least be aware that really learning how to slow yourself down and steady yourself, and really connect with you in the midst of connecting with another person, is really step number one.
So, what we often do in our culture is the baby gets upset, or starts crying, or does something, and we go into reaction, and we hold them, and we go, “Oh, you’re fine. You’re fine. It’s okay. It’s okay.” And we start running the part of our brain that’s in reaction. It’s usually a lower brain state and it’s a part that just wants to make sure it’s doing what needs to be done to stop whatever’s happening, or to help the person. But what is actually more effective, both in the short term and the long term, especially in terms of understanding what this person is trying to communicate, because it is a different language in the beginning, is to really first and foremost really connect with yourself and really just acknowledge like, “Ooh, I’m a little revved up. Ooh, I’m a little extra tired right now. Oh, my body is telling me that my stomach’s tight. Okay, take a breath.”
So, there’s that first step, which is really about the adult really connecting with the adult before you go toward the other. And when you do that and you start practicing that, what it does is it gets you present, and it allows you to be a lot more receptive and open to what this person is communicating. And I think the first thing that parents really need to be remembering is just like with any relationship, especially with a person who doesn’t necessarily speak the same language that you speak, it takes time and it needs to unfold. And you might have a person arrive and you might feel like, “Oh, I’ve known you forever.” But you also might have another person, child arrive, and you might feel like, “Ooh, I don’t really know you yet.” But it doesn’t mean you’re not gonna know them. It just means you have to slow down and really start to almost be a detective, just be curious, and if you can really hold that mind state of curiosity of, “Ooh.” The four questions I invite parents to be asking their little people, whether they’re in the womb or 55, is who are you, what are you here for, what do you need, and how can I help you?
And if you hold that curiosity in every phase, you’re just gonna get a different awareness of the communication than you would if you are looking for something that may or may not be there yet.
Lozada: Can you, just because listening is harder than reading, can you repeat those four questions for our listeners?
Contey: I sure can. Yeah. So, it’s just the big question, who are you? And not just like, “Oh, you’re the seven pound baby who has blonde hair.” It’s like, no, who are you? What is… And then what are you here for? So, if you operate from this mindset of we come in as conscious beings that are all here to travel on our own paths, it’s a curiosity that you want to be aware of, that you don’t know this person yet, and they are a person, and you’re not making them who they are. You’re just gonna start relating to who they are as you get to know them.
So, who are you? What are you here for? What do you need? So, in terms of how do you want to be connected with? What are you needing right now developmentally, but also in the bigger picture, are you somebody who is really tuned into joy? Are you somebody who’s really into science? Like what do you need from me to really thrive and be the version of yourself that’s the most whole? And then the fourth question is how can I help you? So, how can we help you? How can we support you in this early phase of development to really unfold into the person that you’re here to be?
Lozada: And I so appreciate that shift in perspective from, “Oh, you’re crying. Let’s stop the cry.” To like, “What are you trying to tell me with this sound that you’re making?”
Contey: Exactly. Right. Right, right. Exactly. And that requires that self-parenting first, because the reaction, which is very normal and natural, to want to fix it or stop it, that’s very… That’s wired in. Whether it’s innate, or it’s something we learned because of how we were cared for doesn’t matter. It’s in there. But there’s also a way that if we slow ourselves down and we really acknowledge, “Oh, you’re a tiny little baby person trying to do your best to communicate. I need to slow myself down so I can hear you and I can be present with you.” You’re gonna just unfold a much richer connection. They’re gonna feel you being present and they’re gonna appreciate it, and you’re gonna get to know their cues and their communications a lot more efficiently. It may not… It might still take a little time, but over time, you’re gonna start really getting it, and you’re gonna hear a little bit of a distinction between a hungry cry and a wet cry, or you’re gonna notice when they’ve been playing for a few minutes and they start rubbing their eyes, that they’re trying to let you know that they need a break, and they need you to regulate and get them to a nap sooner than maybe if you don’t notice that.
So, it’s C-A-L-M-S. The C stands for check in with yourself, and then the A stands for allow a breath. So, when the little person’s alarm goes off and you’re going to them, if you can just take 1 to 10 seconds just to go, “Oh, wow. I’m revving. I’ve got a lot going on in me because this little person’s upset. Okay, let me take a breath and just try to slow myself down because I know that this person is reading my energy,” because little baby humans are tuned into their caregivers and they feel the energy. They don’t just hear your words; they feel how you’re feeling. So, if you come to them with a lot of anxiety, they’re gonna get more alarmed, because they were just upset because they’re hungry, but now the person who’s here to care for them is all revved up. They are looking for somebody to communicate on a very primal level, “I’m here with you. You might be feeling that I’m a little off, but I’m taking what I need. I’m doing what I need to do to slow myself down and really get present with you.” So, those are the first two steps.
And you can be holding a baby. It doesn’t mean you’re in the other room taking 10 minutes to meditate. It literally is just doing it while you’re interacting with this person but making that just a conscious first step. So, it’s C, check in with yourself, A, allow a breath. Those are the things you do for yourself. Then, what you do with the little one is L, listen, and mirror, and they go hand in hand. So, crying, crying, crying little person, instead of going, “Oh, you’re fine, you’re fine. Shh, shh, shh.” You go, “Oh, you’re showing me. You’re crying. I see you.” So, you’re listening, and then you’re mirroring back what you’re seeing. Even if you don’t know what it means, you’re just acknowledging, “I’m with you and I’m seeing where you’re at.”
And then, S is just soothe. So, you do do the five S’s that Harvey Karp might talk about, the soothing, swinging, all that stuff. You might have to change them. You might feed them. You might walk outside. You might bounce on the bouncy ball and try to settle them. But if you take these four steps first, not only are you getting more present so that you’re gonna be more impactful in the moment in communicating to them and their nervous system that all is well, and that they’re safe, but you’re also modeling for them long-term the ability to emotionally regulate themselves in healthy ways.
Lozada: So, Carrie, okay. What is going on in a brand new baby’s brain those first few weeks, first few months? What should parents know about those early stages?
Contey: Well, I love this question, as well. This is one of my favorite questions. So, we know more than ever about brain development and probably it’s a thimble full of information from what we will know down the road, but right now it is an exciting time to be a parent because like I said, we used to think that there was nobody home, that until they had myelination and all these big words that they weren’t really remembering anything, and they weren’t really gonna be the doing the human thing, “human” things yet. But what we know now is that they arrive from the womb, they have all the brain structures, and all the neurons that they’ll ever need to connect up and do all the things that’ll be making them sing, and dance, and do art, and read, and all the cool stuff that we do as humans.
But they don’t come pre-wired, that we arrive and we’ve got all the wiring in place, but nothing’s connected. And the reason for that is… Well, and that’s not true. About 20% is connected and it’s the brain stem, which is our survival brain. And the reason for that is a couple reasons. One is we arrive out of the womb earlier than most mammals would in terms of development because our heads get too big. We have to come out. And number two, probably and more important in terms of evolution, we wouldn’t want to wire in there for things that we aren’t gonna be using. So, basically the little one comes out with just enough wiring to communicate survival, like am I safe or not safe, and if I’m safe, I’m quiet, and if I’m not safe, I am in fight or flight, so I’m crying or moving my body, or trying to get you to get somebody to know that I’m not feeling safe and I need help. They’ve got that wiring at birth, but beyond that, they don’t come out pre-wired to connect. They don’t come out pre-wired to speak a language.
And like I said, it’s actually brilliant, because it’s a use it or lose it system, so it’s waiting for the environment that the person comes into to really help them shape what gets connected so that there’s gonna be the most efficient chance of them surviving and thriving. So, once they get out, and they’re here for about six weeks, they’re basically just operating from that reptilian brain state. Now, don’t forget what I said early on. There is a being in there, so they’re not not home, but they just aren’t wired to express it yet. So, in a way, it’s a little bit like somebody who’s had a stroke, where they’re in there, and they’re experiencing the world, and they’re getting information through the senses, and they’re making connections, but they’re not able to express very much. And so, you really want to honor the being and treat them like a person, but you also want to honor the primitiveness of their physical experience in those moments.
Lozada: Okay, so how do you do that?
Contey: Well, I think a couple of ways. One is you recognize that they’ve been inside of this person, whether it’s the mother who’s caring for them or somebody else, for nine months, and that’s the environment they’ve known, so they come out and they don’t know what they’re coming into. They don’t know what’s going on here. They have to learn. And so, you want to offer them a sense of safety, physical and emotional safety, first and foremost, so that they can merge almost from this fourth trimester.
So, if you can give them that first six weeks, and then another six weeks, to really start to land in their physical experience on Earth, and really imagine yourself almost as their ambassador/trusted caregiver, that your job is to really try to communicate to them, “You’re safe and here’s this place that we’re in. And we’re gonna get you oriented to the smells, and the scents, and the sights, and the sounds, in a way that really honors how vulnerable and overwhelmed you can get.” So, there’s a lot around attuning to this little person and really trying to help regulate when they’re exposed to lots of stimulation, recognizing that they might need you to pull them in and wear them, or keep them nice and close. And also, not racing ahead and thinking, “Well, you’ve been out here three months. You better self soothe, or else I’m gonna create a monster.” That’s a crazy way of thinking. We have to be really, really, really honoring of the fact that this person doesn’t know this world and it’s our job to really earn their trust.
And the way that you earn their trust is to make sure that you’re doing what you can to communicate to them that they’re safe, and that what they’re communicating matters, and that you’re working on getting connected, and trying to learn each other with patience and a lot of love.
Lozada: Carrie, you mentioned six weeks and six weeks, and so what happens, like that seems foreshadowing. What happens at the first six weeks and then at the second six weeks that makes a big difference?
Contey: Yeah, so much. It’s crazy. So, all right, this little one, sevenish pounds, obviously there’s ranges, but let’s just say an average little human comes out at about seven pounds, and like I said, they’re not pre-wired other than to take in information through their senses and let the people, let anybody know, am I safe or am I note safe? Can you help me if I’m not safe? Can you just make sure I stay alive? Oh, my belly is saying I need food. Ah! Alarm goes off and they’re really just in reaction to life and hoping for the best. So, that’s the first six weeks, and then at about six weeks, sometimes on the dot for many little people if they arrived on basically their due date, there’s a lot that happens in those first six weeks that is really helping them adjust to breathing, and adjust to digestion, and adjust to having a life outside the womb. And then at six weeks, there’s something that happens in the brain where we move into the one up level of our brain, which is our limbic system. So, I operate with the triune brain, that’s the parent… That’s the brain system that I help parents understand, is this three-part brain.
So, first that’s wired is that reptile brain, that brain stem, that’s survival. Then the second brain is all about attachment, and connection, and emotion, so they’re still not using words, but similar to mammals, they’re using eye contact. So, at six weeks, almost to the day, you’ve got this little human who all of a sudden is making eye contact, and you’re almost feeling like they finally are here, because those first six weeks, it’s too much for their little system to be sustaining eye contact. But at six weeks, they really open that door and that’s when you… So, you’re bonding them for the first six weeks, but then once they hit six weeks, you really start a whole new journey with them where you’re really starting the relationship. And you do start learning their communications with a little more skill and a little more depth in terms of, “Oh, you’re looking at me. Okay, now you’re looking away. That was too much. Okay. Next time we’ll go home a little sooner.” Or things like that.
And so, what I love reminding people and I love T. Berry Brazelton. He has a book called Touchpoints that I think is just a classic because what it helps you understand is that development is not linear, that you just acquire and get more skilled. It’s a few steps forward, and then a few steps back, and then you make a leap. And so, at a little before two weeks, a little before six weeks, a little before three months, a little before four months, a little before six months, a little before nine months, you could have dysregulation, disequilibrium, where you might have had a great eating and sleeping pattern going, and then all of a sudden it’s all crying, and eating, or not eating, and really if you understand development, you realize that’s necessary for the leap that they’re evolving to this new version of themselves.
And so, you want to be aware of that, because it could be where you start thinking like our typical culture would say, “Oh no, there’s a problem. I need to get help and fix it.” But really, if you understand human development and you understand the milestones, and you understand that they’re actually necessary for the growth that they’re moving into, and the new phase that they’re going to add, the new facet of themself that they’re going to explode into, you really start to welcome more of those challenging times. Or at least you don’t fear them and think erroneously, “I need to fix this.” And you really just start to celebrate, “Ooh, I wonder what’s coming, because wow, it’s week five and you’re up nursing many more times than you were a week ago. Okay, nothing’s wrong. You’re just getting ready for that six week burst and we’re gonna get a little more interaction from you. How exciting.”
Lozada: So, what happens at 12 weeks?
Contey: So, what I see at 12 weeks is a few things. One is physically they start, they might, and again, everybody is different, so I like to give hallmarks, but I also like to invite people to not get stuck in, “Oh, my baby isn’t doing that.” But really there’s some rhythms, and whether it happens at five weeks, or whether it happens at 10 weeks or 14 weeks, or 15 weeks, it doesn’t matter. We’re just looking at hallmarks and rhythms of change.
At three months, a lot of little ones start to roll over or they start to move their body. They start to see and play with things and grab things. That’s a little more in the four month range, but that’s certainly there. They start vocalizing a lot differently than they had been. They might be a little more amenable to a little tummy time. You could be practicing tummy time for a month and that little one can only stand it for two to five seconds and then they have to be picked up, but then one day maybe around three months, you put them down and all the sudden they’re into it, and they’re like, “Ooh, this is fun now.” And a lot of it has to do with just the fact that they’re more mature, and they can hold themselves up a little differently, and it feels more safe to be able to do that.
Those would be some of the biggies. I think that… Yeah, I think it’s like verbal, vocalization, so you hear those little squeals, which are just like melt your heart crazy, wonderful. They become a little more awake to the world, so you might be out, and they might make note of a stranger a little differently, or they might watch a kid on a swing a little differently than they had prior to that. They definitely start moving their bodies in new ways, rolling over and maybe holding themselves up a little bit when they’re on their tummy. And you know, if you pay a lot of attention, you could really start having some sweet little conversations with them. Most little tiny baby humans are needing a lot of both your physical attention, but also your emotional energy.
And so, I think what parents really have to pay attention to, and this is probably the crux of my message at any age, is because you’re the regulator, because you’re the one steadying, that these little humans don’t come with a nervous system that can regulate their emotional experience, you have to be very aware that you’re giving not just your physical energy with your… You know, by not sleeping and giving them food and all that. But they actually are requiring your emotional energy to manage the emotional ups and downs that are inevitable for their development.
And so, you want to be 51% more attuned to your own well being than the giving that you’re doing, and that’s… I’m just asking people to be 1% more, that you are giving, giving, giving, but really the biggest message you’re giving this little person is regulation, and so if you can really stop and just be checking in on yourself, and having little micro practices that get you a little more juice in your cup, you really want to be very mindful of that, because you could easily just turn around and realize like you’re beyond depleted, and most people do get there, and it doesn’t mean, even if you know this stuff, that you’re not gonna get depleted. But you just want to become more tuned in to the fact that, “Oh, I have to keep you regulated, so I have to make sure that I’m staying even a little bit regulated in myself, or else we’re all going down and it’s much harder to get everybody back if everybody goes off the cliff.”
Lozada: Yeah. And your definition of parenting, or the parent that you are is not defined by the amount of time that you give your child.
Contey: Exactly. Right. And that if you’re a spun out mom but you’re thinking, “Oh, well, but I’m with my child all the time. I should figure this out.” Versus somebody who says, “All right, I’m the boat steadier. If the boat gets wobbly and I need help steadying it, that’s okay, because it doesn’t matter, and if I need to step away and get some space, and then come back and I’m fresher…” The little people, they would rather have you less, but you more present, and more emotionally regulated than a spun out parent who never steps away and doesn’t know how to get refilled. They can handle it. They just want adults who can communicate you’re safe and you’re amazing and we love you and we’re delighting in you. And it’s harder to do that because of where you are in your brain when you get too overdone.
So, as stress goes up, the brain goes down, and it would be nice if we didn’t have to recharge ourselves to be more human and more conscious in our very special human brain that gets developed starting at 9, 10 months, and then continues to develop as we grow. But as adults, if you don’t recharge and you’re helping another person build their brain, you’re gonna run out of steam and you’re gonna move into the parts of your brain that are more crispy and cranky, and then ultimately potentially guilt ridden or depressed, all because of the energy in and the energy out. It doesn’t mean it’s something wrong with you. It just means, “Oh, wow. I didn’t realize how much energy this was all gonna take. I need some help. I need somebody helping me get energy in my system so that I can give the energy that this person is wired in to need from me.”
Lozada: I absolutely love that. That’s basically the number one way to calm and care for your baby is calming and caring for yourself.
Contey: Yay! Exclamation point! You just said everything that I’m trying to teach the universe right now.
Lozada: New t-shirt! We have two t-shirts today.
Contey: New t-shirt!
Lozada: You mentioned, so the three-part brain system, the reptile comes on right away, the limbic sort of steps in around six weeks. What is the third one and when does it come on?
Contey: The third one is that human neocortex, which only, as far as we know, it’s very specialized to us humans. It allows for language and rational thought, and consciousness, and all the cool stuff that allows us to be uniquely human. And so, as you help wire somebody’s brain, which you’re doing as a parent to this little person, they’re not just hearing your words. They’re reading your brain states. And so, when I first started my work, I had a little tagline, a t-shirt, that said… or I wanted to make, that said, “Self-care is not a luxury. It’s a necessity.”
Lozada: Carrie, thank you so much for this fantastic conversation today.
You’ve been listening to a Best of Birthful episode and there are many more where this came from. Look for episodes with the words Best of Birthful in the title to continue your deep dive to inform your intuition. You can find the in-depth show notes for this episode at Birthful.com. You can also connect with us directly on Instagram. We’re @BirthfulPodcast.
Birthful was created by me, Adriana Lozada, and is a production of Lantigua Williams & Co. The show’s senior producer is Paulina Velasco. Virginia Lora is the managing producer. Cedric Wilson is our lead producer. Thank you for listening to and sharing Birthful. Be sure to subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Amazon Music, Spotify, and everywhere you listen. Listen every week for more ways to inform your intuition.
Lozada, Adriana, host. “Best of Birthful: How to Truly Understand, and Calm, Your Baby.” Birthful, Lantigua Williams & Co., August 17, 2022. Birthful.com.
About Carrie Contey
Carrie Contey, PhD is a internationally recognized coach, author, speaker and educator. Her work offers a new perspective on human development, parenting, family life and being a healthy, happy, whole human being. She is the co-founder of the Slow Family Living movement and the co-author of CALMS: A Guide To Soothing Your Baby. She has appeared on NBC’s The Today Show, NPR, CBS radio and in many publications including Time, Parenting and The Boston Globe. Currently she lives, works and plays in Austin, TX.
Get Your FREE Postpartum Plan!
Sign up to get access to my NEW Postpartum Prep. Plan to help you prepare for life with a newborn! You'll also get updates from me from time to time.