It’s 2018 and we, as a society, are finally talking openly about consent. Young people are learning more about the importance of giving and receiving enthusiastic consent in relationships and in sexual encounters. Parents and teachers are starting to learn the importance of teaching children consent to help them establish healthy boundaries early on. And whether you believe it or not, even babies can low-key give you consent. You just have to know how to identify and respect it.
People assume that babies aren’t really capable of substantial, or even minimal, communication. But prior to their development of spoken language, babies are capable of using gestures as a form of communication. For example, babies cry when they want something. So even if they can’t speak and don’t quite “get” language yet, they are communicating a need. So why wouldn’t they be able to, on a very basic level, give you consent? The answer is, of course, that they can.
While a baby might lack the ability to fully understand exactly why they are feeling or acting a particular way, they are capable of responding to the world around them and communicating their needs and wants. That's exactly why us parents need to watch our babies for signs they're giving, or withholding, consent. Will there be exceptions, like when you have to get your baby vaccinated or give them a bath? Of course. Every parent has to assess a situation and do what’s best for their baby. But if we can at least show our babies that we care about how they feel, why not?
When They Smile At You
Babies learn how to smile around the time they're 6- or 8-weeks-old. So, aside from their first few weeks of life, a smile is a good indicator that your baby approves of your actions. Snuggle your baby, caress their cheek, hold their tiny hand, and they just might show you they give you consent with a single smile.
(Of course, a smile can also mean some gas is coming your direction so, you know, watch out.)
When They Giggle
It takes a baby about four months to learn to laugh. This can be kind of a slippery slope, of course, as anyone might laugh inadvertently when tickled (and who hasn’t been tickled against their will at some time or other?) Still, if you’re doing something silly, like making goofy faces, and your baby giggles, odds are they approve of your behavior.
When They Open Their Arms Or Pull You Closer
One great first sign of consent is a baby reaching out for you. If you pick them up and they grab onto you and seem at peace, there’s a great chance that they consent to being picked up. As they get older, and you ask if they want to be picked up, they might reach our for you more often, giving you the OK, too.
When They Don’t Cry
Obviously babies cry more often than anyone else, and obviously sometimes a baby will keep crying while you try to address a problem. If you're holding your baby and they're crying, they could be experiencing a variety of issues and/or stressors that simply have nothing to do with consent.
But have you ever let someone else pick up your baby and it immediately elicits tears? I have, and in those situations I take my baby back immediately. In those moments I know my baby is clearly telling me they don't consent to some random human holding them.
When They Don’t Cringe
Cringing is another very easy way to communicate disapproval. Young babies might cringe when a bright light is turned on, or if they’re suddenly taken out into a windy area. On a basic level, you can assume that this cringe is them saying they don’t consent to being in this particular area. So, unless you have to be there, maybe take their feelings into consideration and go elsewhere.
When They Don’t Shy Away Or Try To Push You Away
Your baby will learn how to push things away much sooner than they’ll learn to speak. You can always ask them ahead of time if they want a hug, or if they want to be picked up, or if they want to be changed. Will they be able to answer your verbally? No. But this will help get you into the habit of asking which, when your child can speak, will set up boundaries of consent and help your child remember that they have the right to bodily autonomy.
When They Stop Crying
When caring for a baby, you’ll find that crying is their biggest form of communication. They’ll cry because they’re hungry, tired, soiled, uncomfortable, what have you. Trying to obtain consent from a baby that’s already upset might be difficult, and it’s obviously OK (hell, encouraged!) to jump into action (like offering a breast or bottle) right away. You’ll soon get that positive consent if they quickly settle down and are quiet again. If they continue to cry, though, you may want to stop and re-assess the situation.
When They Look Visibly Relaxed
A relaxed baby is a happy baby. When you try to obtain consent from your baby, and they don’t smile but they also don’t cry, you probably have the OK from your baby to go ahead and do what you need to do. If your baby seems upset or stressed, you know it’s time to cease and desist (or get others to cease and desist).
You’re your baby’s biggest advocate, so make sure you do your best to get their consent, and to get others to respect their consent as best you can and until your baby develops their language skills.