The late Jim Greenman (1950 – 2009) once told me that all newborns are born to be cute so that as a species our natural instinct to love and protect is activated. This powerful urge can be witnessed in humans and animals alike. It is primal and purposeful; a protective factor to ensure the vulnerability of newborns is mitigated.

Because infants lack maturity and sophistication, we have a tendency to only see vulnerability and protection and underestimate how truly amazing they are.

I agree infants are made to be appealing so that we respond positively to their needs, they are vulnerable and need protection; however, I would additionally argue that infants are more than cute and vulnerable and have a right to much more than our protection.

We mustn’t undervalue the power of infants and toddlers to be more than passive recipients of protection. Infants and young toddlers have a voice, are active participants in having their needs and interests met and have a right to be respected, valued, acknowledged and heard.

Infants are more than cute beings having things done to them. Infants are learning, conceptualising human beings who have the same rights as other humans. As practitioners we need to privilege infants' rights by deciding with them. Recognising, respecting and affirming these rights is the basis of enacting infants' and toddlers’ human rights. By acknowledging the power differential between adults and infants we can work towards mutuality of respect with infants.

Infants and young toddlers are astute observers who acquire understanding and knowledge about themselves and their world through social referencing, that is, they observe the people around them in order to make sense of their world and then use this knowledge as a basis for future actions, values and concepts. If we consider social referencing as a tool for learning, then drawing from a rights-based approach is relevant for laying down the foundation from which attitudes and concepts are grown and the infants' and toddlers' rights are enacted.


Article 12 refers to the right to express a view and the right for that view to be given due weight. In practice, infants’ enjoyment of Article 12 is dependent on the cooperation of adults. When working with infants, adults' skepticism about children’s capacity (or a belief that they lack capacity) to have a meaningful input into decision making tends to lead to a lack of enacting this right.

Lundy (2007) argues that we can enact this right through four separate factors:

  • Space: children must be given the opportunity to express a view
  • Voice: children must be facilitated to express their views
  • Audience: the view must be listened to
  • Influence: the view must be acted upon as appropriate

Infants and young toddlers are competent and active learners that can influence and co-construct their own learning. Agency or the ability to influence experiences and people is evident when a young baby cries for food, indicates they are sleepy, or initiates a smile when they see a familiar person (space). Responding to infants’ cues with sensitivity and responsiveness (voice) shows the infant they are heard and respected (audience). Being attuned to their individual preferences – supporting their agency (influence). Take time to understand the infant’s differences in temperament, dispositions and preferences. Individualise. Routines and programs that demand uniformity sends a strong message that sameness is valued rather than agency and empowerment.


John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth’s research on attachment theory influences early childhood thinking regarding the importance of positive secure relationships with significant others. Relationships are central to learning and teaching. A rights approach recognises and respects the infant’s family as having primary responsibilities for the infant’s upbringing while working within a collaborative approach to provide consistency and continuity of care.

Adults who are available and responsive to an infant's needs establish a sense of security and trust for the infant. The infant learns that the adult is dependable creating a secure base. Developing key educator responsibilities within a service and working with the Circle of Security model can assist in the creation of relationship-based pedagogies. This in turn acknowledges the rights of infants in having their needs met.

Brain research

Research categorically states that an infant’s early experiences shape the developing brain. A major factor of these early experiences is what scientists refer to as serve and return interactions.

“Young children naturally reach out for interaction through babbling, facial expressions, and gestures, and adults respond with the same kind of vocalizing and gesturing back at them. In the absence of such responses—or if the responses are unreliable or inappropriate—the brain’s architecture does not form as expected, which can lead to disparities in learning and behavior.” (Center on the Developing Child, 2007)

The three core concepts in early development are; experiences build brain architecture, serve and return interaction shapes brain circuitry and toxic stress derails healthy development. https://developingchild.harvar...


Article 28 of the UNCRC (UN 1989) talks about children’s right to be prepared for responsible citizenship in a spirit of tolerance, peace, equality, anti-bias and friendship with others. Infants are learning about citizenship from birth. The values and beliefs we hold about difference influences those around us, including infants. As mentioned in the opening paragraph, infants are social referencing and learning how to respond based on our behaviours. I often hear adults refer to infants as being bias free – not so!

All infants are holders of rights. Developing in infants a sense of fairness, equity, social justice and responsibility will ensure a future citizenship of people who value, respect and uphold the rights of all regardless of difference.

“When infants observe adults always showing respect for each other, they learn about being respectful themselves, with others. Respect for others is at the heart of meeting human rights, including children’s rights.” (Anne Kennedy, 2017)

Recognising, respecting and affirming

The RIE® Approach to infant pedagogy is well regarded by those working with infants. This approach fully supports Article 13 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) – the right to freedom of expression. Loczy (1946) and Gerber (1979) have identified five principles to support appropriate curriculums for infants. Of particular relevance in our work with infants is principle three; “the value of sustaining each child in building self-awareness. This is done through encouraging active participation in whatever is going on – alone or in interaction – rather than simple perceiving the child as an object to be cleaned and fed.”

Infants express themselves through physical movements and vocalisations. RIE techniques and strategies remind us to be available, aware of when to sit back and observe rather than rushing into ‘helping/doing’ for infants – allowing infants to do what they can do instead of being urged to do what they can’t. Too often we put infants in walkers, hold their hands and walk them around a room, stand them at a table; think about providing the opportunities providing the right to free expression and sitting back and watching in awe what they can do, you will be amazed!


Center on the Developing Child (2007). The Science of Early Childhood Development (InBrief). Retrieved from www.developingchild.harvard.ed...

Kennedy, A., (2017) Children’s rights: Everyday and everywhere Book 1. An Everyday learning Series. Horizon Print Early Childhood Australia: Canberra

Kennedy, A., (2017) Children’s rights: Everyday and everywhere Book 2. An Everyday learning Series. Horizon Print Early Childhood Australia: Canberra

Laura, Lundy (2007) ''Voice' is not enough: conceptualizing Article 12 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child', British Educational Research Journal, 33:6, 927 — 942

Petrie, S & Owens S., (ed) (2005) Authentic relationships in group care for infants and toddlers – resources for infant educarers (RIE). Principles into practice. Jessica Kingsley Publishers London

Editor's Note

Lynn’s article brings together many of the critical points highlighted by all our presenters in the popular KU online series – The Life of Infants and Toddlers: From Theory to Practice. This series will soon end for 2021 but we promise to have more about infants and toddlers in our 2022 calendar of events. Watch our website for the release of next year’s calendar later in the year.

Hear Lynn talk about Infant-Toddler Relationships and Wellbeing on our Provoking Minds Podcast.