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On Becoming a Caregiver: Part I

“No society can long sustain itself unless its members have learned the sensitivities, motivations and skills involved in assisting and caring for other human beings.”      -Urie Bronfenbrenner

The process of becoming a caregiver has always intrigued me, ever since I decided, many years ago, to become an early childhood special educator. As part of this process I volunteered at schools, institutions, and sheltered workshops that provided services to both children and adults with physical and learning disabilities. I was struck by the comments from family, relatives, friends and even individuals, newly introduced to me, when they discovered that I was interested in becoming a special educator. They often praised me for my interest in caring for these children and adults. This praise was usually followed by “I could never do that, it would just be too difficult for me;” or “It takes a ‘special’ kind of person to do that kind of work.”

Does it?  Does it take a special kind of person to do the work of caring for others? Are we not all capable, as humane human beings, of caring for one and another?

This has led me to ask many questions of the role of caregiving in our ever rapidly growing, changing and high technological society:

  • What is a caregiver?
  • What does it mean to provide care to another individual?
  • What specific skills, personal characteristics and/or attributes must one possess to be a caregiver?
  • Is the act of caregiving an innate human experience? Learned? Or is it a process of both nature and nurture?
  • Can people be trained or mentored to be caregivers?
  • What are the responsibilities of a caregiver?
  • Why do some people choose to be professional caregivers, and others do not?
  • Is the act of providing care to another human being different from country to country, and/or different from culture to culture?

As you know, in our work as NIDCAP Professionals and Trainers, the act of caring for infants and their families as well as the caregivers that care for them, requires a high level of energy and physical, mental and emotional focus. In our work of caring for others, it’s not just “being in the moment,”1  but being “invested” and “attuned” to the moment. Ever present, throughout our interactions, with those we are caring for.

This sense of presence served me well during my time as an infant developmental specialist on a newborn intensive care nursery (NICN):

I recall asking an experienced caregiver if I might observe her and the infant that she was scheduled to care for.  She asked if this was part of that “NIDCAP stuff?” I replied, yes it was, and she, with some hesitation, agreed to let me observe the caregiving interaction. Over the course of observation, the caregiver would make comments to me (and sometimes the infant), about what she was doing, and how she thought the infant was responding to her care. At the end of this caregiving interaction, the caregiver said she was done and walked away. After completing the observation, I went to find her.  I thanked her for letting me observe her and the infant over the course of this interaction. I praised her for her efforts to support the infant during this caregiving episode and said I would share the observational write-up with her the following day. The caregiver said “OK, if you want to.”

During the next few months I had many opportunities to observe this caregiver as she provided care to several different infants. Step-by-step she began see, experience and share with me how the experience of caregiving had changed for her. As time passed, she would seek me out to ask for suggestions on how to best support an infant that became agitated during a specific caregiving procedure. Over time, the “NIDCAP stuff,” became a source of valued developmental caregiving information for this caregiver. Her desire to learn more increased, as our professional working relationship grew.

As I reflect back on my interactions with this caregiver, I gradually became aware of the multiple components involved in the facilitation of this interaction, including, but not limited to: 1) approaching the caregiver with a calm, supportive and respectful manner; 2) utilizing the process of reflection, to “be in, and of the moment….investing oneself in the interaction at hand;” 3) listening and hearing what the caregiver chose to share with me and reflecting upon our shared experience together; and 4) supporting the caregiver to see, with “new eyes,” how she could best nurture and support the infants, families and caregivers she worked with.

And now, Dear Reader, I would like you to draw upon your vast wealth of knowledge, expertise and depth of experiences to reflect upon, and share what you have found to be helpful as a caregiver in your interactions with infants, their families and the professionals and staff that you work with (e.g. specific skills, personal characteristics and/or attributes, mentors, etc.). I will compile your thoughts and shared experiences, as we together, venture to answer some of the questions posed above.  Please feel free to offer new insights into the process of caring for others.

Please reply, as you all have so much valuable information and experience to share. If you would rather respond privately, please email me at Stay tuned for the next installment of “On Becoming a Caregiver.” Thank you.

Rodd E. Hedlund, MEd
Director, NIDCAP Nursery Assessment and Certification Program


  1. Tremmel R. Zen and the art of reflective practice in teacher education. Harvard Education Review. 1993; 63(4): 434-458. As cited in Gilkerson L & Als H. Role of reflective process in the implementation of developmentally supportive care in the NICU. Infants and Young Children, 1995; 7: 20-28.

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