How does love start with babies? The way that caregivers love baby is the way baby will learn deep in their heart to love others. A supported, kept-calm baby will develop a sense of confidence and trust toward others. A baby who is cuddled and tickled respectfully will enjoy and respectfully play with others. A baby who shares games with caregivers will share their hearts with others.
Start before birth. In the womb, hearing is established by 7 months. This means that you can talk and sing to the baby, conveying love and positive expectation. Just as babies can remember what mothers ate while they were in the womb (by the preferences they show), they can remember what they heard (Holohan, 2013). Womb babies adapt to the mother’s emotional state so a loving orientation to the baby will transfer physiologically to the baby too (Hill, 2011).
Be there. This means emotional presence. Don’t be distracted. Don’t be on the phone or computer. Don’t be thinking of other things. Pay attention to when the baby is ready to interact and then talk, sing, dance, play with them. Take a break when you need it by passing the baby to another responsive adult, or put the baby on your back and do your work, or put the baby outside to interact with the natural world.
If you have a hard time being-with the baby then maybe you are “stress-reactive.” That is, you feel anxious when the baby doesn’t do what you expect. Learn to relax (breathe deelpy) and go with the flow. Read the book, Brain-based Parenting (Hughes & Baylin, 2013). It can help you understand and learn how to settle yourself down so that you can be-with your baby.
Keep attuned to baby communications. Babies initially signal with facial expressions and body movements (they start crying only after these signals don’t work to get you to help them). Babies will make noise when you have not been paying attention or when they get bored.
Learn to attend to baby’s micro signals (grimace, gesture). For example, they turn away when they need a break—so let them have a break.
Learn what keeps them calm so that their body/brain systems complete themselves without duress.** [Of course this means you don’t give the baby things that will twist its otherwise healthy interests (like sugar, screens)].
Get to know THAT baby. Just like for all of us, the baby needs to feel known, that you are attending to its uniqueness not standardizing treatment in some fashion. (Back a hundred years ago or so, hospitals thought that standardized treatment of babies was appropriate—changing diapers and feeding on schedules. This is a way to make a neurotic baby. Hospitals also withheld touching because of worries of infection. Many babies died from lack of loving attention, what was later called “hospitalism.”)
The way to do know your baby is to feel-with the baby. Follow the baby’s signals and provide what they need. Treat the baby as an equal who cannot use words but who has a lot of needs.
One of the best ways to get to know a baby is to carry and hold the baby skin-to-skin in a relaxed manner. Skin to skin is miraculous—it can help mother and baby heal after traumatic birth and help premature babies grow faster. Mothers in traditional societies that carry babies skin-to-skin can even learn to pick up the signals of when the baby is going to relieve himself, making “toilet training” a gradual, unstressful process.
Enjoy interacting with baby. Prepare yourself to give, to let go, and respond. Interact and play at the baby’s pace. This means slowing down, focusing on one thing at a time. Develop back-and-forth games together. Make games more complex over time, but let the baby guide you.
A lot of these suggestions are about being responsive to your baby. Having a positively-responsive parent is one of the best predictors of good outcomes for kids. Remember that being responsive means avoiding behaving in an intrusive, controlling manner as well as avoiding a detached, absent manner. It is better to be in the playful middle.
These tips can help you get off on the right foot with a new baby. Just like first impressions often color a relationship thereafter, your first interactions with baby can set you on the right path—one where you will enjoy being a caregiver to a baby who loves you.
NOTE: These suggestions might seem strange if you were raised differently (with inattention or controlling attention). If these things seem really unattractive to you, then think about finding someone who would love to do this for your child. Someone you will keep in the child’s life for as long as possible.
**Remember the reasons why should you keep a baby calm:
1-Babies leave the womb 9-18 months early compared to other animals. So they are underdeveloped at birth and need caregivers to carefully tend them.
2-Brain-body systems are completing their growth and establishing thresholds in the first years of life. Systems that are established early affect all other systems that rely on them.
3-Self-regulation is growing in early life—with the help of caregivers. Various poor caregiving techniques can increase stress reactivity which undermines self-regulation and will harm health for a lifetime (e.g., crying it out sleep training, not enough affectionate touch/holding/carrying).
Hill, M. (2011). Mom’s psychological state influences infant development.
Holohan, M. (2013). Unborn babies are hearing you loud and clear
Daniel Hughes and Jonathan Bylin(2013). Brain-based Parenting. New York: WW Norton.
Siegel, Daniel (2012). The developing mind. New York: Guilford Press.
Spitz, R.A., & Wolf, K.M. (1946). Anaclitic depression: An inquiry into the genesis of psychiatric conditions in early childhood. Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, 2, 313-342.
NOTE on BASIC ASSUMPTIONS: When I write about parenting, I assume the importance of the evolved developmental niche (EDN) for raising human infants (which initially arose over 30 million years ago with the emergence of the social mammals and has been slightly altered among human groups based on anthropological research).
The EDN is the baseline I use for determining what fosters optimal human health, wellbeing and compassionate morality. The niche includes at least the following: infant-initiated breastfeeding for several years, nearly constant touch, responsiveness to needs so the young child does not get distressed, playful companionship, multiple adult caregivers, positive social support, and natural childbirth.
All these characteristics are linked to health in mammalian and human studies (for reviews, see Narvaez, Panksepp, Schore & Gleason, 2013, Narvaez, Valentino, Fuentes, McKenna & Gray, 2014; Narvaez, 2014.) Thus, shifts away from the EDN baseline are risky. My comments and posts stem from these basic assumptions.