The Psychology Of Babies

Babies are born ready to be social: From birth, they like to look at faces, and they prefer the sound of human voices to other sounds. They even prefer their own mother’s smell. Adults also respond in special social ways to babies: Without even thinking, they place their faces at just the right distance for the baby to see them well; they change their speech so that it is slower, more exaggerated, and at exactly the pitch that babies prefer; and when they interact with small babies, they instinctively imitate their facial expressions and noises.

Brain studies show that when adults see a baby’s face, or hear their cry, the part of their brain that is connected to feelings of empathy and romantic love becomes active within just a fraction of a second. All these special social responses, on both the baby’s part and the adult’s, help to get relationships off to a good start. This is important because babies are totally dependent on other people, and it is through their social relationships that they develop most of their skills.
But is parenting always straightforward? Do we always know how best to support our baby’s development? Much research has been carried out on this topic, with studies of thousands of families living in differing circumstances. These have often followed children from earliest infancy, through childhood and even adulthood, and they have traced the links between parenting and longer-term child development. The studies show that it is useful to think of parenting as it affects different areas of the baby’s development, as specific kinds of support are useful in each one. The baby’s ability to understand other people is helped by imitation and pretend play, as well as by talking about what people think and feel. For babies’ cognitive development, it is particularly helpful to follow their signs of interest and to respond in a way that helps them actively explore and engage with the world, accompanied by talk about what is going on. This can be done through play with toys or everyday objects, but sharing picture books with babies, from around five-six months, is a particularly good way to support their concentration and language development.

Achieving self-control is a major challenge for babies in the first two years. Again, observing your baby’s natural reactions is a good start, as this can help parents to build up their baby’s own capacities to manage difficult experiences. From around four months, body games can help babies practice managing intense emotions, as can later ‘play fighting’. From around ten months, babies can be encouraged to join in and be helpful; praising them for small ‘jobs’, like placing socks in the washing machine, can build up their pleasure and pride, and make it less likely that they will become oppositional. Giving notice ahead of time (e.g., that toys will have to be cleared up), establishing routines, and providing explanations, can all help avoid conflicts; and when difficult, angry behaviour does occur, as is inevitable with small children, then using techniques like distraction, being consistent and, above all, avoiding harsh punishment can all help prevent serious problems with aggression developing.

One of the baby’s most important developments is that of his attachments. Babies’ attachments to their parents (and other key carers) are generally described as being ‘secure’ or ‘insecure’. If the baby is secure, this means they have built up a sense of trust in their parent, and that they can rely on their parent for comfort and support when they feel distressed. Children who are secure develop a sense of self-confidence, and generally develop more satisfying close relationships through childhood and adolescence. Supporting the development of secure attachment involves being responsive to the baby’s needs when they are feeling vulnerable – like being frightened, or upset. Giving physical comfort and reassurance is important in these situations but, as the baby develops, showing him that you understand how he feels in the way you talk to him is also helpful. Parents sometimes worry that if they give this kind of support, the baby will become too ‘dependent’, but in fact the research shows the opposite.

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