Meeting Your Baby’s Emotional Needs Will Shape Their Future
Plenty is written about how to look after your infant in the early days of life, but much of it focuses on the baby’s physical wellbeing rather than their emotional wellness. Yet, in these early days of life, your baby’s emotional regulation and balance will carry through into later life.
Psychiatrist and psychologist, John Bowlby, is famous for his early work on how children form attachments, particularly to their mothers. His studies on children evacuated during World War II showed the negative impact of flawed bonds and how these were passed on to successive generations.
Our knowledge of brain structure and function has expanded greatly since then, especially in relation to the developing ‘right’ side of the brain, which, in babies, is crucial for long-term resilience. Bowlby believed that attachments formed in the first nine months of life continue to play a role throughout life.
The important early days
During the first six months, your baby doesn’t know that it’s a separate entity to you. When a mother looks at her baby, the baby sees their self reflected back through her and this is the foundation for developing that all-important sense of self, as well as a positive understanding of love and self-esteem.
However, the baby is also capable of engaging with its parent, in what is known as ‘protoconversation’. When a mother talks to her baby, the baby talks back by shaping their lips in a ‘O’ shape, ‘cooing’, ‘oohing’ and ‘aahing’ in response. When this happens, the infant brain is constantly rewiring and developing based on these exchanges and experiences. This is how the first attachments are imprinted on the brain, and are hugely important. This highlights why it’s vital that new mothers spend enough time on eye-to-eye contact with their child, along with the instinctive, rhythmic movements of holding, rocking and singing.
It’s impossible to ‘spoil’ a newborn and all attachment research confirms that the more a mother responds to her baby in the early months, the less needy they become as they grow up. All the crying and calling out are attempts to seek the attachment figure in order to elicit care and attention, so it’s important to respond to these signals.
What sort of mother are you?
According to developmental psychologist, Mary Ainsworth, there are two forms of attachment – avoidant and ambivalent. The
avoidant type stems from mothers who are insensitive and rejecting of the child’s needs and not available during times of stress. This results in a detached child who is not distressed when the mother leaves the room and will act normally with strangers, showing little interest when the mother returns. As adults, they show a mistrust of others and are reluctant to show their feelings.
The ambivalent type is intensely distressed when the mother leaves the room and nervous around strangers. When the mother returns, the child may approach her, but may also push her away (hence ‘ambivalent’). In adulthood, they can be unpredictable and anxious in relationships. Obviously, achieving the right balance between the two is preferred.
So, during the early stages of becoming a new parent, aim to look after your child’s emotional health as well as their physical wellbeing – touch them, hold them and respond to their needs. Doing so will reduce their levels of stress and they will feel reassured that you are there to meet their needs and, even more importantly, they will learn to trust you. If babies learn trust in the first year, this stays with them throughout life.
You as a role model
As your child grows older, the next lessons you give will be as a role model. Your child has already learned to trust and love you and will watch your every move to learn from your actions. As a role model, you will help your child build self-esteem and confidence. This means never putting yourself down, even jokingly, and always trying to remain positive – even in negative situations.
Finding a balance between acting as a guardian that sets limits, and being a parent who is warm and understanding, will give your children a sense of security from where they can explore the world. Once you add kindness, care and understanding into the parental pot, you will have given your child the right balance of ingredients to create a fertile environment for growth and development.
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