Dear Caring Parent,
Ever wonder, how do babies understand their world? Of all the things that are so important in the first year of life, what’s tying it all together? Attuning is – how you and your baby are tuning-in to each other.
I LOVE watching a mom or dad tune in to their baby; smiling, cooing, smelling their baby scent and looking into those fascinating baby eyes.
When a mom or dad lean into and coo to their baby, “oh, what’s the matter?” you can totally feel the connection, the interest, the love. That baby is learning “I matter” right from the get go.
This kind of tuning-in, attunement, with babies is a beautiful idea about noticing their mood, needs, and feelings. We have come to realize that this is more than just a beautiful idea actually. It’s the foundation of the brain’s healthy emotional development; the babies’ sense of safety, trust and self-esteem.
Babies start to learn to interpret their inner world according to their caregivers state of mind. Their self-worth, sense of how much they matter, and state of arousal (calm, tense, excited) is based on HOW the back and forth between baby and caretaker happens.
THE Look of Attunement:
In our day-to-day life with our babies, we are constantly doing things that let our baby know we are there for them, we understand them, and care about them. When they cry, we run through our checklist of potential causes; diaper change needed, hungry, bored, uncomfortable. . . At 4-6 weeks we start to notice they have different cries for different needs; it’s part of their language development and our attunement development.Then baby talk starts. We smile and make faces as we talk back to what we imagine they are saying. Do we know what they are saying? Not a wit. Our responses are to the expression on their face, the tone of their sounds, our sense of their mood. And we LOVE it. And in a deeply personal way, they love our loving it.
When they’re frowning or ‘speaking’ in earnest, smiling and chuckling, we sit face-to-face with them, totally engaged in their faces, hands, feet, arms – everything about them!
We lean into their precious bodies. As time goes on, we sit with their four – six month old selves between our legs, maybe showing them picture books. Then we celebrate when they crawl and when they walk. When they get frustrated and can’t self-calm we encourage and hold them. As though all of that is not enough, we also give them a safe place to explore on their own, putting words to what they are doing and what we think they might be experiencing. We talk and laugh while feeding them, making different faces when they make a mess or drop things again and again.
As they progress through the first year, we are SO aware of them and they of us. It’s a beautiful thing!
Why Attune To Help Babies Understand Their World?
Have you ever watched an adult with a baby and they aren’t doing these things? You might notice you hold your breath! And then feel great relief when the adult finally engages. It’s as if you know what science now tells you – responding in a way that meets a babies needs and moods is vital to their development for everything from language to secure attachment.
It’s this kind of attachment that helps them have ease in basic relationship abilities. A child’s deepest trust root – knowing that they matter, that they are important whether happy or sad – is necessary for secure relationship building in the future. It’s through this secure or insecure lens that babies start to understand their world.
These early memories are on a sensory level and are stored within their complicated brains. During this first year, the reticular activating center (RAS) starts stashing memory for future reflexive responses to things like sounds, messages of rejection, what happens to us if stressed people are around us, and more. (Here’s more on this if you are interested).
How we react to our children as they interact with their environment sets the stage for a lot later on in life. Their understanding of what’s safe, their self-worth, and things like what to be calm or upset about is based on their sense of our verbal and nonverbal responses to them. As they move through this first year, their brains mirror the feeling of what we express (not the words) – when we are happy, they smile, if we’re stressed they are tense.
It is indeed a big responsibility! The beauty of it though is, if we follow our own senses and take care of our children lovingly, all works out well.
The result of tuning in most of the time (nothing is 100%), is that you are likely to notice your baby naturally grows into a more independent, curious, happy, ever developing toddler.
Are Any of These Disruptions To Attunement Happening To You?
There are indeed things that get in the way of our ability to help babies understand their world; that keep attunement from happening.
First, let me note that NONE of these are a problem unless they are repeated, time and time again.
- Stress that distracts us from the baby.
- Frustrations that have built up to a point that we don’t have the emotional space to attune.
- Cultural beliefs about spoiling or coddling babies. I spend a whole chapter on parenting culture in my book, The Dance of Parenting – there’s even a little self assessment you can do to figure out how cultural things are effecting your parenting.
- Our own background – maybe we’re not sure how to or how much to attune. The good news is, this can be learned.
- PostPartem Depression (PPD). PPD is experienced by 1 out of 9 postpartem women according to the CDC. If you are having trouble finding the energy and enthusiasm for caring for your baby, or feeling chronically anxious, connect with your OB. It CAN be treated. You don’t need to suffer with PPD. If you have PPD and want more information, or wonder if you have it, read more here.
- Cell phone, gaming, TV habits. E-distractions are everywhere!
- Baby’s genetics, including acquired temperament (feisty, high maintenance or low maintenance, fussy or easy going. . .) can effect our attunement. Babies are born with their temperament, some of which are harder to deal with than others.
Some of these disruptions to attunement are just going to happen. We’re going to get frustrated! Life can be stressful! We all have a background that we bring into parenting with us – sometimes it’s helpful, sometimes not so much. Our babies are all born with their temperaments. And we for sure all have electronics in our life. How do we deal?
Beyond Attunement Disruptions so Babies Understand Their World :
Awareness! We can’t even begin to deal if we aren’t aware. It helps to be aware of attunement and what it is, how it feels to tune-in, and what makes it easy or difficult to help babies understand their world.
Knowledge about child development. Having resources about how to care for a child in their fast changing first year of life definitely helps how we tune-in. For example, if we don’t know that babies need our help calming down, we don’t know to pick them up when they cry.
Having processes and activities that help us de-stress and calm down ourselves is essential. Since this kind of tuning-in to our infant – one year old child generates from a deeply internal ‘space’ within us, it is essential to know how keep that ‘space’ harmonized. Mindfulness activities, physical activity, honing our problem solving abilities, talking with a therapist or coach or friends are all things that keep ourselves de-stressed. Keeping The Dance of Parenting at your bedside helps too!
Practice self-compassion! Parenting is joyful, yes. It is also trying at times. And sometimes even totally disorienting! It can test our deepest hopes and beliefs. It is essential to love up our own difficulties with it with compassion – the same compassion you give to your child. In fact, your signal that you NEED some self-compassion is when you are being critical and angry at your child a lot. Turn it around by recognizing what you are feeling, giving yourself some kindness, and remember, we’re all making mistakes and having tough times.
For those times when it just isn’t clear to you why you are struggling to attune to your baby, try this card deck, The Self Compassionate Deck. Pulling one has an amazing way of prompting awareness and practicing self-compassion.
Enjoy loving up, attuning to, your wonderful babies! It is how their brain activates, they get a strong emotional base, and they get all the benefits of trusting you as they start to understand their world.
Take care now, Natasha