Q: How does my baby know that I love her?
A: Babies absolutely adore their mother and father’s voice. From the moment a baby is born and snuggled safely in his or her parent’s arms, they gazes up at their parent’s faces and stare as if in the wonderment of where they are. The very first smiles and whispered words from a parent to an infant begin a process that bonds and attaches the baby to their parents. You cannot “spoil” a child by holding, cuddling and talking to them too much. They need you and depend on you to respond to this need. Communicating with your baby is the beginning of their realization that they is loved.
The eminent psychologist, William James, once wrote that the newly born baby enters a world of “blooming, buzzing confusion.” How comforting it must be to a new baby to hear the voices that they has been listening to while they grew inside their mother. Every labor and delivery nurse will tell you that when the parents hold and talk to their babies right after delivery, the baby becomes calm and is fascinated with their parents’ faces and voices.
Mothers and fathers do interact differently with their babies. Dr. T. Berry Brazelton and his colleagues at Boston Children’s hospital studied the ways mothers and fathers interacted with their new babies. They found that as early as 3 weeks of age, babies anticipated different behavior from their mothers and fathers.
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A mother tends to set up a rhythm of speech and movement with her baby. The two of them will cycle in and out of movement almost as if they are dancing. The mother, smiling and cooing, will touch her baby and then pull her hand back only to return to touch her again, often patting or rubbing rhythmically and in time with the baby’s smiles and laughter. The mother will look gentle and smooth, as she softly plays vocal and facial “games” with her baby.
Fathers tend to set up a different, but predictable behavioral system with their baby. Drs. Suzanne Dixon and Michael Yogman in the Child Development Unit at Boston Children’s Hospital have found that fathers are more likely to use a playful approach, and to “jazz it up” by heightening the rhythm that the baby sets. They tap different parts of their baby’s body in rhythmic games, they speak in more heightened rhythms, and they exaggerate facial expressions in ways that seem to say to the baby, “Now, let’s play!” A small baby firsts watches quietly as they start such a period with their father. Then they will hunch up their shoulders, look eager, and finally laugh out loud, bouncing up and down in their chair. So predictable is this pattern that the doctors found that a baby of 3 months will take on an expectant look, hunched shoulders, and will lean forward in their chair when they hear their father’s voice. As if they know that their father’s presence will result in a special playful kind of communication.
Within this feedback system, infants learn about their universe. They learn about theirselves as socials being who can elicit predictable responses. It is in this system that babies first learn that they are, what we call, “being loved.”
This reciprocal system is the basis of parenting. Being there when they need you and showing them that you care is the parents’ side of communication, the baby’s chance to learn that they are loved. The reward for the parent is that as you enter into this intimate communication, you “know” when you are in touch with your baby. You are able to predict responses and this reinforces your confidence in parenting your child. As you develop this communication with your baby you will feel yourself glow as her or she smiles, vocalizes, and eagerly anticipates playing with you.
Katie Powers, R.N., is a board-certified lactation consultant and perinatal educator at Manatee Memorial Hospital’s Family BirthPlace. Her column appears every other week in Healthy Living. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.