Babies use their voice, face and body to say how they’re feeling and what they need. It’s important for parents to watch and listen carefully, as some of baby’s cues will be very subtle.
While some cues, like crying, are easier to notice, it can take a while to work out what baby wants. They may be tired, hungry, needing a nappy change or wanting a cuddle and to hear mum or dad’s voice. As parents notice and respond to their baby’s cues, they will gradually become attuned to baby’s needs.
Parents also need to respond to their baby’s happy cues by smiling, talking and repeating baby’s sounds. Building this early relationship is a two-way process — like the ‘serve and return’ in a tennis match. When mum and dad respond sensitively and consistently, baby feels special and loved. These everyday interactions between baby and parents are building healthy connections in baby’s brain.
Responding to baby quickly and sensitively
Parents need to respond as quickly as possible when baby is unhappy. Babies are not able to handle big feelings on their own and need their parents to calm them and comfort them.
At any age, when we’re stressed, our brains send a signal to the adrenal gland to release hormones that help the body respond to stress. One of these hormones is called cortisol, which our bodies produce every day. While all babies experience some stress, when there’s on going stress in baby’s world and they release cortisol too often or for too long, this can affect their brain development.
Comforting babies can help reduce the level of cortisol their bodies are exposed to. Sometimes it may take only a few minutes to comfort a baby, other times it may take a lot longer. When parents respond quickly and sensitively to comfort their baby, baby gradually learns to manage stress and to handle their big feelings.
Baby can be overwhelmed by excited feelings sometimes too — not just unhappy feelings — and may also need help from mum or dad to calm down at these times. The trust and sense of safety baby develops when their parents respond quickly to provide comfort form the foundation for a healthy, secure attachment relationship.
This close relationship that develops between the baby and a consistent caregiver (usually mum) is essential for the baby’s survival — babies must have an adult close by who is willing to provide care and protection. A secure attachment relationship is also important for the baby’s healthy brain development.
Secure attachment in the first few years
The brain is shaped more easily by experiences during the first 2 or 3 years than at other times in life. Because babies are so dependent on their parents at this time, most of their experiences take place in the context of their close relationships.
Loving, everyday interactions between baby and parents help to build healthy brain structures. A baby whose parents listen and respond sensitively is more likely to grow up physically and mentally healthy, be better able to learn at school and is more likely to develop empathy for others.
Although baby’s early months are the best time for a secure attachment relationship to begin to develop, it is never too late to make a positive change.
- Babies use their whole body to communicate.
- Responding warmly to baby’s cues is a ‘serve and return’ process that helps build the attachment relationship.
- A secure attachment relationship will help baby develop other healthy relationships through life.
- Parents can reduce baby’s levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, by comforting them.
- The brain is shaped more easily by experiences during the first few years.
The ‘Te hinengaro mīharo’ sections in the SKIP Whakatipu booklets give parents simple neuroscience information to support them with their parenting:
- Te Pihinga 1, page 9 — early brain development
- Te Pihinga 2, page 9 — feeling secure and loved helps learning
- Te Kōhuri 2, page 9 — stress can have a negative effect on brain development
- Brainwave Trust: Stress — The good, the bad and the ugly
- Center on the Developing Child: Serve and return interaction shapes brain circuitry
- National Scientific Council on the Developing Child: Young children develop in an environment of relationships
This material is written for the Parenting Resource by Brainwave Trust Aotearoa.