How your bond with your baby affects his development

Showing your baby love and affection in the early days will shape his development more than you may imagine, explains author Sue Gerhardt

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Your little one will look to you for comfort

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There is no such thing as giving your baby too much love!

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Non-verbal communication, like your touch, helps to soothe your tot

How an individual’s personality develops, and why he interacts with others in a particular way, is something that has fascinated us as human beings since time immemorial. What we do know, however, is that there is a myriad if ways that his mother will have shaped his emotional and physical state through her response (or lack of response) to his needs. It’s very difficult to document every time his mother will have picked him up to comfort him or looked at him with smiling eyes to ease his fears; and even more difficult to assess how this response affects the kind of person he becomes in the future. Even the measurement of someone’s brain activity will not tell you why that person chooses to react to situations in a particular way or the reasons behind their emotional states.

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To really understand a person’s emotional response to the world around them, you have to get back to basics: go back to the very beginning. The emotional bond between a mother and her baby is one of those wonders in life, like falling in love or having mind-blowing sex – it’s hard to categorise and explain. Before the women’s movement of the 1960s or 1970s, there was no attention or study into why a pregnant woman longs to stroke her belly or communicate with her unborn child, or into the private, emotional sphere of a woman and the bond she feels with her baby.

But why is it so important to study the bond between a mother and her baby – what can it tell us about a child? The answer is that the way parents care for their child during his infancy largely determines what kind of person he will become later in life. This flies in the face of Freud’s theory that all humans are driven solely by their own primal drives – instead, the forces that drive our emotional development stem from the kind of attention and care our parents gave us in infancy. The early part of our lives is both “unremarkable and unforgettable”, neuroscientist Doug Watt says, because even though we cannot recall any part of it, it live on in every part of who we are. This idea is extended in the Chaos theory, which says that small differences early on lead to very different outcomes. The emotional patterns that we set up with other people become ingrained in our infancy and consequently influence the development of our personalities and our responses to life: like habits, they are hard to change once they form.

Another reason why the successful interaction of the mother and baby – or showing him as much love as you can! – is essential early on in that it will have an impact on not only his emotional behaviour, but also his physiological development – a baby’s early relationship with his parents has been shown to affect his bodily functions. A baby that is badly handled will have a different biochemical reaction to stressful situations than a well-handled baby. Since much is still continuing to develop at an early age, high stress responses to external situations can have a negative affect on a baby’s biological development and body rhythms.

The parent’s role

So, a parent’s role in the outcome of her baby’s personality and wellbeing is crucial: babies are like raw material for a self. And whilst babies are programmed with a number of set responses as they emerge from the womb, there are significant parts of them waiting to be moulded through social interaction. When a baby’s body first develops it tried to form a normal range of responses, but this norm can only be established through a social process – dependent on how his mother cares for him.

In the early days babies are unable to adjust their response range, which explains why they don’t stop crying until someone picks them up to calm or feed them. Babies depend on their parents to bring their response back to a ‘normal’ state when it is aroused or understimulated, because they are unable to do it by themselves. Happy babies will have learnt how to adjust their emotional response to a comfortable range from their parents. Their reactions will reflect those around them: as they learn to copy their mother’s comforting responses to their unhappiness, they begin to process ways of responding positively to the world around them. Conversely, babies with depressed mothers will learn to adjust to low stimulation and become accustomed to a lack of positive feelings. And those with agitated mothers will get used to being overstimulated. They will assume that it is normal for their mothers to have explosive emotions and that there is nothing they can do about it.

Cause and effect

Mothers can help their baby establish a normal response range on their own by seeing her baby’s needs as her own needs. Babies need a caregiver who identifies with them so strongly that the baby’s needs feel like hers; he is still physiologically and psychologically an extension of her. If all of the mother’s feelings reflect her baby’s own feelings, when he feels bad she will respond by making him feel better. She does this non-verbally through touch, the tone of her voice, and her face. She brings her baby’s overstimulated state back to normal through her smiling eyes, or gentle soothing touch. Eventually, a baby will recognise that when his mother walks in the door she has come to comfort him. The consequence of mothers who lack response is that feelings of neglect are passed from one generation to another, continuing a detrimental cycle.

Parents should be an ‘emotional coach’ for their baby by being aware of their baby’s needs. They can also take their baby’s emotional response to the next level by helping them distinguish ‘bad feeling’ into specific emotions of irritation, disappointment, anger, annoyance, or hurt. Mothers must identify their baby’s feelings and label them clearly for him, so he knows that that parents are not just expressing themselves but instead showing him how to react.

Even if a baby’s genetic composition determines how reactive he is, the mother’s response is still influential to her baby’s development. The mother’s acceptance or rejection of her baby’s personality, as it relates to her, determines the dynamics between them. Studies have shown that the perception of a ‘difficult baby’ is actually more often a subjective view of the parents’ ability to respond to their baby. Sometimes it is the parents that are unable to respond ‘normally’ to the baby, so that they, rather than their baby, are being ‘difficult’. There are two types of difficult parents from the baby’s perspective – the neglectful parent that doesn’t pay enough attention, which results in babies with less positive feelings and persistent emotional problems; and the intrusive parent, whose hostile response to her baby can be felt by the stiff way she holds him.

Feeling insecure

In order for parents to help develop their baby’s emotional states, they must first know how to deal with these situations properly. Good relationships involve a parent having the ability to balance her own feelings while keeping track of her baby’s feelings, and tolerating any uncomfortable feelings. If a parent is unable to deal with her baby’s feelings of anger or hostility, the baby will be conditioned to suppress feelings to avoid setting off his mother, or he will exaggerate feelings in order to gain the parent’s undivided attention.

Many researchers agree that everyone has subconscious expectations of others, and these assumptions are developed early in childhood. Children have expectations of their parents to provide comfort and take care of their needs, but if these expectations are not met, they will have an insecure attachment. Children with insecure strategies for dealing with emotions (because their parents never showed them how to do it properly) have trouble processing their feelings and therefore find it difficult to reflect on them. They will have difficulty with emotional regulation, not knowing when action is needed, particularly to help sustain relationships.

As social creatures, we need to monitor other people as well as our internal state, to maintain the relationship on which we all depend. Babies do this from the start – noticing facial expressions and tones of voice, and are highly responsive to other human beings, even as newborns.

So it’s very obvious why ‘love matters’ – modern parenting wisdom increasingly recognises that it’s nigh on impossible to ‘spoil’ a baby by loving him too much. This will be music to the ears of you who find it impossible to refrain from showering your tot with love and affection – just keep doing what you’re doing!

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Find out more in Sue’s book Why Love Matters: How Affection Shapes A Baby’s Brain.

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