Tuning In: Your Relationship With Baby


The relationship you and your baby create from the womb through the first years is profoundly important for your baby’s development. The nature of this earliest relationship shapes baby’s preverbal knowing that they have a right to exist as the person they are. It also shapes baby’s capacity to trust; to deeply connect with themselves; to discover their own rhythms and needs.

How you relate with your baby establishes his basis for knowing what a relationship is. This deep, cellular learning about himself and significant others is a template he will carry into future relationships. The seeds of self worth, self-confidence and trust are sown now.
Recent research in neuroscience and developmental psychology shows that the infant’s experience in the early years largely determines how baby’s brain develops. Early experience and, in particular, the parent/baby relationship impacts how the brain is actually wired.
If baby’s experience is chronically inadequate, the neural networks of the prefrontal cortex, the seat of our most advanced human functions may be damaged, producing an enduring vulnerability to psychological problems. If, more often than not, her experience is adequate, the child will be wired for health.
Given this information, it is clear that the quality of attention and focus you bring to being with your baby in these earliest times has a huge ‘pay off’ for your baby. Your attuned and responsive connection with your baby is an immense and far-reaching gift for baby and yourself.

Ways To Tune In To Your Baby

Tuning in is a way of getting to know who your baby is. Rather than wanting your baby to do more, perform better, be smarter, reach developmental milestones sooner; tuning in is a way to celebrate and acknowledge your little one for who she is, not for who you want her to be. This kind of relationship allows baby to feel loved, wanted and welcomed for the person they are.
Here are some simple but profound ways you can tune into your child. These ideas come largely from the work of Magda Gerber, the founder of Resources for Infant Educarers (www.rie.org). For decades she has helped parents and infants learn how to treat each other with respect.
  •  Observe
Spend time watching your baby. Rather than stimulating or teaching your baby; focus your energies on observing. Gerber, in her book, Your Self-Confident Baby, suggests, “As you observe your baby, relax and focus on what you see and hear. Look at your child. Look at her face, her arms, her legs. What is her body language saying? See what she responds to. See what holds her interest. See what bothers her.”
In order to observe, you need to be able to still yourself. If you are anxious or agitated, you are not in a space to observe well. Quiet yourself. Notice your breathing. Bring yourself into your own body and senses. Clear your mind. Come into the present moment and then into relationship with your baby.
Whether you are diapering him, holding him, feeding him, or bathing him, use these taking-care-of routines as a special time to be wholeheartedly present with your baby. Often we tend to do several things at once. See what it is like for you and your baby if you give him your undivided attention.  Often this will ‘fill him up’ for the times when he is not with you and he will be able to separate from you with greater ease.
  • Talk
Talk to your baby and wait for her response. Use your words and/or your gestures to let your baby know what is going to happen next. If you talk to your baby consistently, she will soon associate your sounds and tone of voice with certain actions or events. Gerber describes the process as follows, “When doing taking-care-of routines, explain and show your infant what you are doing step by step. Allow your baby to follow and become involved in the process, to make eye contact with you, to study your face, vocalize, initiate play, follow your actions and respond to you, and you to him.”
For example, rather than picking up your baby unexpectedly or from behind, tell him “I’m going to pick you up now.” Reach out to him and wait to see if he will respond; perhaps a subtle change of expression or a movement of the eyes, arms, or legs. Initially, and with very young babies, they may not show any visible response at first. But you are establishing a habit of two-way communication and mutual responsiveness.
Talking to your baby and listening to her response will help the two of you come into deeper attunement. Trust builds. Respect for each other grows.
  • Slow Down
Babies process and respond at a much slower rate than we do. They are exquisitely sensitive. They may become overwhelmed and over stimulated easily. Slowing yourself down when you are with your baby will promote calmness and a sense of safety in your baby.
Step into ‘baby time’. See what your baby can teach you about slowing down and smelling the roses. It may be difficult at first. Many of us live our lives at a fast and furious pace. Slowing down may seem impossible, boring or uncomfortable. But if you weather those feelings, you may find that tuning into your baby’s rhythm and pace brings you into a deeper and more satisfying connection with your baby and yourself.

It’s Not About Being Perfect

When it comes to learning how to tune in to your baby, the good news is that parent perfection is not required! Researchers videotaping moms and babies at 3, 6, and 9 months of age learned that these moms were in sync with their babies only a fraction of the time. However, the mothers came back into sync, often in the next step of the interaction.
Dr. Thomas Verny, in Tomorrow’s Baby, states, “Most developmental psychologists now agree that repairing an interaction gone awry is a linchpin of healthy infant development.” The knowledge that breakdowns in communication will generally be repaired allows children to move out into the world carrying a sense of confidence and power because they can count on intimacy being re-established.
The ability to repair relationships when they are out of sync, to come back into attunement after missing each other is what Carol Gilligan, in The Birth of Pleasure, calls the tidal rhythm of relationship: the “finding and losing and finding again”. She notes, “Trust grows when babies and mothers establish that they can find each other again after the inevitable moments of losing touch.”
The job of parenting; of fathering and mothering is one of the most mundane, common place and revolutionary tasks a person can do. How we are with our children shapes the future of the world.
As important as the work is, it is not about being perfect. It is about being human. It is about deepening into our connection with ourselves and with our children through tough and tender times. It is about making “a safe house for love”.

Shari Bender is a Vancouver psychologist working with adults and children.You can reach her at 604.221.9053 or shari@sharibender.ca. A version of this article appeared in the Summer 2005 issue of Urbanbaby & Toddler magazine.