For many of us, the idea of building a relationship with a baby seems foreign. Why do we need to build a relationship? He is just a baby - surely the relationship will happen on its own. A relationship with a baby is not something you have to work at or be deliberate about, we think.
Actually, we do have to be deliberate about relationship building with any child, and particularly with an infant. Our interactions with our baby in the first days, weeks, and months of her life form the bedrock for our child's later ability to build relationships with others.
A term often used in the child development literature when referring to relationship building is attachment. Research shows that infants who are securely attached to a few adults are more confident to explore and learn about their world than those less securely attached.
There are several key factors in relationship building:
- Building trust: A noted child theorist, Erik Erikson, talks about the basic task of the first years of life as being the development of either trust or mistrust. An infant who is attended to quickly, who is fed, changed, and cuddled when she indicates a need for these, learns to trust those who care for her. There is no such thing as "spoiling" a baby - meeting her needs builds trust. Conversely, a child whose needs aren't met on a timely basis learns to question and potentially mistrust others. Trusting others could become an ongoing issue for the latter child.
- Paying attention: Infants flourish under our attention. They look for eye contact, smiles, holding, and talking from us and they respond accordingly. Reciprocal, or back and forth communication and smiles, is best. Our attention to a baby is very powerful. Even if we aren't quite sure what to do, making eye contact and talking to him, pausing, and waiting for his response are exactly right. Conversely, babies who aren't given attention eventually look away, disengage, and stop expecting connection.
- Listening to a baby's feelings: Prior to communicating through words, cries are a baby's major means of communication. Listen and respond to her cries. Figure out the differences and what they mean. Don't say "You're okay" when your baby is crying and is obviously not okay. Sometimes when you are sure she has been fed, changed, and had a good nap, your baby may just need to cry about the little frustrations of her day, especially before she is able to tell you what they are (just the way we need to vent sometimes). Stay close by, hold her, and talk reassuringly. "I can see you are upset. I am going to stay right here with you while you tell me all about it."
- Treating your baby with kindness: Even the very youngest children understand and take in kind treatment. A child who is treated kindly is more likely to treat others kindly. Look at, hold, and talk to your baby lovingly and let your tone of voice convey caring and love.
- Providing caring touch: A key way to build a positive relationship with your child is through caring touch and physical affection. You can't hold a baby too much. Holding a baby close to you is good for your child and good for you as well. We all need the close, caring contact of another human being.
- Maximizing "ordinary" moments: There are lots of moments when caring for a baby that could seem "ordinary." Feeding, changing, rocking and bathing take on a sameness that can feel repetitive. Conversely, maximizing these care-giving moments means they become times of special connection between you and your child. Say nursery rhymes while you are changing your child's diaper. Sing while you rock him. Talk softly about how much you love him while you are nursing or talk about the food you are spoon feeding him. These "ordinary" moments go by all too soon and are equally important for you as for him.
Building trust; paying attention; listening to your child's feelings; treating your baby with kindness and providing caring touch are all key to relationship building with your baby. Ordinary moments are anything but ordinary when your baby's face lights up when he sees you or when she smiles at your smile. In big and small ways, all of these interactions build a connection between you and your baby that will last a lifetime.
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