Parenting Your Infant
Written by Dr Faye Snyder Child Psychologist, relationships counsellor & author.
Babies are NOT little live dolls without a point of view. You don’t want to wait until they get older before you begin to understand them and relate to them. In fact, babies are in their most critical developmental period. Everything that transpires in a baby’s life is so much more formative than in any later years. This is when their personality is developing and when your endeavors determine whether they feel worthwhile or worthless inside. What you get right while they are infants determines how much easier they will be to raise. What you get wrong is much more reversible the earlier you endeavor to make changes. One hour of your corrections now is worth hundreds of hours of therapy for them as an adult.
All babies are born ready to love and be loved. They will look right into your eyes to see who you are, knowing from birth that you’re “the one.” They will also be looking into your eyes to see who they are, as well. How you look back at them will determine their identity, positive or negative. If you put them in a swing or carry them in a baby seat too much, rather than hold them, their brain will dull down, and they will adjust to the void. If you over-stimulate them, they will pull back to protect themselves, but some day soon they may become dare-devils, since they have acquired a taste for over-stimulation.
When your baby is born they actually have the full range of emotions and feelings. They can also recognize emotions in other people. When you look at them with joy, their little bodies just light up. When you look at them annoyed or sad, they adopt your feelings, imagining your attitude is all about them.
At birth their right brain is fully formed, and they are ready for an emotional and intimate relationship with you. Every experience is a template for the future and a model of the world they have inherited from you. By contrast, their left brain is not fully formed and will continue to grow over time and as they learn to understand symbols, language and logic, including what words mean. These are things they’ll learn quickly over the next few years, every time you introduce a word or drawing or book or any symbol representing something real.
Most of their personality and intelligence will be established by age three, shaped by how they are treated and what they experience. You don’t want them to figure out who they are, what they are worth and what the world is like in a daycare. You want them to learn how they are, what they are worth, and what the world is like from you.
Babies are born to have moods, just like us. Unlike us, however, our babies are too young to know that “this too shall pass.” They are formulating their idea of life through every experience. Put another way, they develop their temperament and then their personality in the first few years, as they adapt to the patterns of interaction in their life.
When too many scary things happen without soothing reassurance from you, they start formulating specific attitudes about you, about others, and about the world. They begin to believe that they are on their own and are not safe. These presumptions are confirmed if you are not tuned-in to their need for reassurance. When they cry in fear, you may start jiggling them, pacing with them, handing them back and forth, removing them from the situation, even closing the door in exhaustion to let them “cry it out.” Now their fears and expectations become self-fulfilling prophesies as you unintentionally play into their expectations.
Every time your actions don’t make sense to them, babies learn to think in confused ways and form views of you and the world that will one day misguide them. Be careful not to reject them for crying. Crying is their way of letting you know they have needs, including the need to be warmed, fed, changed, held, touched, seen, soothed and cuddled.
What your baby needed all along was for you to look at them and show them that you understand or you are trying to figure it out. They needed you to accept their wailing as much as they needed your help or comfort. “You’re OK. Mommy knows. You’re OK.” They need you holding them, loving them, and receiving their pain, without shushing. They need to see in your face that you care, that you completely understand, and you have got it handled.
There it is. There is that empathetic look on your face. You look deeply into their eyes and whisper, “Daddy knows,” or “Mommy knows.” “We see you. We hear you.” Then you begin to do whatever you can to bring your baby a little pleasure to replace the pain. You kiss their tiny forehead. You gently pat their head, stroke their soft tender skin, and speak ever so softly in soothing, loving tones. You look deeply, reassuringly into your darling baby’s eyes. The Calvary is here; they have been saved.
If your baby does not respond positively to these gestures, perhaps they are already afraid you will break their heart and leave them again or misunderstand them again. You need to figure out what went wrong.
If, from the beginning, you have fallen in love with them and they with you, their trust and faith in you is boundless. You are the world to them. You are their safety. And it has never crossed their mind that you might leave. And it won’t, until it’s time for them to individuate. Then they will begin the long tender road of leaving and returning, each time venturing further and further and each time returning to you, their very battery charger. If you have loved and related to them, they will have wonderful friendships in school and be loved by many. They will have learned how to interact from you, unless you leave them too long, too soon.
Babies and toddlers don’t understand why you leave when you leave. Actually, their design, the human genetic design, doesn’t have a safe way to adapt to being left. It only has a way to cope with trauma, and being left is possibly the greatest trauma there is for an infant. Once they lose trust and realize that they are less important to you than the rest of your world, they become insecure. They become afraid of abandonment and of vulnerability, as well. They desperately need to be one with you, yet now they fear it. They know that if they trust you again, you may break their heart. Now that they realize that the bottom may fall out at any moment, they adopt one of three ways to cope with this trauma.
The first and earliest mechanism to cope with the trauma of being left is to withhold their hearts, to avoid being vulnerable again. Held close, they won’t make eye contact. Instead, they might arch their backs to look around somewhere else, pointing up at a corner, as if to “change the subject”. You may think this is a sign of intelligence and curiosity. But that’s not it. They’re trying not to be so close to you anymore- to protect against being left again. Often, busy parents think this first, most pathological adjustment, is admirable. They take pride in how independent and take-charge their toddler has become already. But beware. These infants are losing their capacity for intimacy.
The second coping mechanism is to beg and cling. Most parents find this quite unattractive and respond with annoyance, exacerbating the problem. The third coping mechanism is to practice distractibility, a variation on what psychologists call “dissociation.” They will often bury their feelings and develop symptoms of Attention Deficit Disorder, become inattentive or even hyperactive.
You are everything to your infant. You are their world. From you they get their very identity, the internal feeling of worthiness or emptiness, social skills, intelligence, and their ability to trust or not trust. Please don’t under-estimate how important you are.
If you have already left your child too much, there are things you can do to repair the broken bond, but they must include your commitment to stay with your child until this has been achieved. To do this, you may have to become a stay-at-home parent for much longer than if you had stayed home for the first three years. There are healing techniques you can use, once you have demonstrated to your child that you are reliable. You can find them in my book, Healing Your RAD Child.
If we caught you in time, the lesson is not to underestimate how extraordinarily sensitive babies are to being left. If you do a good job in these first few years, you will probably have a low-maintenance, ethical, empathic child who loves the world and life. Find a way to put their needs first. It’s worth it. Have fun. These will be the best years of your life–if you can be in the miracle!