Eye contact is something we encounter everyday in our lives. As adults, we often look at each other to communicate for a variety of reasons, most typically an emotion or intent. When we talk to one another, we usually look at one another. When there are differences in what we would expect in a situation, for example, if someone persistently looks away or maintains lengthy eye contact, this can be unsettling and prompt for example, feelings of fear, annoyance, or rejection. There are of course cultural variations in what is considered appropriate eye contact and what I have described above would perhaps be considered the norm in the many North American and European cultures. Babies of course have not yet been acculturated and so their eye gaze across the world is relatively consistent.

Eye gaze is seen to potentially carry a lot of information about ourselves and the other person, phrases such as the eyes being ‘a window to the soul,’ certainly conjure up something very powerful in this contact. Such phrases are borne from how intimate and consequently also threatening eye contact can feel, which is determined not only by the social context, but also of your own experience of relationships. How eye contact feels, can be indicative of how you feel about yourself and other people.  This can have significant implications for how you experience this type of non-verbal interaction with your baby.

You have likely noticed the different ways in which baby’s tend to use their eye gaze. This is most noticeable in how they tend to hold their gaze in a certain direction, be that at something in their environment or another person. Babies, particularly in the first few months are drawn to contrast, such as black and white, their eyes not yet able to distinguish colour. This is why, for example, you may see your baby looking at the shadow cast into the room by the sun. Babies look at you as they are most of all drawn to the human face. This is your baby’s way of making a connection with you, it can be an expression of affection and even love, which may feel intrusive or overwhelming, if this is something you are not used to. In these moments, it can be easy to imagine all sorts of things about what your baby is feeling and why they are looking at you so intently. This is a process called ‘projection’ and is when we place our own fears and difficult emotion into another and then perceive this as coming from them. We do this as a way to manage difficult emotion, as although this creates discomfort, it is felt to be unconsciously preferable to noticing that this emotion resides within ourselves. This is because if you locate these feelings in another person, then you can in theory control these feelings, for example by avoiding contact with that person. An example of this may be that we imagine that our baby is looking so intently because ‘they do not like me,’ especially if this is accompanied by a flat expression. You may believe this of your baby as this is how you perhaps feel about yourself, which is of course a very painful thought to hold. If you unconsciously place this feeling into your baby, then you can manage this be minimising in any way you can, how much you look at your baby or spend time with them. This then makes it very hard I imagine, at times, to be around them. You may find the prospect of being home alone with your baby very difficult. This in itself can feel deeply distressing.

Of course, how your baby looks at you is also a response to how they experience that contact. I mentioned baby showing little facial expression. This may be because they are taking in your face and the experience of sharing each other’s gaze. It might be that baby will smile, either you or baby initiating this, suggesting enjoyment for you both. It is a way for baby to feel noticed. Of course, as in adults, babies may be watchful, if they are feeling unsafe in some way, or uncertain. This can happen in response to noises which baby experiences as loud or sudden, maybe crying if they are very frightened or becoming still at these moments. If you can feel uncertain and wary of your baby, which might happen for example if you carry ideas about them not liking you, or you worry a lot about when they cry because of how hard it is for you to cope, then of course this is part of your baby’s experience with you, so can then lead them to feel a need to be careful or watchful at times (see the article ‘why is it so hard to cope when my baby cries’).

You will probably have noticed that when your baby is looking at you, you may be sharing smiles, ‘talking’ to one another, or simply looking, that your baby will then turn away. You might even try to look around to re-engage your baby, but they turn away again. This can feel as if your baby does not want to look at you and is actively turning away. If you can worry about not being wanted, it might feel it is as if what your baby is doing is rejecting and so feels hurtful. This can lead to a pattern coined by renowned infant mental health researcher Beatrice Beebe as ‘chase and doge.’ This is when baby turns away and the adult moves themselves or baby towards their face, baby then shifting their position to keep their gaze in a different direction, the adult trying again and so on. The reason your baby looks away in the first place is most typically because they need to regulate themselves in the interaction. Communication and interaction is something that your baby is just learning to do, so it can feel both tiring and also very stimulating. As a result, in order for them to manage during the interaction, they need to turn away to be able to moderate themselves, to calm and settle before then returning to the interaction. By ‘chasing,’ your baby does not have enough time to recover and will likely then feel overwhelmed by what is happening.  It is really helpful for baby if you wait for them to return to you, following their lead. This not only allows baby to recover, it also allows baby to feel that what they need when with another person is noticed.

If you feel you need support in exploring how you experience your baby or feel worried about how your baby seems to be with you, then get in touch for a free 15 minute consultation to explore if Parent-infant Psychotherapy can help you and your baby begin to love life with each other.

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