In this article, we will think about how you can help your baby to feel happy, safe and understood by you. The first suggestion is to try and think and be curious about what is going on in your baby’s mind, both internally to yourself and importantly sharing your ideas out loud with your baby. This has been termed ‘mind-mindedness, i.e., holding another person’s mind in your mind. We know it has clear benefits to children, including helping to reassure them and manage their strong feelings. Having a word to describe how we feel can soothe and moderate the intensity of an emotion. These are the building blocks for emotional literacy and emotional regulation. This might sound a little strange, as of course your baby does not yet understand the words that you use. However, you will be communicating what your understanding is and attempts to wonder about what your little one is feeling, both verbally and non-verbally.

It can at first sometimes be hard to see your baby as separate from yourself, it can feel like your baby is a part of you, especially when pregnant and in the early days. It is also a lot harder when you are stressed or feeling overwhelmed and it can be easy to presume that your baby feels the same way as you. Of course, in the first few weeks in particular, you do not yet know your baby, which can make it easier to project your own feelings onto your baby, including your experiences of past relationships. It is really helpful to try to stay open minded about the whole spectrum of possibilities that your baby might be feeling. An example of being mind-minded might be when your little one cries. You are trying to understand and name what your baby might be feeling and what they are communicating they need. The important part is being curious, you don’t know, but are trying to figure it out and making your best guess

If we remember that babies have emotional needs and so don’t always require a physical response, such as feeding or changing, we can hold in mind that they may need some reassurance or interaction, they might need a hug, or want to be talked to, or perhaps to be re-positioned so they can see what others are doing. This is just as important to hold in mind as a possible reason for their unsettled state, as well as if they are hot or hungry, although checking their physical state is typically what you would consider initially.

Alongside curiosity in your baby’s mind and offering this verbally, it is super helpful to also do this non-verbally. This is called ‘marked mirroring.’ This is when you use an exaggerated facial expression and tone of voice to gently mirror what you imagine your little one is feeling. Babies feel emotions really strongly, as well as physical sensations. It can be confusing and overwhelming for them to try and decipher what is going on internally and externally. They need you to receive that big emotion, which you show by gently mirroring this on your face and in your tone. This communicates that this emotion is bearable. It communicates reassuringly, that you have recognised what they feel, which enables them to manage. As they have repeated experiences of this kind, this slowly builds up their experience of emotion being possible to face and they very gradually develop this ability for themselves. Essentially, this communicates to your baby ‘I get what you are going through and you can see that, as I’m showing you with my face and voice. I reflect what you are feeling to show you I’m not scared or overwhelmed by what you feel and I can be alongside you to help.’

Mirroring helps your baby organise their experience, having someone around who can accurately perceive them, helps them to develop a strong sense of who they are.  If they feel anxious, but we mirror back terror, they will grow up to be someone who struggles with feeling anxious, they will be more likely to feel terror. If they feel sad and no one mirrors this back, they might grow up find it hard to identify this emotion and so this emotion can be confusing and quickly overwhelm them.  Being a mirror for you baby lays the foundation for them to develop a strong self of self.

Interactions are very intense for a baby and turning or looking away, is how they manage what they are feeling. This allows them to calm and then when they are ready, to turn back and interact with you again. You may have also observed that the pace a baby responds is slower, it can take them a little while to respond, it is helpful for them if you can wait and be patient. A helpful phrase to hold in mind is Watch, Wait and Wonder.

Reading about all of the things that your baby needs from you and how important it is, can feel overwhelming. It may prompt feelings of pressure to ‘get it right’ all of the time. You may find that you can push yourself really hard and it can have a profound detrimental impact upon how you feel about yourself, particularly as a parent. So It is important that we end with thinking about what is good enough and what is realistic to expect of yourself.

A well-known Psychologist called Edward Tronik, carried out a study observing what were considered to be highly attuned infants and mothers. What he found was that the percentage of time these parents identified their child had a need and respond correctly first time was 30%. As a result, we know that even the most ‘in tune’ infant and-parent are matched only 30% of the time. Imagine what it feels like to only get something right 30% of the time? For every one time you get it right, there will be two times roughly you get it wrong. If you behave with the expectation of perfection, what is that going to feel like? Being a parent is different to a target-based job when we know if we get it right or wrong. It’s a best guess and that is good enough. Human beings are complex and hard to ‘get right.’

Understanding other people, particularly babies is really difficult, as they cannot yet use words to let you know what they are feeling. It is not the getting it right that is most important, it’s the trying. It is more important that you try to understand, rather than to get it right every time. It shows your little one that they are important, worth responding to and are not alone with what they feel. Troncik found that if parents missed their baby’s cues first time, they were able to figure it out about 30% of the time at the next go and if not then, then about 30% of the time on the third try. A crucial benefit of not getting it right first time, is that it helps set your baby up for living in our imperfect world. Tolerating frustrations and disappointments is a skill that is learnt through these imperfections, they provide an opportunity for your baby to begin to learn to experience these emotions and it lets them know that these feelings are not overwhelming.

If you feel you would like some support in figuring out what your baby might be feeling, perhaps separating out what you feel from what your baby feels, then parent-infant psychotherapy can support you to develop a greater understanding of your baby.


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