For parents and daycare practitioners alike, finding time to ‘tune in’ to babies and share meaningful interactions can be a challenge. Michael Jones explores the problems and offers solutions…
We know that babies need lots of attention, and making sure that they get this attention is an essential part of effective parenting and daycare provision. But how can babies get the early interaction that they need when there are other brothers and sisters to care for, or they are in a baby room with other children?
As soon as a baby is born, he is on a mission to make sense of his surroundings, and particularly to understand other people. This begins immediately the baby is able to fix his gaze into his mother’s eyes. Later, baby looks at bright lights and moving objects, but his mother’s face – and later those of other carers – provides the most fascination. This does not happen by chance, but is the start of the intense process of mother and baby building their relationship and learning how to understand each other. According to Sue Gerhardt, author of Why Love Matters: How Affection Shapes a Baby’s Brain, this process of ‘attunement’ takes place when a mother is ‘tuned in and emotionally available to the child’. Tuning in includes chatting and playing and having fun with baby, using the particular type of exaggerated tone of voice and nonsense originally known as Motherese, though now referred to as Parentese, in recognition that fathers and other carers can also take part.
When parents talk and play with their young baby, as part of early interaction, they are giving baby important lessons in communication. This includes recognising essential information from adults’ exaggerated, non-verbal signals, and particularly linking the adults’ facial expressions with their tone of voice. Babies also learn to take turns in play, by typically making vocal sounds and parents responding. This helps babies to learn to share attention and feel that communication is fun and emotionally rewarding. Sharing attention regularly with an adult in this intense way also helps the child understand that when the session has finished there is no need to panic, as parents will be available to share attention through play at other times. These elaborate playful interactions continue as children move through the babbling stage, and later become conversation when children develop their first words and sentences. However, before this can happen, children need to be involved in many thousands of interactions.
Having set out what babies need in order to develop emotionally, socially and as happy communicators, we need to look at how this can be achieved within the real world of family life: particularly when there is more than one child to care for. Practitioners also often need support to increase their understanding of how to communicate with other people’s babies, and how to develop the skills needed to engage and ‘tune in’ to them. We also need to be realistic that the experience of having two or three children to care for at home differs significantly from just having one: with parents of larger families having less time for uninterrupted play and chat with their young baby. Likewise practitioners rarely get a chance to spend time with one child and be able to give him total attention for more than a few minutes, without being interrupted by other children. So how can we help adults and babies to tune in to each other?
I discussed this dilemma with Debbie Brace, an early years consultant based in Hounslow, to the west of London, who specialises in developing young children’s communication and language. Debbie runs interactive courses for parents and their babies, helping parent and child build a positive early relationship. There are many reasons why problems can arise in the early stage of the mother-child relationship, when bonding needs to take place. These can include mother or baby being unwell immediately after birth, or when the mother suffers from postnatal depression or even chronic depression. Some parents can actually try too hard to bond with their baby, and the baby can feel overwhelmed and shut down from communication, as parents are ‘in the baby’s face’ too much. Other parents know that they should be making efforts to communicate with their child, but are unsure of why or how to go about it. The key message that Debbie shares with parents, and with practitioners who take part in her training sessions in settings, is that adults should aim to share intense periods of communication with babies, as part of the baby’s daily routine. Debbie describes these times as ‘being in the moment’. Debbie recognises that life with a young baby at home can be at times exhausting, and when there are other brothers and sisters to care for, often quite chaotic. So she suggests that parents and practitioners capitalise on the times during the day when baby is getting individual attention. This is likely to be during intimate moments such as changing, feeding, bathing, putting down to sleep and when waking up. During those times the parents and carers should try to give their full attention to baby and get involved in the type of communication that we have described above.
Debbie sees these ‘moments’ as adding up throughout the day (and unfortunately sometimes during the night as well!). ‘Being in the moment’ is an important part of attunement. As Debbie puts it, “If a parent is really in tune with his or her baby, then the child will not feel desperate for attention. She will know that during those particular few minutes, even if it is when having her nappy changed, mummy or daddy will be zoning in on baby’s feelings. These moments are important because they convey a message of emotional bonding. Language development will emerge from this early emotional connection and communication.”
One crucial message that Debbie demonstrates is the power of waiting for a child’s response to adult stimulation. Some parents seem to think that they should be bringing their baby up to a constant pitch of excitement, leading to the child feeling overloaded. In a group parachute game the parents will lift up the parachute and exclaim, “Aahh!” Some children will react positively, while others will be startled. The activity is repeated, but this time the parents are encouraged to stay very quiet. More often than not the children will become excited and exclaim, “Aahh!” The parents can then respond to the children’s excitement, e.g. by asking, “Shall we do it again?” This helps parents learn to be more responsive by waiting.
Debbie believes in being positive, and is always looking for parental responses to their baby’s behaviour that she can praise and explore with the group. “We look at what the parents are already doing that baby responds to positively, and build on this, and explain why what they are doing is important.”
These same principles can be transferred directly into practice within daycare settings. Debbie leads ‘Baby Talk and Play’ training courses in settings, working directly with staff and children, as part of everyday activities. Staff film each other, and provide positive feedback on what aspects of interaction went well. Naturally there will be much that needs improving, but as with the parents’ sessions, Debbie does not focus on the negative. By looking closely at what a practitioner did well, subsequent sessions invariably improve.
In her book, Sue Gerhardt makes a strong case for the link between these early positive emotional experiences and the child’s brain growth. My interest is the relationship between children’s positive experiences of bonding with their parents and other carers, including practitioners in baby rooms, and being comfortable with sharing attention and focus, in adult-led and shared activities with other children, when they are older.
Next up, see Michael’s practical ways to help children and adults to share attention in busy settings.
Michael Jones worked for over 30 years as a speech and language therapist, teacher, advisory teacher, and trainer, and now concentrates mainly on writing about young children’s language and learning. His book, Supporting Quiet Children, is co-authored by Maggie Johnson and available from Lawrence Educational.
To find out more about Baby Talk and Play, visit babytalkandplay.co.uk. Why Love Matters: How Affection Shapes a Baby’s Brain by Sue Gerhardt is published by Routledge.
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