Why Babies and Young Children Need Their Grown-ups

written by Carol Castanon, Parent Consultant
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Infants tell their caregivers when they are hungry, wet, tired, or not feeling quite right.  They cry, they wiggle and they sometimes struggle to get to sleep.  They’ll reach for the nipple and then sometimes pull away, and then seem to reach back again.  They’ll find your loving gaze and then look away.  Often, only Mama can soothe a crying infant.  As the infant grows bigger, eye to eye contact is sustained, even sought after.  This baby looks for Mama or Papa, waiting to be delighted in. The infant grows into a baby who can scoot or crawl, and they do so, but sometimes go too far and then come back to their grown-up.  A toddler walks or trots away, looking back to be seen and ultimately followed.  Some toddlers will travel quite far in exploration and others stay as close as close can be.  What are babies telling us about who they are, how they need us, and what makes them feel secure?  How come a baby may cling or cry even when their grown-ups are right there?  Why are babies, tots, and young children such experts at getting their adults?

It is absolutely necessary that a baby have a grown-up.  Dr. Winnicott writes, “There is no such thing as a baby.  If you set out to describe a baby you will find you are describing a baby and someone.”   Babies need a grown-up for survival, food and shelter, but also for so much more! It is essential for healthy development that babies form an attachment bond between self and mother or primary caregiver.  This bond tells babies they are seen and secure.  And, the experience of bonding is played out repeatedly during the infant and toddler years, and continues throughout childhood.  The parent/caregiver tells the baby through repeated action that they are available to their emotional and social need of growing attached.
Attachment is how babies understand themselves and how they understand others.  Babies call on their grown-ups to be in touch, in sight and in tune with them; to empathize with all their emotional experiences.  This is actually called attunement. Parents can help babies and young children feel attuned with a reflective conversation.  You might say, “You are crying, and I’m holding you.” Or, “You are hungry and it’s hard to wait.”  Babies and young children cue parents for connection with tears, words, body and eye movement, and play. This is how they share their story, seeking the safety and compassion of those who know best, despite the joy of autonomy, and the challenges of disappointment or anger.
Think about what your baby finds in you when they are seeking connection.  What eyes do they see?  What voice do they hear?  What touch is felt?  Because babies are gifted emotional readers, you must tell babies when things are not right for you.  Even the non-verbal baby understands tone, prosody, and intention.  You might say,” I am tired and we will get through this together.”  Or, “I’m crying and I see you.”  Or, “I felt worried you were hungry and now dinner is ready!”
The interesting thing about these first relationships is so much of the connection is actually unspoken.  What mother is feeling, is felt by baby.  What father is feeling, is felt by baby.  So, when mother and father look at baby with delight, the baby feels delighted in.  When mother and father experience worry, sadness, or misunderstanding, then baby feels this, too.  And, most often, Mamas and Papas feel their child’s delight or despair as well.
What happens when we speak aloud the parent/child experience, and share the story with each other?  Many parents tell of how much calmer they and their baby feel after sharing a feeling story. This is the verbal left brain working together with the non-verbal right brain. Nurturing a loving, reliable connection helps baby to actually regulate their nervous system, to feel calm, to feel secure and connected, despite the difficulties inherent in life.  We would say this baby has regulated their body and their mind in the company of their grown-up, and call this co-regulation.  For self-regulation to be learned, co-regulation must be consistent and predictable.
When a child experiences a healthy parent, co-regulation, nurturing, and predictable care, as well as a parent in love with their child, the child learns that:

  • They are safe.
  • They are competent.
  • They are seen and understood by others.
  • They see and understand others.
  • They can listen and be listened to.
  • They are cared for and care for others.
  • They are successful with others.
  • They are cooperative.
  • They are loved.

Babies and young ones are sensitive to growth spurts, life experiences, and change.  What seems like a simple change of routine can trigger a weepy day. A crying baby needs to know that Mama or Papa will help soothe them back to calm.  A baby will cue their parent for more connection.  They will make it quite clear, if we are attentive, that they want to be seen, felt, heard and touched.  They are demanding about it because it’s what they actually and fundamentally need to grow. This is the wonderful and complex world of attachment!