In my last blog, I told the story of a baby who was having a tough day. Some commentators wrote to say they felt unsettled by what I’d written. They wished I had ended the piece with ideas about the kind of steps readers — especially parent readers – could take to guard against the possibility of a baby’s distress.
So that’s aim of this blog. I’m going to suggest five simple steps parents can take to grow their baby’s inner teddy bear when they are out and about in the buggy.
First, though, let me start with a preamble.
I’m always reluctant to provide advice. Parents are practically drowning in advice these days, and often it achieves the opposite of what it intends. Advice can easily undermine parents’ confidence, because it feels like someone else knows better than you what to do.
I’m not there when parents have to make decisions. I don’t know what challenges are going on in a parent’s family or a parent’s life. Knowledge about children development in general is not the same thing as a knowing a particular child.
So I don’t like providing advice because it can seem like the advice is more important than a parent’s curiosity. That is never the case. Parents are the experts on their children. My only real advice to parents is: “Be curious. Be kind. Be gentle. Remember connection.”
On the other hand, I realise that parents often find suggestions helpful. Being in a relationship with a child is tiring and relentless and confusing – and, yes, sometimes joyous. (Note that I have not used the word ‘parenting’ in that sentence, because I don’t like that word. ‘Parenting’ sounds like a task to be performed. Making a relationship with a child is not a task. It is a process. Being in a relationship with a child or a friend or a partner is a way of being. It’s one aspect of walking through life. Relationships are not tasks.)
Since suggestions can be helpful, I have crafted the ones I will shortly discuss. I don’t see them as advice, but more as pointers. They are tips that I hope can make parents’ lives easier and babies’ lives more secure.
Let me reinforce that last observation by turning to one other hand (if there can be such a thing as three other hands). It is really important that we keep babies’ emotional security in mind. Attention to babies’ emotions quickly slips when life become busy and pressured. That’s partly because babies’ emotions are subtle and fleeting. It’s easy to overlook them. Their body movements can be hard to read. This interpretive process is made much more difficult if you don’t even know that babies have a biological, absolute need for emotional connection.
The struggle I find regularly myself facing is how to balance suggestions against baby’s imperative need for connection. The suggestions I offer never sound complicated. Rather, they sound simplistic: “Connect. Take the baby’s lead. Connect. Meet the baby’s need. Connect. Reassure. Connect.”
Until you understand how tremendously important connection is for babies, my suggestions don’t sound vital. Connect? Smile? Laugh? Cuddle? Pay attention? Those suggestions don’t sound serious. They sound sweet.
I’m not trying to be sweet. I’m trying to help us understand that without connection, babies suffer. That’s why I tell stories of distress and disconnection, like the one I told in my last blog, entitled ‘How not to judge families sitting next to you in the café’. If we are brave enough to see babies’ distress, without turning away from it or denying it, then we begin to really understand what the science of connection is telling us.
But it takes courage to look upon a child’s discomfort. The things I write and talk about are unsettling because they confront us with our own limitations. We realise that, even as loving parents, we could cause discomfort in our children. We could do this without ever intending it or even being aware of it. This possibility easily tips us into guilt or anxiety.
Guilt and anxiety, though, are not helpful to parents or to their children. Nor are they what I ever intend. What I have come to accept is that they are always a risk when I talk about connection.
Thus, the challenge for all of us interested in raising happy children, and in embedding connection in our professional practice, is how to balance:
1) babies’ need for connection…against….
2) our wish to be good parents and professionals and people….against…
3) the knowledge that sometimes we fail to meet babies’ needs.
That is why is compassion and curiosity are so important in this learning process. Compassion for ourselves, as much compassion as for others. Curiosity about what is happening inside ourselves, as well as curiosity about what is happening for others.
Compassion and curiosity get us through the moments of anxiety and guilt and doubt. We become comfortable with the idea we don’t have to be perfect. No one has to be perfect, including parents sitting next to us in a café. We forgive ourselves when we ‘mess up’. We forgive our children when they ‘mess up’. We are less critical of other parents who ‘mess up’. We begin to replace blame and judgment with a search for opportunities to help.
And then, finally, we begin to relax. We believe that being a good enough parent is good enough. We don’t have to be perfect. Even if others criticise us, we have confidence in our own ‘enoughness’. We do not have to feel ashamed of moments of imperfection. ‘Parenting’ stops being a task you can fail or succeed at. Making a relationship with your child becomes a process you live every day. Some days are better than others. There is an awful lot of learning involved.
I have come to believe that discarding the anxiety about failure is key to balancing the three key components I listed above: babies’ needs vs. parents’ hopes to be good enough vs. fears we aren’t good enough. When we are confident that, even in our imperfection, we are still good enough, then we become better able to cope with scary ideas. And the idea that babies have an overwhelming need for connection, and that we sometimes fail them, is indeed scary for many parents. Perhaps ‘scary’ is not a strong enough word. Maybe the idea that we could fail our children is better understood as shameful.
So here is the good news: Babies do not need connection all the time. Even in healthy human relationships, people spend only about 33% of the time in connection. But we do need that 33%. Babies absolutely need that 33%. And they need extra-strong doses of connection when they’ve had a moment of fear – when they’ve found themselves fighting sabre tooth tigers.
The discoveries science is making about emotional trauma tell us that many babies don’t experience connection 33% of the time. And many of them don’t get extra doses of connection when they are scared, because their parents didn’t realise they were scared in the first place.
That’s why I was worried for the baby in my last blog. For the 25 minutes I sat in the café near he and his family, there was never one moment of connection, no moment that would have helped him to relax and feel that the café was a safe place. He turned to electronic technology for comfort because, for whatever reason, his parents weren’t able to offer him the emotional comfort he needed during that half hour. I say this believing that it was never their intention to ignore his needs. I fully believe they love him. I also know he will have suffered, when, at only 18 months old, he went 25 minutes without feeling connected.
This is the courageous balance we need to achieve as individuals and as a society: to stand in the knowledge that parents who deeply love their children can damage them. When we can accept that these two things go together, without laying blame on the parents, then we can move into the compassionate place that lets us think about how to help other parents. Parents can move themselves into a curious place about what else they could do to support their baby’s need for connection. They don’t have to protect themselves from fears of their own imperfection. They have already become comfortable with its reality.
I know scientists don’t usually talk this way. It sounds more like I am speaking from what I humorously sometimes call ‘Dalai Lama Land’. Nonetheless, it’s still true. The science of connection ultimately leads us to lessons in forgiveness and compassion.
And with that very long, very essential, preamble, here are my suggestions for five simple thing parents can do to help build their baby’s internal teddy bear when they are out and about in the buggy.
Five steps to guard against causing your baby anxiety
1. Change the language in your head: Use the word ‘baby’, not ‘buggy’.
Experiment with never using the phrase ‘pushing the buggy’. Instead, try always using the phrase ‘pushing the baby’. This simple linguistic shift reminds you that inside that piece of mechanical technology is a real live baby, with a brain and body that needs to feel safe. The baby’s sense of safety comes only through their confidence that you are always nearby, that you haven’t forgotten them. The problem with buggies is that they too easily interfere with a baby’s sense of connection to trusted adults. There is a mismatch between babies’ brains and buggies’ design – especially when buggies face outward.
If you are going into a café, or a bus, or a shop, don’t park the baby across a large space. Take the baby, in the buggy, with you. (Better yet, lift them out and carry them. This gives their muscles a chance to stretch.) They will feel safer, because you are nearby. They won’t have to wonder when you will come back. They won’t have to worry whether you might never come back. Their physiology doesn’t have to start gearing up for sabre tooth tigers that might sneak into the café or bus or shop before you get back to them. All unfamiliar environments are, for babies, settings in which a tiger might spring out and gobble them up. The only way to prevent that fear is for them to feel confident that their trusted adult is looking out for them.
3. Be sure the baby can see you.
If you do have to park the baby far away from you, be sure you have oriented them so that they can keep their eyes on you. Being able to see you will keep them feeling a bit safer. You can keep turning around and talking to them, smiling and nodding at them. That responsiveness will comfort their brain. They will know you haven’t forgotten them. They will believe you are keeping your eyes out for any sneaky, dangerous sabre tooth tigers. If the baby starts to cry, go back and lift them out of the stroller. Your cuddle will be the reassuring comfort they need. If they are crying hard, don’t take the stroller by the handle and rock it. Being soothed in a stroller is not the same as being soothed in your parent’s arms. Babies recover more quickly from fear when they have the warmth of human touch to help them
Another thing you can do if you have to put space between you and the baby is to make physical contact with them before you leave and as soon as you get back. Talk to them at that moment as well. Tell them where you are going and when you will be back. Point to where you will be. Do all this even if your baby can’t talk yet. They will hear the tone of your voice as reassuring. That moment of physical connection will boost the hormone oxytocin, which will give their physiological system a boost in coping with the anxiety of your distance. The conversation will also slow down the speed of your departure. Remember, babies didn’t know you were both going into this space. They weren’t in on the planning, so they have little expectation about what might happen. Your departure to the other side of the room will be one more surprise. Try to ensure it isn’t an abrupt surprise.
5. Tell the baby you are about to lift them out of the buggy.
When you go to lift the baby out of the buggy, don’t life the baby abruptly. Give them a chance to realise a change is about to happen in their body. Hold out your hands and tell them you are about to pick them up. This lets them be an active participant in this transition, rather than experiencing themselves they as a passive being in an unpredictable world. If you are surprised by my suggestion that you speak to the baby in this way, please rest assured many parents find this suggestion surprising. Most parents do not know that by the unbelievably young age of 2 months, some babies are already beginning to anticipate when their parents are going to pick them up. If a parent doesn’t make that move too rapidly, and gives the baby time to read the parent’s signals, then babies adjust their own posture to ‘help’ parents in picking them up. You can see babies making these astounding postural adjustments in the photos below, which come from a 2013 research study by Professor Vasu Reddy, where she reported on this ability. If you like, you can even watch videos of parents and babies participating in the study, on this link here.
As a human species, we didn’t always need to ‘know’ consciously about connection. In our evolutionary past, we just lived it. That’s because we lived in a way that allowed it to happen naturally.
Nowadays, our modern way of life too often interferes with connection. We need to use the knowledge that science is providing to guide our thinking about the way we relate to our babies.
I like knowing that understanding the science of connection helps us not only in relating to our babies, but also to ourselves. Whatever the problem, curiosity is the answer.