You’re the very first person your baby will have a relationship with, and your love will help build her world
Make the most of this eternal bond with your baby
L OOKING at your baby in your arms, it’s crazy to think she’s going to have a life that’s shaped by relationships with all sorts of people you don’t yet know. From the connections she’ll make with school friends to those she might one day create with her own children, these bonds will play a vital part in what makes her personality. But right now, you’re the centre of her universe, and the very first person she’ll have a relationship with. You are her first love.
And it’s from the bond she makes with you that she’ll learn how to handle all those future connections as she grows. Research suggests that the quality of the relationships in your child’s early years will affect almost every aspect of her later development, from her selfconfidence to her motivation to learn and her ability to forge friendships. Yep, being the most important person in her life is a big deal! By understanding how your baby bonds with you, you can help these skills develop. And as in any relationship, the moment true love strikes is different for everyone: some mums feel a strong bond growing with their bump, some find love at first sight happens at birth, while for others it forms and strengthens over the next days and months. Attachment is based on familiarity, so simply being with your baby grows your bond. From your baby’s point of view, this connection happens from the get-go. “From birth, if not before, babies appear to have innate mechanisms that prompt them to learn about who looks after them and can teach them about
social interaction,” says clinical psychologist Professor Pasco Fearon. Skin-to-skin contact with your newborn releases oxytocin, a hormone that promotes bonding. Experiments show that babies as young as 12 hours old show a preference for watching their mum’s face over those of strangers, and for her voice. In fact, babies in the womb have been shown to turn their heads in response to voices outside from just 24 weeks into pregnancy, so your baby will have grown used to yours well before she makes her appearance. Your bond grows as you spend time together. “The attachment process is a two-way street,” explains Pasco. When your baby babbles, you respond with a smile and your voice. When she pulls a face, you respond with a gesture. Researchers have shown that these ‘serve and return’ interactions create new neural connections in your baby’s brain, linking the areas responsible for memory, language, motor skills and more. “Babbling, pulling faces and making gestures are almost like proto-conversations,” explains Pasco. In a study, newborns were shown a film of a stranger pulling faces—for example, sticking out his tongue. Just 20 seconds after seeing the video, the babies were more likely to make the expressions they’d seen. They were copying! Research shows that your baby will develop faster if you are quick to imitate the gestures and sounds she makes. Babies have also been shown to prefer it when you make eye contact, as well as when your face is animated and responsive. And children who have responsive relationships with their primary caregivers are more likely to develop insights into other people’s feelings, needs and thoughts. “Parents and other family members who are alert to these early interactions can help lay the building blocks of social interaction,” explains Pasco. So don’t feel guilty if you just gaze into your baby’s eyes and coo for half an hour— you’re doing a really important job! As your baby grows, the mechanisms through which she bonds with you increase. “One of the clearest milestones comes between seven and nine months, when babies tend to begin exhibiting a preference for particular caregivers,” says Pasco. “Your baby might go from being happily passed around family members to wanting to be carried by just you. It may feel like grandma is being given the cold shoulder, but this is a positive sign that your baby is actively choosing a particular attachment. So rather than seeing ‘separation anxiety’ as a problem, we should see it as evidence of a great bond between a mum and her baby: she’s simply expressing her view that she’d rather be with you!” But don’t think this means you should be the sole person caring for your baby. Research suggests that young children benefit significantly from strong relationships with a wider circle of people, as long as the primary attachment bond—the one with you—is secure. “This means your child feels she has someone she can go and feel safe with,” says Pasco. “Her social world expands enormously in her first three years, but it’s supported by having a strong bond to fall back on.” Your child becomes increasingly sophisticated at this relationship business. “We now know that toddlers begin to build the basic ability to grasp what might be going on in other people’s minds from the age of about one or even younger,” says Pasco. Studies show that somewhere around the age of 12 months, a child typically begins to follow the gaze of people around her. Try it for yourself: if you look at a ball, your baby will probably look at it too. This new skill helps her begin to predict what might be in other people’s minds, or what they might do next. It opens the gates to a new kind of social interaction, one that might eventually include taking turns, for example, and other two-way interactions. It’s wonderful to watch your child develop new skills and slowly broaden her horizons, and even more so when you remember that it’s your love that’s set her up for success. So if you ever find yourself doubting that you’re doing a great job at this parenting lark, give your baby a cuddle and ask yourself: would she rather be anywhere else in the whole wide world? Simply by loving your baby, to her, you’re the best mum in the world.