Speaking Physically to Newborns: 3 Tips for Understanding Newborn Behavior

Speaking Physically to Newborns: 3 Tips for Understanding Newborn BehaviorNewborns are like fetuses outside the body. You have to change diapers, feed every 2-3 hours sleep deprived with no rewards… and then there’s a smile. And you wonder if it’s just gas.

Remember the British lady on Oprah who studies babies’ cries and taught new moms to listen to five basic sounds all newborns make? New parents work so hard to figure out what newborns need and feel. Understanding their cries is important, but what about the pre-cry behavior, body language and emotional expression?

Some time between the pushing (or C-section) and the first birthday cake, though, emotional wiring happens in our babies brains. Behavioral scientists are able to predict whether a 12-month-old infant is securely attached or insecurely attached to her caregivers, based on Mary Ainsworth’s “Strange Situation” experiments. For more than 30 years, behavioral scientists have been evaluating attachment styles at 12 months, tracking over a 20-year longitudinal study until baby is 21 years old.

Remarkably, most infants’ attachment style at one year are the same as when they reach adulthood. Until recently, 12 months was the earliest we’ve looked to find the origins of insecurity. Why does this matter? Because attachment is a behavioral, relational, emotional process that lasts our entire lifetimes. Insecure attachment is associated with depression, addiction, bullying and being bullied, adult relationship problems, self-harm and suicidality, poor mental health, immune system weakness, heart disease, the list goes on. 

But a new study, published in the book The Origins of Attachment: Infant Research and Adult Treatment, gives us an even earlier look. Published in 2014, this new research is about effectively predicting attachment security versus insecurity at 4 months old, based on coded interactions between mother and baby.

This is huge. This means we may be able to educate ourselves as parents, so that we can change the trajectory of our newborns’ attachments at one year! Learning the language between a newborn and his caregivers could be part of changing mental health in our country. The ability to read emotional cues and behavior in others and respond is called reflective functioning (read more here, here and here).

New programs, like Minding the Baby at Yale University, are teaching parents to watch for the emotional cues from their newborns, so that we are wiring our babies brains for connection and healthy physical, emotional futures once they’ve left our nests. Teaching compassion starts at the changing table in your home.

Don’t have a newborn anymore? You can still begin to do some of these things with your kids (and maybe even with your spouse or significant other!) and see big changes. Neuroscientists call the brain’s ability to change and rewire neuroplasticity it means that the mind is flexible and always capable of learning new things.

Since not everyone has the time to pour over research articles and purchase a $50 book on Amazon, here’s the Cliff’s Notes on reading your baby’s cues:

1. Be emotionally congruent.
Happy :: happy. Sad :: sad. Distress :: distress. One of the predictors of insecure attachment when researchers coded the videos of moms and babies interacting was a response from mom that was not the same as the babies expression of feelings. For example, if baby shows distress, and mom responds with mock surprise, smiles, looking away, or having a blank, unresponsive face. In other words, even newborns want to feel felt. Baby is looking to see whether you get it. When we reflect back the distress with a sad face of our own, baby no longer feels alone. Think of it this way: you tell your partner you’re having a terrible day and your stomach hurts, and your husband or partner smiles or looks away. That feels lonely, perhaps even uncaring. Often when we experience another person’s sadness, fear, or other negative emotion, we want to make it better by cheering them up with jokes or minimizing the size of the problem. What’s actually more helpful is to be with someone in their pain, no matter how small.

Want to see a little more on what happens when a caregiver gives a blank, unresponsive face to a baby? Check out the Still Faced Experiment from Harvard University.

If you mirror body posture and facial expressions and match vocal tone, cadence/pace, and sounds, baby’s brain will hear and see the sameness! Mirroring and matching are two basic techniques for saying, “I see you. I am here.”

2. But don’t loom.
Looming happens when we are in someone’s personal space (read “overly enthusiastic”). For babies, it’s when adults are super close to the face in an intrusive way, and it’s overwhelming. Babies aren’t able to say, “Excuse me, but I’m feeling a little too close for comfort… would you mind please backing up a tad?”

How do you know if baby feels overwhelmed? She’ll look to the side, or she’ll put her hands up in front of her face. Her bottom lip may tuck inwards, then she may look downwards. She may tuck her chin and start to vocalize distress. We all need space sometimes, so learning these cues will help you wire into your infant that you respect her boundaries. This matters because, later in life, she’ll know that she is worthy of boundaries and respect when she has relationships with friends and romantic partners of her own.

3. Remember that communication with anyone, at any age, is a dance.
The goal is to tune in to one another, the way an orchestra tunes to play music. Sometimes you will be perfectly attuned to your kids. Sometimes you will need someone to attune to your own needs, and you will not be able to hear or see your baby’s needs. Don’t heap on the Mommy Guilt. Do the best you can, and remember that relationships are a series of dissonances and resolutions, like a beautiful song. When we miss baby’s cues, we teach him that even though parents make mistakes or don’t always get it, there can be a repair in the broken relationship.

Vanessa Knight has been a part of the Kansas City community for 11 years (a native Texan), living in the Overland Park area with husband Josh, two children (Sophie is 6, Jude is 5), and three Labradors. A clinical marriage and family counselor serving the area, Vanessa works with those who hurt from life experiences, relationships or trauma, helping both individuals and families to love (www.securecounselingclinic.com). When she's not working, Vanessa's favorite stay-at-home things are Sequence, puzzles, picnics on the Nelson-Atkins Museum lawn, messy art projects, and trampoline jumping!