“There is no such thing as a baby,” said Donald Winnicott, mid-century child development scholar. While his statement might seem counter-intuitive to adults, it is reflective of the experiences of the child.
An infant is cognitively and physically unaware of himself as separate from his environment. As infant teachers know, when one baby cries, they all cry.
A baby is his environment.
A baby is his adults.
During babyhood, basic survival, development, and cognitive capacities are all linked directly to adults. Infants learn about themselves and their world by how adults respond.
“If I cry: what happens?”
“When I smile: what happens?”
“When my diaper is uncomfortable: what happens?”
Babies’ development depends adults who:
- Respond with consistent, sensitive, and reliable care.
- Place babies’ needs as most important.
- Guide and support development as it unfolds.
- Manage life’s daily ups and downs.
This is true of the babies. And, it is true of each of us as babies.
We carry forward the lessons we learned from our high chairs. How our parents responded to our cries, our successes, and to our needs helped us learn about ourselves and about what we could expect from others.
These early lessons carry forward into our adult lives and relationships. Our sense of confidence, trust, and beliefs about relationships connects to experiences that occurred before we were able to talk or knowingly remember.
Psychologist and attachment theory pioneer John Bowlby formed the theory of attachment. He focused on parent-child relationships when children were between the ages of 6 months and two-years. He maintained that attachment is an integral part of human nature from cradle to grave.
Numerous attachment research studies show that a sensitive, responsive and consistent parent-child relationship helps the child build a sense of self that includes self-worth, empathy, and empowerment. The parent-child attachment relationships that are secure and sensitive enable children to express empathy and carry forward a model of supportive and trusting relationships for the future.
As infants, children learn that when one person is in need, another person responds with kindness and sensitivity. Preschool children with secure attachment relationships are more likely to show empathy for a hurt playmate by expressing concern and getting a teacher to help.
A secure, flexible and trusting relationship with at least one caring adult is the single most important predictor of a child’s academic and social competence. Elementary children with secure attachments achieve higher math scores than those who do not have a secure attachment. It is not that loving relationships make children smarter; rather, these relationships build a child’s self-confidence, communication skills and ability to ask for help.
Learning—and life—is easier when you have these tools in your toolbox.
And, when it comes to friendships and romantic partnerships, we seek out relationships that mirror the qualities of our earliest relationships. Research shows that teens who had secure attachment relationships with their parents, see themselves as socially competent, trusting, expressive and able to be assertive in dating and forming friendships. They are more responsive and empathic.
Researchers of romantic relationships find similarities between successful couples and early patterns of secure parent-infant attachment relationships. Successful romantic relationships are when both partners:
- Feel safe when the other is nearby and responsive.
- Engage in close, intimate, body contact.
- Share discoveries with one another.
- Play with one another’s facial features.
- Exhibit a mutual fascination with one another.
- Engage in “baby talk.”
So what if some of us did not begin life with consistent, sensitive and responsive attachment relationships?
The good news is that responsive and consistent parenting and adult relationships can be learned. For those of us, whose own experiences of being parented were less than stellar, we can learn to become aware of our pasts. With honesty and commitment, we can build emotional awareness of the consequences of these experiences in our lives.
Through therapy and other awareness practices, we can begin to develop a clearer understanding of what it means to be in relationships in which another makes us feel happy, secure, confident and supported. We are then better prepared to create stable, responsive, and supportive relationships with our children that break the cycle of insecurity and uncertainty.
The babies within us, as well as, our own babies deserve responsive, sensitive, predictable love and care.