This is a guest post by Danielle Hand, a Ph.D. candidate in Clinical Psychology.
Most people talk about and discuss the physical and biological process of birth. Kids wonder how they came into this world, and in early childhood, they might wonder what happened before their birth. Although it is common for caregivers to discuss with their children the “birds and the bees” or how “babies are made,” the conversation about the relationship between primary caregiver and child is not such a popular one. Due to the significance of the caregiver-child relationship, investing time in the emotional development of the child through attending to the relationship between child and primary caregiver will benefit the child’s future relationships.
Following the birthing process, early skin-to-skin contact with the primary caregiver eases the child’s transition into the world and helps bonding to occur. The baby’s feeling of safety is dependent upon closeness with a primary caregiver who is safe. During this time, caregiver and baby become attuned to one another, connected by emotional, often non-verbal contact. Fairbairn, a psychoanalytic thinker and clinician, distinguished life inside and outside of the womb for the baby.
According to Fairbairn, the baby is completely merged with the womb prior to birth and unable to fathom any other kind of reality. The baby’s inability to conceive a state other than a total merger with this body makes the transition into the outside world very difficult and scary. If you can, imagine with me the experience of birth. For as long as you’ve been alive, you have lived in a warm, safe, contained environment with no need to communicate. Suddenly, you enter a cold, bright room with lots of faces smiling, crying, and laughing. You have no sense of what’s going on, and the only person who feels familiar is the one who has been carrying you with her everywhere. You have heard her voice, felt her movements, and tasted her food. Intimate contact with a safe other is essential following entry into the world because, for nine months, you have been completely dependent on an individual body providing all nutrients and life.
Giving birth and providing care for a child are not mutually exclusive, as many children are born to a surrogate mother or given up for adoption immediately after birth. In the case where a primary caregiver is not the one who birthed the child (e.g., father, grandparent, adoptive parent, aunt, uncle, etc…), attunement with the child is possible and essential. The process of attunement looks very similar in these situations, except for some biological differences.
The body produces a pleasure-producing hormone called oxytocin during birth. Following birth, production of this hormone continues through breastfeeding and physical touch. Caregivers can experience this hormone through physical touch with the baby, which is part of the process of attunement. Since the baby cannot speak at the beginning of life, the caregiver learns to detect his or her needs through different sounds, body postures, movements, eye contact, and laughter. The baby also learns to detect how the caregiver is feeling through some of the same non-verbal communication. This mutual process is essentially attunement.
I remember spending an evening with Millason and Baby J after a day that felt particularly difficult to me. I walked into the house and saw J sitting in the middle of the kitchen floor in her foam chair, covered in watermelon, as M prepared dinner and talked on the phone. As I looked at both of them, I felt at ease because I knew Millason was comfortable with J’s mess, and that Baby J sensed her mother’s physical and emotional presence even while she was on the phone. Misattunement might have occurred if the caregiver saw the baby’s mess and anxiously started cleaning the watermelon from her face and the chair, or if the baby began to cry when her mother left the room for a few minutes.
Attunement occurs through emotional mirroring between caregiver and baby. When the baby smiles, the caregiver smiles, and when the baby cries, the caregiver shows sadness on his or her face for the child. In similar fashion, if the caregiver gets in a heated conversation or feels upset, the baby knows, and also feels upset. Attunement happens in positive and negative emotional situations, and what follows is important. Conversations are important to work through negative emotional situations in order to help the child understand what caused the caregiver to feel anxious. If the child understands, he or she still feels safe.
Even caregivers who work hard to understand their children will sometimes experience moments of misattunement when they don’t understand why their baby is crying or how to soothe him or her. Attunement is mostly about getting to know your child. Just like in any relationship, it happens by watching his or her gestures and movements; noticing the things that he or she does and does not like, and finding patterns between the need and the behavior. How is he or she communicating the need or the want? What happens after the smile, laugh, or cry, and how can you use this to know your child more deeply and intimately?
Attunement is about knowing the ins and outs of your child, and showing your child that he or she is safe. This occurs through communication, mirroring of the baby’s emotions and actions, and conversation, whether in easy or difficult situations. It is important to understand the differences between misattunement and attuning through negative emotions. Misattunement is when the mother and baby are missing one another’s nonverbal signals, and attunement in a difficult situation is when both mother and baby are expressing negative emotions. The expression of negative emotions can be worked through in order to reach attunement and understanding, whereas misattunement carries a flavor of chaos and inconsistency between mother and baby.
For caregivers who feel misattuned with their babies, here are some steps that can help you attune to your baby’s needs and desires:
1) Notice how your baby cries, and how he or she is soothed.
2) If you find yourself in the midst of a heated debate or argument in the presence of your child, notice how he or she responds. If you are expressing anxiety or anger, your baby will likely sense this and begin to cry. If this happens, make him or her feel safe through your reassuring words and tone of voice.
3) If your baby expresses sadness, anger, or happiness, try and reflect back this facial expression to him or her. By doing this, the baby is reassured that you see him or her and acknowledge the internal feeling.
4) Engage in moments of laughter and play with your child. Allow him or her to see that having fun and enjoying the present moment are important to healthy living.
5) Talk about your feelings with your child. By doing this, you are acknowledging what your child can see on your face. You cannot hide from your child. Embrace your authentic experience and talk about it with your child, because this will make it okay for your child to talk about emotional experiences in the future.
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Danielle is a student at Fuller Theological Seminary, pursuing her Ph.D. in clinical psychology. She has interests in understanding the early bond between caregiver and child and the impact of this on adult well-being and relationships. When not otherwise occupied with research, clinical work, and classes, Danielle enjoys reading classic fiction, psychoanalytic literature, and engaging in meaningful conversations with friends.
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