Babies are born ready and eager to connect with other people and their surroundings. Their brains are ‘hard-wired’ to quickly learn about family, community and culture, and in the first three years of life, the brain grows to 90 per cent of its adult size. During these early formative years, there are many simple things parents and caregivers can do to foster healthy growth and development, including their social and emotional wellbeing. Here are five of the most important:
Take care of yourself
Caring for a baby can be exhausting so it’s important to take regular breaks to recharge your own batteries by doing something that gives you relaxation and joy. Spending half an hour with a cup of tea and a book may be more important than getting the washing done! It’s important to connect with your partner – maybe over dinner or breakfast with TV and phones off – to keep your relationship strong. And you’ll need family time, when both of you (as well as any siblings) can enjoy your baby together. Ask for help from family and friends, to allow you to create a space to stay healthy and happy. Taking good care of yourself will help you to have the energy to meet your baby’s needs.
Communication is key
Learning how your new baby communicates can be tricky for parents and caregivers. Because babies can’t talk, their ways of communicating are either very subtle (fleeting facial expressions, turning their head to look at you) or very loud and obvious! Your baby’s cries are their way of communicating that they are hungry or tired, need a nappy change, feel too cold or too hot. Sometimes your baby cries because they feel unsure about their environment and need to be held close to feel safe again.
Your response, when your baby communicates, teaches them that they are valuable and important as a person. Give lots of love and attention, especially if baby is sick, hurt or upset. Build trust by talking in a gentle tone, returning baby’s gaze, communicating through touch, and commenting on things baby is looking at. At around two months, baby’s communication will expand to include smiles, cooing, mouthing bubbles, and more direct eye contact. You can sing, smile and laugh together. When you name your baby’s feelings, they begin to learn language for expressing emotions.
A little routine goes a long way
Babies thrive on routine. As they build up ideas about what will happen next, they feel more secure and confident about the world around them. Of course, unexpected things will always happen in life but if a daily pattern is fairly predictable (with regular times for meals, play, bath, sleep), baby will find it easier to adjust to changes like new people, outings or unusual weather.
Play is the work of childhood
Children learn through play. Very young babies “play” by looking around them, gazing into their parent’s eyes, and exploring their own facial expressions. As they grow they begin to touch, suck their fingers or fists, pick up objects, pull and push things, reach out, kick and use their bodies to become more mobile. As baby begins to explore their surroundings and show interest in particular things, you can help them develop knowledge and skills by following along, naming objects for them, and talking about what they’re doing. Following your baby’s lead helps them develop a sense of control and master new skills (like picking up a toy). When you share your baby’s curiosity, you foster their love of learning.
Our earliest experiences of being in a relationship, cared for by another person, shape the ‘mental template’ we use in later relationships. While it’s not possible to be physically or emotionally present one hundred per cent of the time, it’s important to keep baby’s social and emotional wellbeing in mind. Being responsive to your baby’s needs will help them feel safe and secure so they can explore, learn and grow.
Keep calm and carry on
We all get stressed at times. Sometimes we’re over-ambitious about what can be done in a day with a baby! Babies are like little sponges – they will soak up information from you and copy your movements, emotions and actions. A baby has to learn to regulate his or her emotions – they can’t do this when they are very small, and they need your help. Staying calm and managing your own feelings eventually helps baby learn to manage their own.
There are lots of ways to practise calmness, from taking deep breaths to stretching or doing yoga moves. Have fun together at a baby music class, or in the local library at a story time session. Or just spend quiet time with baby – maybe having a chat and exploring toys with different textures.
If you find that stress or difficult situations are affecting your relationship with your baby, seek the support of your partner, family, a friend or someone you trust. Or talk to your midwife, doctor, child health nurse or another professional.