As it turns out, babies are hardwired to love you! And there's plenty you can do to help that parent-child bond grow in the beginning stages of early childhood development. Experts share what you can do to help your baby learn to love earlier—and develop a stronger bond with you.
Throughout my first pregnancy, I dreamed of the moment I’d welcome my newborn. We’d cuddle and look into each other’s eyes adoringly, just like in the diaper commercials. And when my daughter finally arrived, that’s exactly what happened—on my end. I gazed at her lovingly, but she gave me a blank stare, showing me about as much affection as if she were a strange cat I’d bumped into on the sidewalk. I had to laugh. Why had I expected more?
Babies and parents share the sweetest relationship, but it isn’t instantaneous. It takes time for the relationship to flourish, deepening through little interactions that build closeness. How does your baby’s love grow? We asked experts to share their insights, plus offer advice about what you can do to help things along.
All Set to Attach
Your little one may not seem smitten with you at first sight, but he’s built to feel close to you. “Babies are hard-wired to attach to their parents, or to one or two primary caregivers who are reliable,” says Rahill Briggs, founder of pediatric behavioral health services at Montefiore Medical Group in the Bronx and national director of HealthySteps, a program aimed at ensuring babies and toddlers have nurturing care. Scientifically, it makes sense: Your baby seeks a close tie to a caring adult or two because it’s essential for her survival.
And if you happen to be your baby’s biological mom, you’ve got a head start on being his true love. That’s because he already recognizes you on a couple of very fundamental levels, says Erica Komisar, LCSW, author of Being There: Why Prioritizing Motherhood in the First Three Years Matters. “Babies can hear your voice in utero, and so they recognize your voice [after birth], and they can recognize your smell,” she says. “And once they connect with you [or dad, if he’s the primary caregiver], and they make contact with your eyes, it’s only your eyes that they seek.”
Feeding the Feelings
One of the best ways to build attachment and affection in your baby is through doing something that already comes naturally: feeding her. As you hold your little one and look deeply into each other’s eyes while she nurses or drinks from a bottle, it sparks serious chemistry, literally, sending a lovey-dovey hormone called oxytocin flowing through both your bodies. “That hormone is critical,” Komisar says. Created in the right side of the brain, oxytocin especially surges in your baby when you hold him on your left side. He uses his left-side visual field then, which actually is wired, crisscross fashion, to his right brain. (This also makes it a great idea to cradle your baby on your left side whenever you can.)
Of course, this loving eyeful only happens if you’re actually focused on your baby during feeding sessions. Komisar warns against letting your attention wander too often to the TV or your favorite tech tools. When you focus on a screen instead of your child, “you’re basically not doing what nature intended…the fact that we’ve manipulated the situation now to look at phones and iPads [while feeding] is very strange,” she says. And if you aren’t breast-feeding, Komisar suggests taking off your shirt for feeding anyway, when possible, since skin-to-skin contact is another cue for your and your baby’s bodies to produce oxytocin.
Needy but Nice
Attending to your baby’s other needs, namely for diaper changes and bathing, is another great way to build attachment. “Human babies so desperately need caregivers to love them, and to be reliable and consistent and empathetic,” Briggs says. “Babies are then just built to return that affection, as long as it’s a secure attachment relationship, and the primary caregiver has been relating in a way that’s reliable and empathetic and consistent and warm.” This doesn’t mean that you must slavishly attend to your baby’s every whimper: “We know that actually babies don’t want that,” says Briggs. “They want some downtime and they seem to need some resting time. But being reliably empathic and pretty consistent means that when your baby lets out a really big cry, the one that means ‘I am so starving and my diaper is wet,’ that you respond.”
The empathy aspect is major, Briggs adds. “By that, we mean that what a parent does in response to her baby is related to what the baby did.” So try to mirror your baby’s emotions; if she’s crying, make a sad face and say, “Aw, sweetie, I know you’re tired!” rather than rolling your eyes or trying hard to cheer her up. She’ll sense that you really ‘get’ her—and don’t you feel closest to the people who really get you?
Talking the Talk
Speaking of, well, speaking, it’s super-important to talk or vocalize to your baby. He’s heard your voice since before birth, and gets all warm and fuzzy-feeling at its comforting tones. So do you; it’s the third cue to the brain to produce oxytocin. And you don’t always have to use words; cooing, singing, and making other affectionate sounds all create that baby-mommy love.
When you speak to your child, Komisar recommends using “Motherese,” the high-pitched, sing-songy tones people so often use in addressing babies. “It’s a very healthy thing,” she says. “It has something to do with the intonations…it tends to grow the right brain of the baby.” In fact, she says, one sign that a mother may have postpartum depression is if she refuses to speak in Motherese, and instead only addresses her baby in flat, adult-sounding tones.
Little Signs of Love
Of course, having shown your baby love without bounds, you’d like at least a little reassurance that it’s a two-way street. How can you tell whether or not she’s as into you as you are into her? At the beginning, the signs may be subtle—she may seek out your gaze or even imitate some of your expressions. And then, by around 2 or 3 months of age (or even sooner), you’ll see more definite proof: She’ll smile at you.
In fact, Komisar believes that early smiles are more than just the gas pains they’re commonly chalked up to: “Babies have emotions from the very beginning,” she says. “You can see from the very start a kind of joyful connection between mothers and babies. The idea is that from the earliest moments, a baby can smile at a mother and resonate with a mother, and a mother can resonate with a baby.” Whenever you do see that smile, it’s bound to spur your own affection: “For a parent who’s just been through those first two months of a newborn and is barely sort of hanging on, that social smile can be like the key to keep going,” Briggs says.
Around 8 months of age, your baby’s behavior may abruptly change. Try to let your neighbor hold him, and he’ll fuss and reach back to you instead. This is the start of what’s known as stranger anxiety. “You’ll be like, ‘Where did that baby go that I used to be able to pass off to anybody in my office?’” Briggs says. This phenomenon peaks at around 15 months, then begins to fade out by 18 months. The flip side of this fear of unfamiliar people is love for immediate family: Clearly, your baby feels you and your partner are his ‘special people,’ and draws a line between you and the rest of the adults out there.
At the same time, your child may start showing affection for her most special friends. It’s wonderful to watch her face light up when you bump into a pal from the park, or when your sitter shows up at your doorstep after a weekend away. Overjoyed facial expressions may be accompanied by happy-sounding vocalizations or generalized, delighted wiggliness. Either way, there’s no doubt your child now has a group that she considers her posse.
Strangers aren’t the only things that will spook your baby as he nears his first birthday. Other scary-seeming things may set him off now too, like the loud siren of a passing fire engine or the sight of a large dog as you’re walking down the street. His reaction? He’ll look for you, or cry and reach out to you.
This, too, is a form of showing love. “There could be alternative attachment figures around, such as aunts and grandmothers, but when the baby is in distress, he’ll reach back for the mother,” Komisar says. “So you know that if your baby reaches back for you or looks for you when she’s in distress that she needs you, loves you, and is calling for you. It’s your eyes and your smell that he’s seeking.”
Smooches and Swag
By the time your baby celebrates her first birthday, you may see some of the classic signs of love—she’ll come in for a great big hug with those deliciously chubby little arms, or lean on in and plant a wet one on you (or even on grandma or grandpa, if nicely asked).
And, as he starts walking and nears his second birthday, you may find yourself on the receiving end of more than just an embrace. Take your baby to a park, and she just may pick a flower and bring it to you. “It’s hard to know whether it’s a present of love or whether it’s just saying ‘Hey, look at this really pretty thing I found and let’s talk about it,’” Briggs says. Of course, if you’re like most parents, you’ll see it as a gift—why not? It’s just one of many signs that the baby you love so much is growing up to be a loving human being.
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