A parent’s level of sensitivity to baby’s signals can be an important predictor of healthy infant-parent attachment.
Every new mama’s been there: Your baby’s crying and you’re not sure why. Nothing you do works. They don’t want a bottle. They don’t want to go to sleep. They don’t need a new diaper. You think to yourself, “Maybe I need to be a mind-reader to figure out what this kid wants.”
As time goes on the baby gets bigger, you get wiser and reading those cues comes more naturally. These aren’t psychic abilities you developed—it’s a finely tuned sense for reading your baby’s signals. (At least much more often.)
Now, research shows this doesn’t just help calm them in the short-term. Your sensitivity to your baby’s signals also affects their development and the bond you’ll share for years to come.
“You are creating a solid foundation for neural growth and development. If your baby is happy and feels the connection between you, this will likely improve how you feel,” Viven Sabel, a UK-based registered clinician and parent-infant psychotherapist, tells Motherly.
According to a new study published in Psychological Bulletin, a parent’s level of sensitivity to their baby’s signals can be an important predictor of healthy infant-parent attachment. In particular, researchers from the University of Amsterdam (UvA) discovered that infants will form secure attachments with parents who can read their wants and needs—otherwise known as mentalization—frequently and accurately.
“A mentalizing parent sees which toy the baby prefers or whether a baby becomes overstimulated because of a game like hide and seek, or when a baby is inquisitive about a cat walking past,” says study author Moniek Zeegers, PhD, a researcher at UvA’s department of Child Development and Education.
While today, this may look like knowing which toy your baby prefers, many more benefits can be seen in years to come: Research shows that babies who have strong bonds with their primary caregivers are healthier and happier later on in life.
A 2017 study published in Psychological Science also found securely-attached infants are more likely to perform better in school in their teen years compared to babies who’ve formed insecure attachments.
“Children who feel securely attached are, among other things, better at regulating their emotions, have higher self-esteem and exhibit less emotional and behavioral problems,” Zeegers says.
Zeegers adds “every” parent misreads cues from time to time, which may be due to parental stress, overestimating a baby’s skill set or difficulty believing a baby has negative feelings. New parents may also have trouble reading their baby’s cues because of baby blues, postnatal mood changes, birth trauma and feeling overwhelmed, Sabel tells Motherly.
Rest assured: This is totally natural.
“Some babies are not very good at signaling their own needs,” Shanna Donhauser, a Seattle-based child and family therapist, tells Motherly. “A baby may signal that they feel hungry when they actually feel tired. The ensuring frustration on baby’s part is, primarily, due to the confusing cue.”
Donhauser explains that some new parents may miss their infant’s subtle earlier cues, such as suckling to signify hunger. If you miss your baby’s suckling cue, she says, then they will progress to a small cry. And if you miss that small cry, then your little one will begin to wail.
“When the wailing doesn’t work, she must use a more desperate, loud cry,” Donhauser continues. “When early cues are missed, babies escalate. And if new parents are distracted or engaged in a different task, they might miss the early signal and therefore end up confused about the underlying need.”
So how do you become better at interpreting your baby’s thoughts and feelings more often? Donhauser says to observe your little one carefully and approach them “with curiosity.”
“Many new parents approach parenthood with the mindset that they must know everything about taking care of their baby,” Donhauser tells Motherly. “But we can’t know everything, so those parents are set up to fail. If you approach your baby as a partner in communication, you can curiously attend to a signal knowing that your curiosity will help you find the answer.”
If your infant is deaf or has any hearing loss, then they may rely on non-verbal cues to express their wants and feelings. According to Sabel, those signals may include poking out their tongue and other tongue movements, eye gaze, head shaking, taut tummies, clenched fists, different head and body positioning, darkening of the skin beneath the eyebrows and changes in breath smell.
Sabel says parents should try to observe, then mirror, your little one’s non-verbal signals. So for example, if your baby is sticking out their tongue, poke your tongue back at them, she says. It will let them know you understand they are communicating with you, and that you are communicating back.
“They will initially respond with some curiosity and then soon they will engage you in their language,” Sabel tells Motherly. “They will feel seen, heard and connected with.”
In extreme cases, the researchers suggest family therapy. Some situations that may require counseling include feeling overwhelmed, are struggling with initial conditions such as partner conflict, traumatic pregnancy or birth, or having difficulty bonding, Donhauser says.
By attending therapy focused on secure infant-attachment, parents may be able to change their behavior and have a better awareness and understanding of their baby’s needs, the experts say. Counseling can also help you strengthen your bond with your baby, as well as yourself, and promote healthy emotional and mental growth.
You can also give it some time, mama. You and baby are learning together.
“Being a parent and giving birth to an infant can be difficult and sometimes traumatic,” Sabel tells Motherly. “Give yourself some time to understand and connect.”