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It’s science: Being sensitive to your baby’s cues leads to a more secure attachment

A parent’s level of sensitivity to baby’s signals can be an important predictor of healthy infant-parent attachment. 

It’s science: Being sensitive to your baby’s cues leads to a more secure attachment
?:: Karen Lao 

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.”

This 'mama' necklace is a bestseller for a powerful reason

There's a lot going on in the world right now, but one thing that's certain? You're still mama.

There's a lot going on in the world right now, but one thing that's certain? You're still mama. No matter what is going on at work, what decision you make about heading back to school, or how you're caring for your family right now, we know you're the best mama for your family.

So in case you need a little reminder of just how incredible you are, we love this sweet necklace from Tiny Tags. And other mamas do, too, because it's been one of our top sellers for weeks.

Whether you're coveting it for yourself or want to gift it to your favorite mama, it's one of those gifts that'll keep on giving years later. It's dainty enough to easily layer with just about anything you have in your jewelry collection, but is just as beautiful as a standalone piece to wear daily. And in these tough seasons, it's honestly a gentle, much-needed reminder that you were made for this. You can do hard things. You are doing the best you can even when it feels like you can't make one more decision.

Tiny Tags script 'mama' necklace

tiny tags mama necklace

The charm is 1/2" long and the chain is 16", falling just above most mama's collarbones. All Tiny Tags personalized jewelry is laser engraved by highly skilled artisans to make the most elegant pieces.

$105

And, don't worry, it's totally low-maintenance. Simply polish with a polishing cloth every now and then for extra shine. Now to decide: gold or silver?

We independently select and share the products we love—and may receive a commission if you choose to buy. You've got this.

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14 sweet 'just thinking of you' gifts for every mama

A sweet surprise that tells her you've been thinking of her might be the pick-me-up she needs.

Who says you have to wait for birthdays or holidays to give your bestie a great gift? A sweet surprise that tells her you've been thinking of her might be the pick-me-up she needs in these more-than-trying times. We've rounded up some of our favorite go-to gifts that are certain to be a bright spot in her week. But be warned, you may want to snag a few for yourself. (You deserve it, mama.)

Here are some our favorite "just because" gifts to give our hardworking mama friends.

New Mother face + body care duo

volition face + body care duo

This correcting oil and stretch mark minimizer is perfect for the pregnant mama looking to keep her pregnancy glow. The correcting oil brightens the skin while reducing dark spots, and the stretch mark minimizer works to smooth her ever-growing belly.

$70

Allover roller

esker allover roller

This jade roller goes beyond your typical face roller and can be used anywhere on the body. It works to increase stimulation and reduce puffiness and is perfect for applying any oils to the face or body. Plus, it feels like a mini spa treatment.

$65

Kombucha making kit

farmsteady kombucha making kit

What could be a more perfect gift for the health-obsessed friend? This kombucha making kit comes with everything you need to brew your own homemade green tea kombucha. They'll think this is the tastiest gift ever.

$45

Laetitia lipstick

cupid & psyche laetitia

This red lipstick is perfect for your makeup enthusiast bestie who is looking to spruce up her life in quarantine. Crafted in the United States, these bee and vegan-friendly and cruelty-free lipsticks are created to flatter all complexions. Cupid and Psyche Beauty makes finding the perfect red lip way too easy!

$23

Jigsaw puzzle

inner piecec jigsaw puzzle

Mamas need to destress now more than ever during quarantine. This adorable jigsaw puzzle is perfect for the mama who needs a brain break! The 500-piece puzzle designed by artist Ray Oranges features an abstract gradient design that fits a standard frame when completed. Bonus: It's printed on recycled paper and the company donates $1 from every puzzle sold to youth mindfulness programs.

$30

Matilda's Bloombox

matilda's bloombox

If we have to be stuck inside, we might as well have some gorgeous florals to brighten up the space. Matilda's Bloombox locally sources blooms, delivers them to her door and provides simple tips on how to arrange it into a beautiful bouquet.

$39

'I Am Enough' bracelet

I Am Enough bracelet

Let this dainty bracelet serve as a constant reminder to your bestie that she is enough. She'll wear this on her wrist and read this daily oath to herself, "I Am Enough."

$35

Glow assorted teas

vahdam low assorted teas

This tea gift box set covers the entire spectrum of flavors from sweet to spicy. Individually packaged in beautiful tins, your gal pal will feel like a queen sipping her morning tea. Originally $40, this set is currently on sale for just $24. We'll take two, please.

$24

Find your voice journal

find your voice journal

Journaling is a great way to ease anxiety and will slow your bestie's racing mind before bed. This gift is perfect for first time journalists and includes prompts, daily quotes and coloring pages to help her unlock her potential and find her voice.

$22

Premium frother

shore magic premium frother

This gift is fitting for your latte-sipping bestie who can't go a day without her coffee. All she has to do is add two scoops of collagen to her favorite drink, and she'll have a perfectly foamy drink ready in seconds. Skipping the drive-thru line has never been so easy!

$25

Bath soak infusion kit

maude bath soak infusion kit

Say hello to hydration! She'll be feeling smooth and relaxed as ever after a long bath soaking in these salts. This vegan + cruelty-free set incorporates dead sea salt and dehydrated coconut milk powder for an ultra hydrating experience.

$32

Tiny Tags 'mama' necklace

Tiny Tags 'mama' necklace

It's a hard-earned title she answers to a hundred times per day. Whether she's new to the club or a seasoned professional, this delicate script 'mama' necklace is guaranteed to be a perfect fit.

$105

Superfood honey

Beekeeper's Naturals B.Powered honey

With a lack of sleep and jam-packed days, getting through the afternoon can be a real challenge. Send her a powerful pick-me-up in the form of a therapeutic blend of royal jelly, bee pollen, propolis and raw honey. It makes the ideal companion for tea, smoothies, yogurt or even on its on.

$17

Calming midnight mask with melatonin

Who doesn't deserve a reminder to pamper themself every once in awhile? Even better, this mask does all its work at night while you're sleeping with no extra effort needed. It's an amazing plant-powered antioxidant-packed mask that has melatonin, wild dandelion leaf and hyaluronic acid to rehydrate, repair and reset facial skin. It's so good, you might want to gift it to yourself. We won't tell, mama.

$68

We independently select and share the products we love—and may receive a commission if you choose to buy. You've got this.

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Two weeks. I cannot believe that it has been two weeks since my second son was brought into this world. Two weeks since my husband and I welcomed baby Simon, the final piece of our little family.

But, here is the whopper: It has been two weeks since I have been the mom of a toddler and a newborn. I am now responsible for taking care of two tiny humans.

It absolutely blows my mind how much my life has changed in the last two weeks. It's definitely not all rainbows and unicorns around here, but things are going pretty well. This is me being cautiously optimistic.

What I have done is learned a lot about myself, my kids and my new life in the last two weeks.

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