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

Who said motherhood doesn't come with a manual?

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They say there's no use in crying over it, but for pumping mamas, spilled milk is a major upset.

When you're working so hard to make sure your baby has breast milk, you don't want to lose a drop, and Chrissy Teigen knows this all too well.

The mom of two posted a video to social media Wednesday showing her efforts to rescue breastmilk from a tabletop. She used various utensils and a syringe to try to get the milk back in the bottle.

"I spilled my breastmilk and this is how important it is in this house," she says while suctioning up milk with what appears to be a baster.

In a follow-up video Teigen continues to try to rescue the spilled milk.

"We're trying," she says as she suctions up a drop or two. "I got some."

Teigen is currently breastfeeding baby Miles, her son with husband John Legend, and has been very public about the fact that she pumps a lot as a working mom.

She's also been open about the fact that milk supply has always been an issue for her, not just with Miles but with Luna, too.

"I actually loved [pumping] because I'm a collector of things, and so when I found out I could pump I [did it] so much because I knew the more you pumped, the more milk you'd make," she told POPSUGAR back in March. "So I loved collecting my breast milk and seeing how much I could get, even if it was very, very little."

Like a lot of moms, Teigen did struggle emotionally when a pump session wouldn't get her the ounces she wanted.

"I wasn't producing a lot of milk, and it was frustrating. When you're frustrated, [it can also make you] not produce that much."

Research backs her up. Stress has been linked to lower milk production. Because of that, she's trying to stay positive this time around, but captioned her video post "EVERY DROP COUNTS IN THIS HOUSE" because, well, they do.


So many mothers can relate. Have you ever tried to save your breastmilk?

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Former Bachelorette and mom of two Ali Fedotowsky is on a roll when it comes to starting conversations about why we mamas should love our bodies (and we love her for it).

Earlier this week Fedotowsky posted a series of photos showing her postpartum belly, loose skin and all. It was a vulnerable post, but a really valuable one in a world where images of celebrity postpartum bodies often don't reflect the ones we see in the mirror.

"I know it's important to be open and honest about my postpartum body in hopes that it helps even one person out there who is struggling with their own body image," Fedotowsky captioned the photos.

It seems like that post is helping, because, as Fedotowsky noted in her next Instagram post, her honest belly pics were met with an outpouring of love and support.

"I had no idea how many women needed to see that post," she wrote, noting that the reaction to those photos inspired her to write a blog post featuring her favorite breastfeeding-friendly clothing, because she's celebrating and loving her postpartum body for what it did and continues to do for her baby, not just what it looks like.

"Yes, I may have extra fat and loose skin around my belly, but that same body nourishes and comforts my child. Just another reason to love every inch of my body and how it has changed."

Fedotowsky gave birth in May, so she's only a couple months postpartum and it's not surprising that she's still carrying a little extra weight. Research indicates that about 20% of moms are carrying about 11 pounds extra 6 to 18 months after giving birth. And while weight loss is often cited as a reason for women to breastfeed, studies show that breastfeeding doesn't lead to substantial weight loss for everyone, and in fact only has a small effect on postpartum weight loss typically.

So moms like Fedotowsky should absolutely love the bodies that are feeding their babies, and we love how Fedotowsky is encouraging that.

Pregnancy changes our bodies. But they are still so beautiful.

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Nicole Hughes lost her 3-year-old son, Levi, on June 10, 2018. As she points out in an emotional essay she wrote for Scary Mommy, drowning is the leading cause of death in children ages 1 to 4 and the second leading cause in ages 1 to 14.

And it can happen in less than a minute. In the majority of child drownings, the child wasn't expected to be swimming at the time. That was the case for Hughes, who doesn't know what prompted Levi to venture outside to the pool, alone, as she was cleaning up after dinner. It happened so fast.

"I was the one who found him, face down, in the deep end. Just moments before this horrific discovery, I split a brownie with him. I still had the other half of the brownie in my mouth when I jumped into the pool to grab my son. Mere moments, seconds," Hughes writes.

Her pain is unimaginable, but in the days and weeks after Levi's death, Hughes began to ask a very important question: "Why did I not know that drowning is the leading cause of death?"

In every photo she has of Levi on that last day of the family's beach vacation he is wearing a lifejacket, and Hughes says the family took water safety very seriously. But she wonders how, as a mother on her third journey through parenting a preschooler, she had never heard that 69% of kids who drown were not meant to be swimming when they did?

"But why did I not know about the dangers of drowning during NON-SWIMMING times? How did I not know it took less than one minute?" she writes.

Now, Hughes is on a mission. She's created a non-profit called Levi's Legacy to ensure other parents know what she didn't: That a child can drown when we think they're inside eating a brownie, and that it happens so fast.

"I don't want this role of water-safety advocate. I want 30 seconds back on June 10. But I am determined to share these facts I so desperately wish I had known," she writes.

Hughes is asking the American Academy of Pediatrics to step up efforts to educate parents about drowning prevention, and feels that current resources on the AAP website fail to address the issue with the urgency it deserves.

Way back in the mid-90s the AAP noted that "although drowning is the second leading cause of death by unintentional injury in the pediatric population (aged 0 to 19 years), most pediatricians do not routinely provide information to their patients, or to their patients' parents, on drowning prevention," and suggested that if "the prevention of drowning is made a priority in pediatric practice, many more children's lives will be saved."

Hughes agrees, but says the AAP hasn't been doing enough.

So Hughes and other mothers are working to help spread the message they wish they had heard. Morgan Beck Miller, wife of Olympian Bode Miller, also lost a child to drowning recently. Her 19-month-old daughter, Emeline, drowned in a backyard pool the same day Hughes' son did.

On Instagram, Miller encouraged her followers to read Hughes' essay and learn more about drowning prevention. "It's been 37 days since I've held my baby girl. I pray to God no other parent feels this pain. My heart is with you @nicolehughes8 as we walk this journey together," she wrote.

"Drowning is the NUMBER ONE cause of death in children ages 1-4. We talk about vaccinations, car seats, organic foods, screen time, etc at length...but not the number one risk your children's' lives face...a silent killer. It takes SECONDS. Please share and help us spread awareness. It's the first step to preventing these types of tragedies."

Water safety tips:

  • Assign a supervisor: The Mayo Clinic recommends that when kids are using a pool, parents turns as the "designated watcher", so that one adult is always focused on the kids. Hughes' organization, Levi's Legacy, has created "water guardian" tags that adults can wear to show that they are the one watching responsible for pool supervision at that moment. The CDC says "supervisors of preschool children should provide 'touch supervision' be close enough to reach the child at all times."
  • Install barriers: Many pool drownings are the result of a child getting into a pool when they were not expected to be near it. That's why the CDC recommends "self-closing and self-latching gates that open outward with latches that are out of reach of children," and "additional barriers such as automatic door locks and alarms to prevent access or alert you if someone enters the pool area."
    • Fences that provide a complete barrier around all sides of a pool may prevent 7 out of 10 drownings of children under 5, notes Parachute, a charity dedicated to injury prevention.
    • If you're renting a beach house or booking an Airbnb with a pool, look for one with these features.
  • Keep toys away from the pool: The CDC suggests that as soon as pool time is over, parents put away any toys, floats or other fun objects that may be in or around the pool. Removing the toys removes an element of temptation for children.
  • Take swimming lessons: According to the AAP, "children over age one may be at a lower risk of drowning if they have had some formal swimming instruction. However, there is no evidence that swimming lessons or water survival skills courses can prevent drowning in babies younger than one year of age."
  • Take a CPR course: When seconds count, you want to be ready to do everything possible to save a child.

These two mothers have been through a loss that most parents cannot even fathom, and if they get their way, none of us will have to.

[Update: July 18, 2018: Added additional safety tips.]

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If you've ever experienced a surge of guilt after saying yes to your child's request for iPad time, you may find some comfort in mom of three Katherine Heigl's approach to screen time.

She recently told People her daughters, 6-year-old Adalaide and 9-year-old Naleigh are (like most kids) big fans of iPads, but Heigl isn't beating herself up over it.

"It's okay. It's not the end of civilization as we know it, I promise," she told People.

While Heigl admits that she may need to curtail the girls' tech use a bit, "so much of that use is reading," she explains. "They're reading, they're playing educational games. I don't allow them to scroll through YouTube videos and stuff; I put some limits on that."

Recently, Heigl was hanging out in her living room with her daughters, her husband Josh Kelley and her teen niece, Madison. Everybody had a digital device in their hand, and for a moment, Heigl felt that screen time guilt.

"And then I went, 'Oh, wait a minute — Naleigh and Madison are playing Words With Friends against each other, so essentially they're playing Scrabble, just without the board on the table. Adalaide is coloring on her iPad, Josh is reading the news and I'm reading a book," she said.

"We're all doing things that we would be doing to entertain ourselves, we're just doing them differently than we did them 20 years ago."

Screen time (both ours and the next generation's) gets such a bad rap in some parenting circles, but Heigl makes a very good point: Not all screen time is equal. Using a coloring app on the iPad isn't the same as zoning out in front of egg unwrapping YouTube videos, and reading a book on our phone is a different experience than scrolling (and scrolling and scrolling) through Instagram.

Matthew Johnson, the Director of Education for MediaSmarts, a not-for-profit charitable organization for digital and media literacy, previously told Motherly that while any screen time isn't really developmentally appropriate for toddlers, by the time kids are in elementary school, it's not so black and white, and parents should consider what kids are doing during screen time rather than just how much they get.

"Specifically, instead of counting hours you might consider a creative use of screens—doing an animation project or doing school research—as being counted differently than using it in a passive way."

It sounds like Heigl is finding the middle ground when it comes to her kids' screen time. She doesn't allow phones and iPads at the dinner table, or in her kids' rooms. "I don't allow them in the bedrooms, like, 'Charge them at night where I can see them,'" she says.

Thrive Global founder Arianna Huffington previously told Motherly that keeping phones out of the bedrooms and off the dinner table is an important part of teaching kids good "phone hygiene" and that, "Phones, like all technology, should augment our humanity, not consume it."

Heigl's family enjoys plenty of device-free outings together, so using a coloring app or letting the kids play Words with Friends isn't the end of the world in her world.

Sometimes, mama just wants a few minutes to sit and read her book (even if that book is on a phone), and allowing some limited iPad use allows her to do that.

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