June 2012 Newsletter
Your Baby is Programmed for Relating
In our May 2012 newsletter, we discussed how infants and young children are so remarkably smart. This month we will explore how they are ready to relate and interact almost as soon as they are born.
We used to think infants were passive blobs, just eating, sleeping, and pooping as they grew up. We could not have been more wrong.
Current research shows that babies are able to relate to their caregivers and surroundings immediately. They are programmed for social interaction.
Infants Are Ready to Relate
So, babies are ready to relate. How can this be? How could scientists have overlooked this? Some parents understood it, but in general society has probably tended to see babies as passive, withdrawn non-relators.
Actually, it has been the clinicians and researchers studying infant and child development who have really helped us appreciate this aspect of infancy. So – how do babies relate? What capacities do they use to relate?
In previous newsletters, we have explored in detail how infants express their feelings through facial expressions, bodily movements, and vocalizations. Babies can express these built-in feelings almost from day one: interest, enjoyment, surprise, distress, anger, fear, shame, disgust (a reaction to noxious tastes), and dissmell (a reaction to noxious odors). Thus, they can clearly communicate with their caregivers and the rest of the environment very early on. And their caregivers respond to these communications – whether it is distress or enjoyment or anger, caregivers respond. The babies and their caregivers are relating.
Other Ways of Relating
How else do babies relate? Let’s not forget how helpless infants are – they cannot walk or talk; they have little limb control and poor hand-eye coordination. So what do they have?
What they have is a rather mature visual-motor system, as the brilliant infant researcher Daniel Stern points out (The Interpersonal World of the Infant, 1985
). That is, they use their eyes and gaze as a way to relate. The face is a communication center par excellence. Babies can look directly into the eyes of their caregivers and explore (interest) with their eyes – or they can shut or avert their eyes, be glassy-eyed, and gaze past their caregivers. In these ways they can either make direct contact with their caregivers or can reject and protect themselves from contact. Thus, they can regulate the amount, timing and duration of stimulation and interaction.
So, infants can relate and engage and communicate with their eyes and gaze. They can cut off contact as well, by using their eyes and gaze. And then, as Stern puts it: “They can also reinitiate engagement and contact when they desire, through gazing, smiling, and vocalizing.” How’s that for relating!
Infants are social beings from the moment they are born. They are not passive blobs just waiting to grow up. They are sensitive to and respond to their environment. Using their expressions of feelings and their visual-motor system, they interact with and relate to their caregivers throughout their infancy, long before they can walk or talk.