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Now Is the Right Time!
As a parent or someone in a parenting role, you play an essential role in your infant’s success. There are intentional ways to grow a healthy parent-infant relationship while forming a trusting, loving attachment that will develop empathy and help your infant to develop healthy relationships and establish foundational life skills in the future.
It may seem like the only things infants are capable of in these early months of life involve eating, sleeping, and crying. In fact, they are learning so much. They are deeply engaged in building the foundational social and emotional skills that will set the course for their lifetime. You have an opportunity to establish this valuable foundation now.
Empathy means the ability to take the perspective of and interpret the thoughts and feelings of others, including those from diverse backgrounds and cultures. Empathy directly relates to social awareness — the ability to understand social and ethical norms for behavior and to recognize primary caregivers who offer resources and support. “Empathy can be instilled, and it is composed of teachable habits that can be developed, practiced, and lived.”1
Infants learn empathy through loving interactions with you and your responses to their needs. When you respond to their needs, they feel safe and secure. A sense of security provides a foundation for your infant to explore their world and to respond with care for others as they grow. The steps below include specific, practical strategies to prepare you.
Your infant’s secure and trusting connection with you is pivotal in their first year. You can lay the foundation for growing empathy in your infant as you interact and share love, conversation, and facial expressions.
Today, in the short term, growing empathy can create
- greater opportunities for connection, cooperation, and enjoyment;
- feelings of safety and security; and
- a sense of wellbeing and motivation to engage.
Tomorrow, in the long term, growing empathy in your child
- prepares them for preschool and kindergarten;
- develops the ability to share and take turns with adults and other children;
- builds skills in self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationships, and responsible decision making; and
- deepens family trust and intimacy.
Five Steps for Growing Empathy
This five-step process helps you and lays the foundation for your infant to grow empathy. It also builds important critical life skills in your infant. The same process can be used to address other parenting issues as well (learn more about the process).
These steps are best done when you and your infant are not tired or in a rush.
Intentional communication and actively building a healthy parenting relationship will support these steps.
Step 1. Getting to Know and Understand Your Infant’s Input
Infants cry between two and three hours everyday. In fact, their primary form of communicating with you is through crying. Paying close attention to your infant’s facial expressions, movements, and sounds helps you better understand what they are trying to communicate. Your efforts to learn from your infant build trust and create empathetic interactions that promote empathy. In becoming sensitive to the small differences in your infant’s cries and expressions, you
- are responding to their needs;
- are growing their trust in you, their sense of safety, and their sense of healthy relationships;
- are offering greater motivation for you and your infant to work together;
- are deepening your ability to communicate with one another;
- are growing your own and simultaneously their self-control (to calm down when upset and focus their attention); and
- are modeling empathy and problem-solving skills.
Consider how the distinct sounds of your infant’s cries connect with their body language. It is okay if you are unsure or don’t know what your infant is trying to communicate with you. Every infant is unique, and it takes time to learn. Check out these common cues and see if they match your infant’s feelings and associated needs.
- If infants are uncomfortable, they may issue a less intense, short, whiny cry like “eh, eh, eh.”
- If infants are in pain, their eyes may be closed or may open for a second and look blankly into the distance. Parents often feel a greater sense of urgency with this cry. If it’s gas pain, they may scrunch up their face and pull their legs up.
- If infants are scared, their eyes may remain open. Their head may move backwards. They may have a penetrating look and an explosive cry. They might suddenly extend their legs, arch their back, and then curl up again — an involuntary startle response.
- If infants feel angry, their eyes may be half open, half closed either in no direction or a fixed location. Their mouth may be open or half-open. Gestures may accompany crying, and they may arch their back to show they are upset. Intensity gradually increases.
- If infants are hungry, they may produce a cry that sounds either similar to anger or discomfort depending on the intensity. Cries can be short, low-pitched, and they rise and fall.
- If infants are tired, they may be rubbing their eyes with them closing and opening. They may pull at their ears and yawn.
Working to identify their specific cries and physical cues can help you be responsive to their needs. For example, if an infant is uncomfortable, respond by loosening or changing clothing or swaddling or changing their position and see if it helps to soothe.
If your response to your infant’s cues doesn’t seem to help, that’s okay. Test another response and see if it helps to soothe. It takes time to learn what your infant is communicating with you. As you practice, you’ll get better at recognizing their style of communication. Your infant will feel a greater sense of your understanding and responsiveness, so that your interactions become more two-way instead of one-way.
Step 2. Teach New Skills by Interactive Modeling
Infants are learning how to be in healthy relationships through your loving interactions. When you respond to your infant’s needs, you are building their emotional capacity for empathy. Skill building takes intentional practice. Learning about developmental milestones can help you better understand what your infant is working hard to learn. Here are some examples:2
- 0-3-month-olds respond to their parent’s voice by turning their head, becoming quiet, or smiling. They make eye contact and cry differently depending on the situation. They coo and enjoy playful facial interaction with others. They also can be comforted by a parent’s touch or cuddling.
- 4-6-month-olds listen and respond when spoken to and make consonant sounds through babbling to gain attention. They make different sounds to express feelings and enjoy playful interactions like peek-a-boo. They raise their arms to be picked up.
- 7-9-month-olds use sounds and syllables in babbling to communicate and gain attention. They recognize their own name and turn to objects and people when mentioned. They participate in two-way communication, can follow simple directions when paired with physical gestures, and offer simple nonverbal cues like head shaking to indicate “no.”
- 10-12-month-olds are using “Mama” and “Dada,” can follow simple directions, and say one or two words with full sentences of imitation babbling. They understand “no” and use their hands to communicate needs. They point to objects of interest and explore when placed on the floor.
Teaching is different than just telling. Teaching builds basic skills, grows problem-solving abilities, and sets your infant up for success. Teaching also involves modeling and practicing the positive behaviors you want to see, promoting skills, and preventing problems.
- Model empathy while interacting with your infant. Modeling empathy can be one of the greatest teaching tools.
- Share the focus. As you spend time with your infant, follow their lead. As they pick up new toys or explore a different part of the room, move, notice, and name what they are exploring.3 Follow your infant’s lead. They likely will signal with a short cry or simply change their attention when they need to shift their focus.
- Notice gestures and listen for thought and feeling. Attempt to figure out what your infant is trying to tell you through their sounds, gestures, and facial expressions.
- Infants require your attention to thrive. So, why not build a special time into your routine when you are fully present to listen to what your infant has to tell you? Turn off your phone. Set a timer if needed. Then, notice your body language. Ask yourself, “What is my body communicating, and how am I demonstrating that I’m listening?”
- Ensure daily face-to-face interactions. When face-to-face with a parent or someone in a parenting role, infants increase their sense of security and learn about themselves and their emotions. Their numerous miniscule facial muscles change to mimic your own. Research shows that eye contact increases heartbeats in parent and child and helps the infant learn about others’ emotional experiences.4
- Talk up close to your infant. When your infant is in a high chair, crib, or stroller, make a point to get down on the same level. Narrate what’s going on around you or tell a favorite memory or story.
- When encountering new people or situations, get on eye level and introduce your infant to those new experiences to help them feel safe.
- Express love up close. Children need to hear they are loved at every age. Start now and get in the habit of assuring your infant they are loved no matter what.
- Hold your infant close regularly. Infants require close contact with their parents. Skin-to-skin contact reduces stress and promotes immunity to disease. Heart rates sync up as well as emotions when infants are held closely.
- Rocking in a rocking chair is a soothing way to connect and hold an infant.
- Baby carriers offer a way to move about with your infant close to your heart.
- Share the holding. Enlist other trusted family members or friends to share in holding your infant close.
Step 3. Practice to Grow Skills, Develop Empathy, and Develop Habits
Your daily routines are opportunities for you and your infant to practice new vital skills if you seize those chances. Practice provides important opportunities to grow empathy as your infant interacts with you and begins to learn social cues. Practice grows vital new brain connections that strengthen and eventually form habits.
- Allow your infant the chance to interact with new people of all ages with you close by their side.
- Create a consistent routine with regular nap times, play times, and meals. Routines create a sense of safety and security so that your infant can focus on learning and growing.
- Narrate your day as you go about your household chores or run errands in your community. This narration will offer your infant a sense of connection and offer practice in some of the building blocks of empathy such as listening to your thoughts and feelings.
Step 4. Support Your Infant’s Development and Success
At this point, you are laying the foundation for empathy with your infant by modeling empathy in your actions. Now, you can offer continued positive support and generate excitement and positive feelings.
- Learn about your infant’s development. Each new age presents different challenges. Being informed about your child’s developmental milestones offers you empathy and patience.
- Recognize effort by using “I notice…” statements like: “I noticed how you smiled at the new person we met in the store.”
- On days with extra challenges when you can see your infant is scared of new people or situations, offer confidence in your infant’s ability to face the unfamiliar. In a gentle, comforting voice, you can say, “Anna is kind. You might enjoy meeting her.”
- Actively reflect on how your infant is feeling when approaching challenges. “You seem worried about going into this new store. I’ll hold you so you feel more confident.” Offering comfort when facing new situations can help your infant gain a sense of security and face them rather than backing away.
- You can also offer comfort items to help your infant face new challenges. “Would your blanket help you feel better?” Swaddle your infant or you may use a pacifier to offer comfort.
Step 5. Recognize and Celebrate
There are so many amazing changes and developments to celebrate with your infant. Each little achievement is something worth recognizing and celebrating.
Taking the time to recognize and celebrate can promote safe, secure, and nurturing relationships. It makes children feel secure and loved, which helps their brains develop. It builds a foundation for strong communication and a healthy relationship with you as they grow.
Though it is easy to overlook, your attention is your infant’s sweetest reward. Your recognition can go a long way to promoting more positive behaviors and expanding your child’s empathy. You can recognize and celebrate your infant with the following actions.
- Smile at your infant.
- Make eye contact.
- Use caring facial expressions.
- Be physically gentle and caring with your infant.
- Use words to celebrate and encourage. Recognize and call out when all is going well. When your infant shows a facial expression, call it out: “I notice you were smiling when you heard me make those silly sounds. I love seeing you smile. Those sounds make me smile too.”
- Build celebrations into your everyday routines. Promote joy and happiness by laughing, singing, dancing, hugging, and snuggling to appreciate one another.
The first year is filled with amazing changes — and not just for your infant. Don’t forget to recognize and celebrate your own development and milestones as a parent.
Engaging in these five steps is an investment that builds your skills as an effective parent to use on many other issues and builds important skills that will last a lifetime for your child. Throughout this tool, there are opportunities for children to become more self-aware, to deepen their social awareness, and to work on their relationship skills.