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Now Is the Right Time!
As a parent or someone in a parenting role, you play an essential part in your infant’s success. There are intentional ways to grow a healthy parent-infant relationship from the start, and feeling happiness together is a great way to do it.
Happiness, or feeling a sense of joy or well-being, comes through our connection with others and a sense of meaning or purpose in our lives.1 It may seem that 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 that your infant’s brain will double in size in the first year of life. They are deeply engaged in building the foundational social and emotional skills that will set the course for their lifetime.
Infants come to better understand themselves through their interactions with you and other caregivers. Infants are in the process of learning their strengths and limitations, why they feel the way they do, and how they relate to others. Parents and those in a parenting role share in this learning and exploration. Ultimately, many of your infant’s joyful and happy experiences will occur through their loving relationship with you.
Caring for an infant requires a lot of time, and it may feel like you rarely have time for yourself. However, one of the most important things you can do to promote your infant’s happiness is to take care of your own need for self-care like, eating healthy foods, exercising regularly, connecting with friends, and engaging in enjoyable activities. Not taking time for yourself can get in the way of the joy and connection that you feel with your infant. Even small amounts of time (like taking a walk or calling a friend) can make a big difference for you and your infant.
The steps below include specific and practical strategies to help you develop happiness and build a relationship with your infant that includes reliable and unconditional support and love.
Your infant’s connections with you and others and their ability to engage in meaningful learning and play are essential to developing lifelong happiness. Today, in the short term, growing happiness can create
- greater opportunities for connection, cooperation, and enjoyment;
- a sense of belonging; and
- a sense of optimism and wellbeing.
Tomorrow, in the long term, helping your child grow happiness
- develops a sense of fulfillment;
- strengthens their immune system and physical health;
- builds skills that foster resilience;
- builds skills in self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationships, and responsible decision making; and
- deepens family trust and intimacy.
This five-step process helps you and your infant develop feelings of joy and connection to one another. It also lays the foundation for important 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.
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 understand what they are trying to communicate. Your efforts to learn from your infant create empathetic interactions that promote happiness and let them know that you are interested in what they are thinking. In becoming sensitive to your child’s verbal and nonverbal expressions, you
- are responding to their needs;
- are growing their trust in you, sense of safety, and sense of healthy relationships;
- are improving your ability to communicate with one another;
- are growing your own and 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 to 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 an infant is uncomfortable, they may use a less intense, short, whiny cry like “eh, eh, eh.”
- If an infant is 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 an infant is 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 an infant feels 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 an infant is hungry, they may produce a cry that looks either similar to anger or discomfort depending on the intensity. Cries can be short, low-pitched, and rise and fall.
- If an infant is tired, they may rub their eyes while they open and close them. 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 will get better at recognizing their style of communication. They 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, which include experiencing joy and connection. 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 caregiver’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 are able to 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.
- Ensure lots of 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 feelings. Their tiny facial muscles change to mimic your own. Research shows that eye contact increases heartbeats in both parent and child and helps the infant learn about others’ feelings.3
- Talk up close to your infant. Make a point when they are in a high chair, crib, or stroller to get down on their level. Narrate what’s going on around you or tell a favorite memory or story.
- When encountering new people or situations, get on their 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 that 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 and feelings sync 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.
- Offer sensory exploration. Infants come to know and understand the world and the objects around them through all five senses — touch, taste, smell, sound, and sight. Keeping safety and supervision in mind, place objects near your infant for exploration.
- Infants in their first year of life can benefit from regular time on their tummy. Lay your infant down on a blanket. Include items within or, if attempting to crawl, just out of reach for infants to explore including baby-safe mirrors, blocks, and board books.
- Reading regularly with your infant lays the foundation for later reading skills and offers time for valuable connection. If they are able, allow your infant to choose the book and help turn pages to involve them in reading.
- Offering time to explore water is wonderful playtime for infants keeping safety and supervision in mind. Whether you provide a bowl with cups on the kitchen floor or get into the bathtub, infants can exercise their hands and body movements while learning about water and play.
Don’t expect a long attention span with any one activity. 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.
Step 3. Practice to Grow Skills, Develop Happiness, and Develop Habits
Your daily routines are opportunities for you and your infant to practice new vital skills if you seize those chances. With practice, your infant will build relationships with others and have meaningful play that will bring you both joy and happiness. Practice grows vital new brain connections that strengthen and eventually form habits.
- Allow your infant the chance to take steps to meet their big challenges, whether they are working on tasting new foods for the first time, exploring the objects in their environment, or attempting to communicate with new words or phrases.
- Provide opportunities for your infant to do things that are more challenging than what they have done before. The goal is to come up with experiences that are just beyond what they are comfortable with so they can experience working hard and mastering a new skill. This may be a challenging social situation like playing peek-a-boo with a neighbor who they felt too shy to play with in the past.
- Creating regular routines that build your infant’s relationships with others. A daily stroller ride around the block with a parent can become a cherished routine that is comforting, connecting, and joyful.
Step 4. Support Your Infant’s Development and Success
At this point, you are laying the foundation for happiness with your infant by modeling in your actions and creating opportunities for them to experience happiness and joy. 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 infant’s developmental milestones offers you empathy and patience.
- Actively reflect on how your infant is feeling when they are doing something that brings them joy. You can offer reflections like: “I notice you are making the Mmmm sound. You are smiling. I love that.”
- Don’t move on quickly if your infant shows interest in trying something new. Children often need more time to stick with a challenge or pursue a goal. Be sure to wait long enough for your infant to show you they are competent. Your waiting could make all the difference in whether they are able to gain skills over time.
- On days with extra challenges when you can see your infant is not feeling particularly happy, let them know that it is ok to not feel happy sometimes, and they are likely to feel happy again sometime soon. “You seem upset right now. Lets change your diaper and see if that helps you feel better.”
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 self-esteem, confidence, and joy. 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.
- Recognize and call out when all is going well. It may seem obvious, but it’s easy not to notice when all is moving along smoothly. If your infant is joyful, call it out: “You are moving your arms and legs and making lots of sounds. You seem happy right now.”
- Build celebrations into your routine. Promote joy and happiness by laughing, singing, dancing, hugging, and snuggling to appreciate one another.
This year is filled with amazing changes — and not just for your child. 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.