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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 building a foundation of trusting, loving attachment that will grow kindness and contribute to later success in school and life.
It may seem like the only things infants are capable of in these early months of life involve eating, sleeping, and crying. But 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.
Kindness is the ability to act with generosity, care, and consideration. Kindness is learned through the trusting relationship you work to grow with your infant. As you respond to your infant’s needs, showing care and love, your infant begins to experience your care as kindness and learns through your modeling. The steps below include specific, practical strategies to prepare you.
Whether it is your 3-month-old crying uncontrollably when you leave their sight or your own feelings of inadequacy when trying to respond to your infant’s crying, establishing regular ways to build a trusting connection along with teaching your child vital skills will grow their ability to show kindness toward others in the future.
Today, in the short term, promoting kindness can create
- greater opportunities for connection, cooperation, and enjoyment;
- trust in each other; and
- a sense of wellbeing and motivation to engage.
Tomorrow, in the long term, promoting kindness in your child
- develops a sense of safety, security, and a belief in self;
- builds skills in self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision making; and
- deepens family trust and intimacy.
This five-step process helps you and your infant grow skills in kindness. 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 are not tired or in a rush.
Step 1. Getting to Know and Understand your Infant’s Input
Infants may 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 builds trust and creates empathetic interactions that demonstrate kindness. 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, sense of safety, and 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; and
- are modeling empathy.
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 or 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 looks either similar to anger or discomfort depending on the intensity. Cries can be short, low-pitched, and rise and fall.
- If infants are tired, they may be rubbing their eyes while closing and opening them. They may pull at their ears and yawn.
Working to identify their specific cries with physical cues can help you be responsive to their needs. For example, if an infant is uncomfortable, respond by loosening or changing their clothing or swaddling or changing their position to 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. They will feel a greater sense of your understanding and responsiveness and your interactions will become more two-way instead of one-way.
Step 2. Teach New Skills by Interactive Modeling
As a parent or someone in a parenting role of an infant, there is a lot to learn about understanding your infant’s rhythms, temperaments, and needs. Because of all this learning, you will make mistakes and even poor choices. How you handle those moments can help build your infant’s sense of relationships and ability to be kind. Offering yourself the grace and permission to not be perfect can ease your anxiety in responding to your infant’s needs. Learning about developmental milestones can help you better understand what your infant is going through.1
- 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.
- 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 feelings. Their tiny facial muscles change to mimic your own. Research shows that eye contact increases heartbeats in parent and child and also helps the infant learn about others’ emotional experiences.2
- 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 sync up as well as feelings when infants are held that close.
- 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 provides experience with their first literacy skills as well as offering time for valuable connection. Allow your infant to choose the book and help turn pages to involve 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, Grow Kindness, 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 kindness as they interact with you. 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 at 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.
- Model warm greetings and be certain to introduce your infant to new people. Share one thing you know or love about that person with your infant to make a caring connection.
- When out in your community while running errands with your infant, make introductions and involve your infant in conversations with neighbors, the bank teller, or the grocery cashier.
- Many children are born with a cautious or shy temperament and may not readily warm up to strangers and might show fear. Respect that temperament by not forcing interaction and instead, model your own kind interactions with others.
- Read together. When you read stories together, you engage in an activity that can be deeply connecting for both of you. Reflect on the story, and you will take the learning opportunity one step further. “The little girl was sharing with her friends. That was kind of her.” Involve your infant in selecting the book, holding it, and turning the pages to build ownership and interest in reading.
Do not force physical interactions like hugs, high fives, or hand shakes between your infant and other new individuals. Teach your child early that they can control their own physical space and are never obligated to make physical contact with another.
Step 4. Support Your Infant’s Development and Success
At this point, you are laying the foundation for kindness with your infant by modeling kindness in your own 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 infant’s developmental milestones offers you empathy and patience.
- Recognize effort by using “I notice…” statements like: “I noticed how you smiled at my friend Nina. I love seeing that.”
- On days with extra challenges when you can see your infant is scared of new people or situations, offer confidence in your child’s ability to face the unfamiliar. In a gentle way, you can say, “Anna is kind. You might enjoy meeting her today.”
- Actively reflect on how your infant is feeling when approaching challenges. “We are going to be with a lot of new people today. I will introduce you and hold you so you will feel more confident.” Offering comfort when facing new situations can help your child 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.
Don’t move on quickly if your infant shows interest in a new person. Infants often need more time to adjust with new individuals. Be sure to wait long enough for your child to warm up to the new person. Your waiting could make all the difference in whether they are able to gain relationship skills over time.
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 sense of confidence. 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 is trying new things, call it out: “I notice you smiled at my friend. I love seeing this.”
- 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 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.