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 grow resilience 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.
Resilience is one of the foundational skills that they are learning with you. Resilience is the ability to overcome challenges and adversities. You can often see resilience when people are able to thrive despite having many challenges to overcome. Having a loving and consistent relationship with a trusted adult grows resilience in children.1
No matter how many positive supports a child has in their life, however, too much adversity can have long-term negative effects on development. Reducing serious adversities from children’s lives is the best way to keep them healthy.2
Throughout the early years, children are facing developmentally appropriate challenges and learning whether or not an adult can be trusted to be there for them when needed. For example, when an infant wakes up in the middle of the night, they do not have the skills yet to settle themselves down and fall back asleep. When an adult responds to their cries quickly and helps them to practice self-soothing, the infant learns that this adult loves them, can be trusted, and will help them to get through challenges.
We all face challenges to being resilient. As your infant is developing, it is important that they can turn to you to figure out when a challenge is the right size for them and how to overcome feeling scared or hurt. Resilience means being willing to face a right-sized challenge even if a challenging experience in the past was difficult to overcome.
The steps below include specific, practical strategies to prepare you to develop resilience and build a relationship with your infant that includes reliable and unconditional support and love.
Your infant’s openness to engage in new things and recover from difficult experiences are essential to developing lifelong resilience. You can begin by establishing a predictable routine with your infant, and supporting them when that routine inevitably gets interrupted.
Today, in the short term, resilience can create
- opportunities for your infant to try new experiences;
- a sense of confidence that your infant can manage a certain level of difficulty; and
- a strong connection between the two of you as you navigate these challenges together and triumph in successes.
Tomorrow, in the long term, developing resilience in your infant
- develops a sense of safety, security, and a belief in self;
- provides a firm foundation for exploration, learning, and speaking up;
- prepares your child for handling inevitable unexpected challenges in life;
- 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 resilience together. 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.
Step 1. Getting to Know and Understand your Infant’s Input
Infants use facial expressions, body language, crying, and other sounds to communicate with you. Paying close attention to your infant’s facial expressions, body 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 let them know that you are interested in what they are thinking.
This will make a big difference for setting the stage for resilience. Your infant will begin to give you cues about whether a challenge feels too big or too small for them. Every infant is different, and your own infant may change from day-to-day in how willing they are to take on challenges and to be resilient when those experiences become difficult.
You are the person who will know your infant’s cues better than anyone else, and you will be able to anticipate if talking to someone new, trying a new food, or another experience is right for today. Is your infant feeling particularly tired? Did they just get hurt or are they hungry? Knowing how they are doing and what their facial expressions and body language mean will help you decide if a challenge is the right size for your infant, right now.
In paying attention and noting small differences in your infant’s cries, body language, and expressions, you
- show them that they can trust you to notice how they feel;
- let them know that you will help them to face challenges;
- let them know that they can trust you to help them gain a sense of what experiences are right for risk-taking and which ones are not; and
- deepen your ability to communicate with one another.
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 looks 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 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’ll 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.
Grow your own resilience by creating a plan for calming down. Research shows that infants cry less when their caregiver is less stressed. Secure your infant’s safety, then close your eyes, and breathe deeply. Crying creates stress in adults so be sure and take breaks when you need them.
Step 2. Teach New Skills by Interactive Modeling
As a parent or someone in a parenting role, there is a lot to learn about understanding an 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 determine how you help build your infant’s resilience. 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.3
- 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.
- Use your tone of voice and facial expression to help your infant celebrate when they have gotten through a change such as a new child care arrangement, sleeping in a new place, trying a new food, and so on.
- Model resilience while interacting with your infant. Modeling resilience 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, notice, and name what they are exploring.4 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.5
- 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 talk about overcoming a challenge.
- 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, Grow Resilience, 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 resilience as they interact with you and begin to learn how to overcome challenges. Practice grows vital new brain connections that strengthen and eventually form habits.
To build resilience, it is important to practice noticing emotions, engaging in just-right-sized challenges (such as when your daily routine gets interrupted), and making sure trusted adults are always there to help.
- Your infant will thrive with a predictable daily routine. Calmly managing interruptions to that routine will build resilience. Help your infant learn their daily routine and point out moments when the routine will change. “Tomorrow, grandma is coming! We will wake up early to meet her at the bus station. It will be dark outside. We will get up early and go.”
- Retell your story of overcoming a change in routine. “Do you remember when grandma came early in the morning and we woke up when it was still dark outside? Waking up early was different for us, and we did it. And now grandma is here!”
- Narrate your day as you go about your household chores or run errands. This narration fosters connection with your infant and provides lots of opportunities to share how to overcome challenges.
Step 4. Support Your Infant’s Development and Success
At this point, you are laying the foundation for resilience with your infant by modeling resilience 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 guidance on appropriate challenges.
- Recognize effort by using “I notice…” statements like: “I noticed that you were able to take a nap in a different room. 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 infant’s ability to face the unfamiliar. In a gentle, comforting voice, you can say, “You tried something like this before, and it was fun. It’s OK to try this.”
- Actively reflect on how your infant is feeling when approaching challenges. Offering comfort when facing new situations can help your infant gain a sense of security and face them rather than backing away. “You seem worried; let me hold you so you feel more confident.”
- 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 trying something new. Infants often need more time to explore new things. Your waiting could make all the difference in whether they are able to gain 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 infant’s resilience. 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 tries something new, call it out: “I notice you were looking at our new neighbor. It was fun to meet someone new.”
- 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.