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Monday, December 16, 2019

Babies need attuned mothers to form trusting bonds, not ‘experts’

Babies with secure attachments have higher chances of growing up to be socially and emotionally healthy. They carry the message that they are worthy as they are, they can trust others and the world is safe enough to explore.

Written by Shelja Sen | Updated: May 4, 2019 6:01:13 am
emotional attunement, parenting tips Babies need mothers who are available for emotional attunement.

The other day I was passing by a leading baby store and before I knew it, I had walked right in for a peek. The peek turned into loitering from shelf to shelf, mooning over all those adorable tiny onesies, booties, cradles, cuddly toys, along with a weird sense of what young people call FOMO (fear of missing out) on what I could have bought for my babies when they were little. A little odd considering my kids are 21 and 17 years old now! Yes, pretty bizarre indeed but that is exactly how the booming baby industry is exploiting gullible parents.

No wonder we start filling up our homes with all the exorbitantly priced equipment, enrolling them in trending baby workshops (starting at 2 months), decorating nurseries with colour coded accessories, hiring English-speaking nannies, and strutting them around in luxury labels. Not to mention the ‘must have’ toys which ‘foster brain development’, ‘build cognitive skills’! Which parent can say no to those? If it is best for our kids and will give them a headstart, then we are going to get it. No matter how.

Except that it is not. Whatever the baby industry might try to sell you, babies do not need or care for any of that stuff. All it does is create more stress and anxiety in parents of not doing enough for their babies. What we need is less ‘doing’ and more of ‘being’.

I have observed a baffling trend in early parenting. While the West is waking up to the wisdom of our early child-rearing practices, we Indians are in a frantic rush to lap up all things Western. So when the latest Western research is highlighting the benefits of going the natural way — be it home birth, mother and baby “rooming in” after birth, prolonged breastfeeding, “baby wearing”, co-sleeping and community nurturing — we are rushing around in circles and tying ourselves into knots over absurd stuff.

In our struggle to keep up with the latest parenting craze we have become completely blind to the wealth of our own traditional wisdom. I am not denying that we have gained a lot from Western sciences, however, we need to make sure that in all our zeal, we do not throw the baby out with the bathwater (sorry for the violent metaphor).

What I have learned as a mother and as a child therapist is very simple – babies need mothers who are available for emotional attunement. Have you observed that some mothers have a knack of tuning into their babies acutely, almost as if they shared a unique emotional space which nobody else had entry to? Every look, cry, smile is decoded at a cellular level and responded to immediately. As if there was a deep, pulsating, positive energy bond connecting their hearts together. That is attunement, a quintessential element for forming mother-baby attachment where the baby is nourished, protected, and which is crucial for the baby’s growth and, at times, even survival.

Research in the area of attachment clearly indicates that responding to babies immediately helps them build trust in their mothers and use them as a secure base as they grow older. Babies with secure attachments have higher chances of growing up to be socially and emotionally healthy. They carry the message that they are worthy as they are, they can trust others and the world is safe enough to explore.

On the other hand, babies who are not able to form that attachment through attunement due to emotionally unavailable mothers carry a high risk of carrying the message that they are not worthy or loveable and that the world is too unsafe to explore. These are deep-seated pre-verbal (even before language skills develop), erosive messages of rejection that can end up impacting their sense of identity, choices and even relationships for the rest of their life. At times, early disrupted breakdown of attachment can also lead to mental health difficulties in adolescence or later life.

So how can mothers build emotional attunement with their babies?

Touch

Traditionally, after birth, babies lived close to their mothers’ body day and night. They were bathed, massaged, rocked, patted to sleep, suckled, and carried almost as an extension of the mothers’ body. It makes sense, doesn’t it? Because they have been in our womb for nine months, so the closer they stay to our heartbeats (their in-utero lullaby) and bodies, the more secure they will feel.

There is clear evidence that nurturing touch in early months stimulates growth-promoting hormones, improves intellectual and motor development, and helps regulate babies’ temperature, heart rate, and sleep/wake patterns. Maximum body contact builds a secure attachment and mum-baby bonding. Very early on, babies start recognising their mothers’ touch and smell. So don’t get roped into giving your babies to experts for massages or listening to people who tell you that you are spoiling your baby. I remember when my son was born, the midwife (he was born in England) chastised me for holding my baby for too long, saying, “He will grow up to manipulate you!” I am amused when I remember it now but you can imagine what confusion such messages can cause mothers, especially given from a position of authority.

Mirroring

Watching mothers playing with their babies, especially when they are in sync with each other can bring an instant smile to our faces. So many artists, photographers, sculptors have tried to capture the ethereal beauty of it. Just the sight of them cooing, gurgling, smiling, mirroring each other is like watching a beautiful dance where one leads and the other follows. This is what builds the attunement. Have you heard that high-pitched voice mothers lapse into while talking to their babies? It is called “motherese” and research has shown that it greatly enhances baby’s language development. It is interesting to note that most of our lullabies are high-pitched and very much tuned into “motherese”.

Mum’s emotional well-being

I have a problem with the way the baby industry is making nurturing babies into a rocket science that it clearly is not. Babies need mothers who are emotionally available to take care of them. That can become extremely difficult when we look at what a mother has to cope with — a stressed-out pregnancy, prolonged and exhausting childbirth, struggles with breastfeeding, lack of sleep, self-doubt, hormonal rollercoaster and insufficient care.

Postnatal depression can happen to one out of seven mothers and the typical signs include feeling depressed, irritable, tired, feeling guilty or anxious and not being able to bond with their babies. It is so easy for us to blame the mothers for this but actually, it is the erosion of our communities, the harried lives we lead and our inability to provide nurturing care to the mothers that make attuned parenting so alarmingly difficult.

It takes a village to raise a child and when there is no village, mothers can easily slip into a black pit of despair. Therefore, I would definitely urge young mothers to make self-care a priority.

Build your own support networks, try to rope in friends, family, neighbours to let you take breaks (without guilt) from the baby once in a while. Cut yourself some slack as you do not have to be the perfect mum who manages it all. Eat healthy food, get massages, do yoga, meditate, nap whenever possible. Take turns with your husband to tend to the baby at night. Simplify your life and stick to your priorities. An untidy house, a little dust or even an unbathed baby did not hurt anybody so do not let anybody shame you over it. Focus on just ‘being’ and healing yourself body, heart, mind and soul. And most of all, tune into your babies and enjoying the little glimpses of magic and miracle that they bring into our lives.

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