National Pyjama Day 2023

Supporting babies’ emotional development

Supporting babies’ emotional development
Scéalta: Supporting Babies

In last week’s Scéalta blog post, Máire Corbett wrote about cherishing parents, taking the line from John Bowlby (1951), ‘if we value our children, we must cherish their parents’. Máire stated how interesting and thought provoking it is to put ourselves in the shoes of another and see things from their perspective, reflecting how we cherish parents. In this week’s Scéalta I reflect on how we cherish babies and how we can support their emotional development.

Emotional development begins in infancy

Emotional development begins in infancy, it is a critical aspect of a child’s overall development, and it is particularly important during the early years of life. Emotional development refers to a child’s ability to identify, understand, and manage their emotions, as well as the emotions of others.

Children who develop strong emotional skills are better equipped to build and maintain healthy relationships with others. They are better able to communicate their feelings and understand the feelings of others, which helps them form positive connections with family members, peers and other adults. Emotional development begins in what we will term ‘babyhood’.

Babyhood is a very important time of life – a time of rapid growth and development.  Most importantly it’s a time when children form deep, affectionate bonds with the adults around them. Babies, from the moment they are born, look up into the faces of their parent, studying their contours, their shape and every little detail. This has been described as ‘a gaze that grips’, Trevarten (2001). Anyone that looks into a baby’s face will notice how the baby looks all around your face with deep intent. Many researchers say that babies are born with some sort of ‘template’ for the human face, that it is a genetic preparedness for bonding with caregivers. This bonding is crucial for later emotional development.

Relationships

Healthy emotional and social development is rooted in nurturing and responsive relationships with family members and other caregivers, including those who provide care in Early Years settings. In addition to children’s family, close relatives and community, Early Years educators are important partners in supporting social and emotional development and helping to ensure that the youngest learners get the best start in life as they journey to adulthood.

Early Years educators who work with babies know that babies develop, not as independent individuals – but in relationship with the people around them. Every baby is different, and every carer is different and consequently the relationships they create together are different. However, we know that the most secure attachments form when the carer/educator/parent can read the baby’s cues and meet his/her needs. When the babies’ needs are met the baby learns to communicate thoughts and feelings and to trust that others will respond. This trust lays the foundations for healthy social and emotional development.

Interactions

Colwyn Trevarthen, (1998), talks about children striving to understand the world by ‘sharing experiences and purposes with other minds’ – the child has a very strong instinct to find other people, they are the only thing in the world that can confirm their belonging. They need to be part of the community with people.  They cannot have companionship with an object.

He studied successful interactions between infants and their primary care givers and found that the parents responsiveness to her baby’s initiatives supported and developed a shared understanding, he terms this (inter-subjectivity), which he regarded as the basis of all effective communication, interaction and learning. Trevarthen describes the interactions between a carer and a baby as a dance, with the child leading, the caregiver picking up the rhythm and following. The carer in this situation gives the message that she understands. The baby in turn builds an identity as someone who is important, worth being with, loved, this becomes part of the baby’s identity.

In terms of babies social and emotional development, the most important gift a carer can give to a baby is to be present to them – to give them real and loving attention – holding them, eye contact, listening, following their gaze, and talking to them.

Communication

Trevarthen was fascinated with how babies communicate before they learn to talk, how clever they are, how imaginative they are. He has demonstrated that a newborn baby has an innate ability to initiate a dialogic relationship with an adult, and then build up this relationship through eye contact, smiling, and other bodily gestures and cues.

He has taught us how important it is to study babies and identify what we as adults can learn by watching babies closely. For Early Years educators, observing and noticing babies and interacting positively is so important in supporting babies’ development and nurturing their emotional and social competence.

Next week we will continue to reflect on supporting babies’ emotional development and how babies come into the world ready for relationships.

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