THE BLOG

How Your Newborn Says 'Engage With Me!' -- and What Happens When You Don't

02/23/2015 02:48 pm ET | Updated Apr 25, 2015
Copyright Betty Udesen / Pear Press

Baby loves it when you mimic her facial expressions, coo at her little sounds and gaze into her eyes.

When baby tries to engage with you in one of those ways, she needs you to respond in kind. This "serve and return" interaction is foundational in wiring baby's brain. It helps the brain develop in a way that supports stress regulation, empathy and emotional stability. Brain imaging shows that it also activates the pleasure center in baby's brain.

But sometimes, baby needs a break.

I was leaning over my newborn on a play mat, laughing and cooing, when baby suddenly turned her head to the left, lost in a million-mile stare. I had an urge to say, "Hello? Where'd you go?" Then I remembered that when a baby is overstimulated, she tells you by

  • turning her head away,
  • closing her eyes,
  • avoiding your gaze,
  • tensing up, or
  • suddenly becoming fussy.

It was neat for me to understand what was happening. And it helped me resist my initial urge to bring baby back by calling her name or waving in front of her face. My baby turned back to me just a few moments later, ready to carry on.

Matching baby's lulls by patiently waiting and then engaging when she does is a hallmark of responsive, sensitive parenting. You're attuned to baby, aware of baby's cues and quick to respond to baby's cues. Sensitive parenting helps baby form a trusting relationship with you, called "secure attachment."

Parents who continually ignore or reject their baby's bids for interaction and reassurance don't create a trusting relationship. Attachment has nothing to do with whether baby is constantly attached to your body. (Although going skin to skin and using a baby carrier can make it easier to be attuned to baby.)

When mama and baby are in sync, their biological rhythms are, too. For example, during face-to-face interaction, their heartbeats become coordinated with a lag of less than one second. When parent and baby are out of sync, baby gets stressed.

Harvard researcher Ed Tronick conducted "still face" experiments in which mothers simply gave a blank stare when their babies wanted to engage. The babies tried smiling, pointing, waving and screeching, all to no avail. Babies then began to turn away, cry and slump. It’s fascinating to watch:

When the mothers quit their act, it took their babies a moment to trust them again and reengage. But they did reengage.

Building (or breaking) a trusting relationship with baby is a process that happens over several years.