The Emotional Lives of Babies

Tamara Blum, MSW, LCSW is a clinical social worker with a private psychotherapy practice in St. Louis, Missouri. I asked her to share some experiences and things she wished all parents understood. She honored us by putting her thoughts in a blog post.

I think a lot about the emotional lives of babies. There is a persisting notion that the events of early infancy and childhood don’t really matter since babies won’t remember.

More and more in my practice and in my life, I see how these early experiences lay the groundwork for adult love relationships, reverberating like echoes long after we leave infancy. These first experiences with caregivers are especially significant, giving the baby an understanding of how the world works and what to expect from loved ones.   

I think about my first babies, twin girls. When Twin A needed lifesaving care for a neonatal infection, she rode by ambulance to the nearest Children’s Hospital on the first day of her life. We were correctly focused on her physical illness and failed to see the emotional, social, and interpersonal traumas both girls endured.

The girls never saw or touched each other outside of the womb. The ambulance ride was done alone. From the moment she became sick, Twin A was never again held or cuddled until her life support was disconnected and she died in my arms.

Twin B has grown into a delightful and intelligent young woman, a talented musician. Yet, each time she returns to university, she cries with a deeply rooted feeling of loss, mirroring the loss of her very first transition.

I understand now, as I didn’t then, that this loss and transition was neurologically hardwired in her developing brain. This early experience continues to inform her understanding of her place in the world decades later.

One day your little bean sprout will likely have a family of their own. This family will thrive or fail based on feelings of closeness and affection with their partner.

I think about a client, left alone in an incubator for her first year of life in an overseas orphanage. 

Her adoptive parents read in her records not to expect her to cry; she would stay in a soiled diaper until she was bloody and still not cry for help. She had learned not to expect a response.  

She also grew to be an exceptional woman: quirky, funny, and high achieving. She is a performer and a pleaser and when she first presented for treatment had little ability to identify her feelings, advocate for herself in relationships, and had daily thoughts of killing herself.

Not having her needs met and enduring physical isolation as a baby led to an ingrained, neurologically hardwired understanding of relationships and basic human connection.  

I also think about a training video I watched in which a mother interacts with her newborn son. The mother suffered from depression and had just completed a course designed to help her connect with her newborn.  

In the video, we see the infant kicking and grunting with discomfort and  the mother applies the skills she learned – she coos, holds him closely, and maintains eye contact. Despite her attempts, her newborn continues to struggle.

Suddenly he freezes and presents his mother with a false smile that is more grimace than pleasure. It has the desired effect. The mother relaxes, brings him to her shoulder and starts to rub away his discomfort.  

This is jaw dropping stuff for a therapist. At just a few weeks old, the infant has learned that in order to get his needs met (be comforted), he must first care-take his mother (false smile).  

This is a genius strategy for such a little guy to have already figured out. And I imagine the implications for him of learning to ignore his needs and be other focused, possibly facing depression and failed relationships and not understanding that the seeds for that pain were sown in the first weeks of his life.

So, what do I wish parents knew about the important work of raising babies? Secure attachment.  

Secure attachment refers to an infant’s need to experience the mother (or father) as a secure base and safe haven. The term was coined by John Bowlby, whose pioneering work in the 1950s-60s advocated for the emotional lives of babies.

Children’s needs go beyond the physical, including needs for emotional attunement, empathy, warmth, and predictable loving responses from mothers (and appropriately fathers too). Based on this early research, we’ve made significant changes to how we parent and even how we view our children.  

Parents stay involved and close to their hospitalized children; we discourage corporal punishment of children; we encourage children to speak for the needs of their bodies with things like on-demand feedings for infants; and we coach parents that comforting your baby is not spoiling her.

One day your little bean sprout will likely have a family of their own. This family will thrive or fail based on feelings of closeness and affection with their partner. As parents, we can lay a foundation for healthy relational strategies in our children by giving them what we’d like from our own relationships: emotional availability and responsiveness, gentleness and generosity.

We can model how to disagree respectfully, how to initiate repair and reconnection after an argument. The hope is to raise children who have more emotional flexibility than reactivity, who will grow into adults capable of securely attached love relationships.  

Central questions that determine successful love relationships for adults and children alike include:

  • Will you be there for me when I need you?  

  • Is this relationship a source of comfort?  

  • Am I safe with you?  

These are the questions that ought to be guiding our thinking as parents. -TB

To learn more about how to develop a secure attachment with your baby, contact Tamara Blum, attend one of our lullaby groups, or contact us for private music therapy services focusing on attachment and bonding.