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Respond with Sensitivity

You can build the foundation of trust and empathy by understanding and responding appropriately to your infant's needs. Babies communicate their needs in many ways including body movements, facial expressions, and crying. They learn to trust when their needs are consistently responded to with sensitivity. Building a strong attachment with a baby involves not only responding consistently to his physical needs, but spending enjoyable time interacting with him and thus meeting his emotional needs as well.

There are many societal challenges that can interfere with parents' ability to develop a responsive relationship with their babies. For example, parents may encounter myths about spoiling a baby or unsolicited advice from well-meaning family, friends and media. Advice that conflicts with science, facts about normal development, or a parent's own intuitive feelings can cause stress for the parent who must decide how to respond.

In the course of normal child development, babies form primary attachments with the person or people who spend the majority of time nurturing and caring for them -- usually the mother and/or father. Frequent holding and interactions with baby increase bonding and promote secure attachment. In the first six months or so your baby may seem happy being held by or interacting with other people. Then at eight to nine months of age, many babies will suddenly begin to show fear and anxiety about being separated from their mother. This, too, is a normal phase.

Babies and children require empathy and respect for their feelings to help them learn to feel safe and secure. Intense fears of separation will naturally subside as the child matures. It may take considerably longer for more sensitive children to be comfortable in the care of non-parental adults. Follow the child's cues and do not force children to accept strangers or expect them to overcome stranger/separation anxiety before they're ready.

Needs and the Benefits of Responding with Sensitivity

  • Babies' brains are immature and significantly underdeveloped at birth, and they are unable to soothe themselves
  • Through the consistent, repeated responsiveness of a compassionate adult, children learn to soothe themselves
  • Some babies and children appear more sensitive to the environment and stimulation
  • Understand your child's natural inner rhythms, and try to schedule around them
  • It is perfectly normal for babies to want constant physical contact
  • High levels of stress, such as during prolonged crying, cause a baby to experience an unbalanced chemical state in the brain and can place him at risk for physical and emotional problems later in life
  • Symptoms of burnout or inability to cope with baby's needs are signals that extra support and/or professional help are necessary

Responding to Tantrums and Strong Emotions

  • Tantrums represent real emotions and as such should be taken seriously
  • Some emotions are too powerful for a young child's underdeveloped brain to manage in a more socially acceptable manner
  • A parent's role in tantrums is to comfort the child, not to get angry or punish her

Responding to the Older Child

  • Continue to nurture a close connection by respecting the child's feelings and trying to understand the needs underlying his outward behaviors
  • Support explorations by providing a safe environment for discovery and remaining close by
  • Show interest in the child's activities and participate enthusiastically in child-directed play
  • Some children enjoy preschool or other programs where parents are not included, but they is not necessary for child development. Consider the child's readiness to separate and the amount and type of support provided by adults.

Research related to this Principle