As a parent there are many lessons that you are supposed to teach your child; these lessons begin at birth or maybe even before. Some lessons take a short time to learn and others take a lifetime. In the movie, “Dan in Real Life” (2007), a single father fumbles through dealing with his teenage daughter and learns that “Love is not a skill … it’s an ability.”
The way that we feel and convey love is not something we learn as adults, but a part of us at birth and then molded and shaped by experiences throughout our lives. The Committee on Integrating the Science of Early Childhood Development reported in 2000 that children who do not establish secure attachments with their parents often grow into adults who have difficulty understanding their own emotions as well as the feelings of others. This is a lesson you have a long time to teach but begin as early as possible.
Bonding with your child is more than merely taking care of your baby’s needs. Most of us focus on providing the best meals, education, material needs and doting around-the-clock care; but the best way to ensure a healthy emotional future is through nonverbal emotional exchanges with your child. Babies don’t know what they need — they feel what they need — and communicate that through their behavior. Your nonverbal response makes your child feel safe, secure and balanced. Your first job is to give her your undivided attention which allows non-verbal communication to occur.
So what do we mean by non-verbal communication? Try to be mindful of these three simple cues to create a strong and secure attachment:Eye contact — Maintain eye contact with your child whenever you can. This makes your little one feel safe, relaxed and happy. She also will become more comfortable as she grows older holding her gaze with others.
Facial expression — Children often lack the emotional intelligence to convey the details of their emotions in words, so by simply mirroring their facial expression will make them feel understood. Follow that with a hug to comfort them and then slowly change your expression to one of relaxation and calm. Watch as your child’s face, temperament and entire demeanor will follow your lead.
Touch — One of the most loving ways to bond with your baby while nursing is to maintain eye contact and stroke her face. This gentle touch is soothing and causes her to look to you for safety and comfort. Be sure to let her to stroke your face as well. The importance of touch remains throughout the child’s life.
Once again, we all do our best to give our time and attention, but often our responsibilities as an adult don’t fit nicely with our responsibilities as a parent. Routines are changed to fit busy schedules, storytime gets rushed or cut short in time for our favorite TV shows and mealtime multitasking combines nursing with your mobile device of choice.
Remember, your baby will constantly be looking for and be affected by your nonverbal cues — both when you want her to and when you don’t. Do your best to make time with your baby exclusively and give her all of your attention.
Even if your children are past their infant years, working on establishing a secure attachment helps at any age. Do your best to maintain loving eye contact, mirrored facial expressions and a compassionate touch with all of your family members and watch how the connection will grow among you.
Don’t just say “I love you” but show it. Practice makes perfect, so the earlier that your children learn to decipher and respond to the nonverbal cues of their loved ones the better equipped they will become at building healthy, emotionally attuned relationships and communicate more effectively as adults.
The time to stop practicing showing your love is never.
Cynthia Martin is the founder of the First Teacher program and former executive director of Parenting Matters Foundation, which publishes newsletters for parents, caregivers and grandparents. Reach Martin at email@example.com.