Babies need loving, responsive adults to make them whole. This is best illustrated by watching the still face study, which was created by Ed Tronick, a developmental psychologist. This version is done with dads (a great reminder that it’s parents — not just moms – who matter to babies). (You can see a version with older kids here.)
When the baby becomes upset, that’s dysregulation. When parents tune back in, the babies are able to regulate. Babies (and toddlers and children) learn to regulate on their own over time but only with our help.
Now before you start feeling bad about the times you’re on your phone or reading a book or cooking a dinner and your baby is melting down, the important thing is the reconnection. You step away, you come back. They fall apart, you help them come back together. Some frustration is fine because in that frustration are important lessons about trust. Dad comes back. Mom returns. You are not alone. (The second video I linked explains this more.)
Eventually baby’s tolerance increases. As children get older they need less reflection from us and they are able to carry that sense of being seen within themselves. But there will be times when they will need our help even when they’re great big kids. After all, we adults sometimes need someone to hold our hands, too, so we won’t fall to pieces.
“There’s no such thing as an infant,” wrote D. W. Winnicott, famed British child psychiatrist. “If you show me a baby you certainly show me also someone caring for a baby.”
A baby alone is a baby unfinished.
Now imagine what happens if a baby lives alone in dysregulation for a long time or very often. Imagine if a baby does not have someone to complete them. This is what happens to children who are neglected or institutionalized. They don’t learn to self regulate; they’ve never been given the tools to do it. As you can see from the video, some babies shut down and others fall apart. This is where they will go as they get older even if they have help later. Those early experiences leave deep impressions on young hearts and minds.
Now think of yourself. Some adults watch the still face videos and they have a visceral reaction. Tears come to their eyes. They become upset for the seemingly abandoned infant. Perhaps it reminds us of being left to our own dysregulation too often. Perhaps it reminds us of early experiences of fear and loneliness.
Parenting our children can bring up some of these deep seated losses. Sometimes giving to our children what we didn’t have is healing and sometimes it can bring us grief we don’t understand and don’t know how to manage.
So what do we need then? Where can we find connection to regulate? Perhaps it’s from our partner. Perhaps it’s through meditation to connect us to our feelings so we can attend to them. And perhaps it’s in the office of a trusted counselor.