Understanding and Supporting Babies’ Behavioural Development (part 1 of 2)
One of the wonders of being human is our individuality – no one is quite the same! And babies are no different. So, how do we understand infant behaviour, without putting pressure on ourselves for our little ones to develop in exactly the same way others do? How do we support them with their behavioural development whilst accepting them for who they are (and who they will become)? And when should we seek help if we are worried?
“Babies behaviour is a form of communication. Our job is to work out what they are trying to tell us.”
One of the wonders of being human is our individuality – no one is quite the same! A complex interplay of our biology and environment makes us who we are. And babies are no different.
However, if you’re anything like me and prone to a bit (actually a lot) of anxiety then becoming a parent can make us forget how difference is both normal and important. It seems as though we are primed to compare with others as soon as our baby emerges from the womb (or even before!). It can feel as though babies are supposed to have a single developmental pathway and that our friends’ tinies are always one step ahead of ours.
When I had my first child, I remember wondering why he wasn’t sleeping like others. What was I doing wrong? As a child psychologist who had supported a number of clients with their children’s sleep this felt pretty awful. I remember feeling jealous of a mum friend of mine who had a baby who slept pretty much all of the time. Some years later, she told me that she thought there was something wrong with her child because she slept too much!
So, how do we understand infant behaviour, without putting pressure on ourselves for our little ones to develop in exactly the same way others do? How do we support them with their behavioural development whilst accepting them for who they are (and who they will become)? And when should we seek help if we are worried?
This article talks about the different influences on babies’ behaviour and how we best support them to develop. I’m focusing on the first 18 months as babyhood (although I still think of my 11-year-old as my baby!).
Behaviour is a form of communication
The nature vs nurture debate has rather changed over the years. We now know that the two interact with each other and that babies’ behaviour is led both by their biology and their environment. If you’re interested in exploring how the two interact then have a look at epigenesis – it’s fascinating!
What we need to remember is that babies do not understand others’ feelings. The development of a “theory of mind”, when you understand that others have a mind separate to you, happens around the age of 3. Their behaviour is not designed intentionally to frustrate, but a communication of how they are feeling or a natural (if sometimes risky!) exploration of their world.
Their behaviour is normally a response to something they like, something they find threatening, something they are curious about, or a way of telling you what they need. For example, when distressed a baby will cry and when they are learning about gravity, they will drop their spoon on the floor over and over and over again (with the expectation that we will keep picking it up!).
In the early days it can be very hard to understand what a particular behaviour is communicating. There are a number of times we have to work through different possibilities to help calm our babies before finding the right solution – it could be a nappy change, feed, nap, stimulation, hunger, frustration – the list goes on. Our job is to try to make sense of it for them and try to fix it. This may take a while - I remember being bamboozled by my son’s cries, trying every trick in the book before he settled! As babies become better at communicating, and us at picking up on their cues, they become easier to understand.
Parenting, brain development and behaviour
The experiences we have when we are little shapes the way we respond to the world. In fact, the first 5 years of a child’s life is a critical time for brain development. Babies are born relying on the lower part of their brain, which houses their survival system. This means they don’t have the tools to make sense of their environment and can only show basic responses like crying to express discomfort and thereby get their needs met. As they age, they start to develop higher parts of the brain, which are responsible for making sense of their world, and developing some control over how they manage it.
What I find fascinating is how key a parent’s response is in shaping children’s brain development – the more they experience consistent and responsive parenting, the more children develop more healthy connections to the higher, thinking and reasoning parts of the brain. Have a look at The Whole Brain-Child by Daniel Siegel and Tina Payne-Bryson if you’re interested in delving deeper into children’s brain development (it has some fabulous ideas and is an easy read).
How does attachment influence behaviour?
The way a baby learns about the world is through their relationship with their primary caregiver (normally a mum or dad). This is called an attachment relationship and is thought of as the cornerstone of a child’s development. Depending on their experiences with their parent, babies’ will adapt their behaviour to get their needs met. For example, they may start to learn to avoid eye contact and fend for themselves if their parent is rarely available (known as an avoidant attachment relationship) or if they receive inconsistent parenting, they may become clingier (known as an ambivalent attachment relationship).
These strategies are to get their needs met – if their safe base (i.e. their parent) is not able to support them when they need it they either keep close to maximize their chances of their needs being met, or stay away because they haven’t been helped enough before. If, however babies receive good-enough parenting (note not perfect parenting – it doesn’t exist and is an unhelpful concept to aspire to) then they learn that their attachment figure is available and will turn to them when they need them. This is known as a secure attachment relationship and is optimal for child development. This allows babies to start to get the balance between exploring the world and using their parent for support when they feel threatened or overwhelmed. Have a look at my blog on attachment for more information about this.
Sometimes parents panic when they read this. “Help, my baby is clingy! What have I done wrong? Is my baby insecure?”. It’s important to remember that separation anxiety is normal at certain stages. This often starts between 9-18 months but can start earlier and last longer (see my blog post for more information about separation anxiety). Other parents are anxious that their baby is too independent – again, this desire to go it alone is normal, particularly when they become toddlers and want to explore the world, thinking they know best!
All babies will have moments of meltdown and you will feel that you are not connected with them at times. This, in itself, is not a sign of you getting anything wrong or are developing an insecure attachment relationship. It’s part of normal development – remember, they don’t have the brain power yet to act like a rational being!
What is key is that when babies are showing distress that they need help to calm down. Their brain is not developed enough to do so themselves. With a better understanding of brain development, the idea that picking up crying babies led to spoiling has been quashed. They aren’t old enough to know that they are feeling fear, hunger, or sadness, let alone manage it. In fact, a parent responding to babies’ request for soothing leads to less crying in the longer term.
So, parents need to attend to their babies, help them understand what they are feeling and start to solve the problem with them. This is called co-regulation – if we effectively soothe babies, they start to learn how to do it for themselves (self-regulation) and then for others. This doesn’t happen for some time, even with good-enough parenting, and even adults can’t regulate their own feelings at times. We can also benefit from having a supportive person to help us manage our feelings.
What about temperament?
Although environment makes a huge difference to who we become, so does our temperament. Our temperament is defined as biologically based individual differences in the way we respond emotionally and behaviourally to the world – it forms part of our basic personality. For example, some babies are more cautious and fearful, others more outgoing and sociable. Our temperament affects who we are and how we behave and there is evidence that those who are more behaviourally inhibited as an infant will be more likely to be more reserved and introverted as an adult1.
However, although temperament is stable, as I can attest to with my three boys who have very different personalities despite having relatively similar parenting, the effect of temperament changes according to the parenting children receive. Studies have even shown that the presence of certain genes affect how much influence parenting can have on temperament2, again highlighting how intertwined environment and biology is on behavioural development.
What is important is that we are able to accept our babies for who they are, whether they are naturally quiet or outgoing. We need to be careful not to label them too early – particularly if these have negative implications. Words are very powerful and children often live up to how we see them. Talking about babies as “good” or “bad” or “shy” can make a huge difference to how we understand their behaviour as well as how they actually behave, forming how they start to see themselves.
Check out part two of this special feature for ways to support babies’ emotional and behavioural development.
- Tang, A., Crawford, H., Morales, S., Degnan, K. A., Pine. D. S., & Fpx, N. A. (2020). Infant behavioural inhibition predits personality and social outcomes three decades later. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Sheese, B., E., Voelker, P, M., Rothbart, M. K. & Posner, M. I. (2007). Parenting quality interacts with genetic variation in dopamine receptor D4 to influence temperament in early childhood. Development and Psychopathology, Volume 19 Issue 4
Meet Our Guest Writer: Dr. Sarah Mundy
Dr Sarah Mundy is a Consultant Clinical Psychologist (BSc., MSc., PDClin) and author of Parenting Through Stories. She has worked with children and families for 20 years and has specialised in helping parents connect with their children and support them with their emotional wellbeing, particularly those who have been through early adversity.
Sarah also writes articles for various publications and has the occasional appearance on BBC television on radio. She lives in beautiful Cornwall with her three children and partner.
You can also access free resources and parenting advice through www.parentingthroughstories.com, Instagram (@parenting_through_stories), Facebook (@parentingthroughstories) and Twitter (@bartley_bear).