Jacqui Marquis-Conder, Psychologist at Sunshine Coast Perinatal Centre, and Mother of 2 exuberant young children
I remember when my son was born I was so excited to show him all the beautiful, handmade and wooden toys I had accumulated for him. But when we got home, and I showed him around his beautiful nursery and shook the adorable little rattles at him he just didn’t seem interested. As a new mother with very little experience with newborns I realised that I didn’t know how to play with my baby! What would he like, what would stimulate him or interest him? Now that I have had 2 babies and have read and researched the topic of infant play I would like to share some ideas with you.
The first developmental stage of play is called Attunement Play. This basically means providing babies with experiences where you are “in-sync” with each other and share emotions. Newborn infants’ sight is very blurry and unfocused for the first few weeks of life. Their brains are programmed to recognise facial structures (eyes, nose, and mouth) and to tune in on the sounds of familiar voices. From birth they have the capacity to “imitate” facial expressions in their own, baby like ways. This clip shows baby Xavier focusing on the human face and imitating his Dad poking his tongue out (typical Dad move!):
So, chances are my son couldn’t really see those rattles that I was holding but he was trying to focus on my facial features and listen to my voice. What he needed from me and what we eventually worked out together is a processed called “mirroring” and this is the basis for Attunement Play. Essentially caregivers are the most engaging and important “toy” that baby can have and that their brains are programmed to interact with. In very young babies this might only be for a few minutes a day. Mirroring involves the parent reflecting baby’s emotions back to him through facial expressions and tone of voice. The process goes something like this:
- Baby has a facial expression (could be subtle or more obvious)
- The parent makes a similar facial expression back.
This can be as simple as just looking at each other, otherwise known as “eye gazing”. I remember thinking that I needed to “eye gaze” with my son often and frequently to show him how much I love him however, in practice it only lasted a few seconds and only once or twice a day. It is just as important that we respect baby’s wish to look away that we make eye contact (why didn’t they come with a manual!!). The following video-clip demonstrates a mother and baby “eye gazing” with each other. As you can see it doesn’t really matter what you are talking about and you don’t need to talk the entire time- if they are in a receptive mood baby will be interested in your face and your voice:
We can also “mirror” our babies when they are unsettled or crying to show them that we care about their feelings. This reassurance is also known as “marked mirroring” which helps the baby know their feelings are understood and that the parent is not overwhelmed and is there is help. The process goes something like this:
- Baby expresses distress through crying
- The parent mirrors a version of this expression
- The parent then follows up with a reassuring expression.
So just try this the next time baby cries, look at her little face. Notice her little eyes scrunching up, the nostrils flaring, and the mouth opening, notice her face getting red and her little fists balling up. Make a similar facial expression and say “you’re upset”! And then tell your baby that it is OK and that you are there to help or just be there with them while they struggle through these feelings. Don’t expect her to stop crying just show her you understand, and you are doing your best to handle it for her. Doing this once or twice a day is great, and you don’t have to get it right all the time or be perfect, remember you are learning to be a parent.
To get some help with infant play try some activities together with your baby. Attunement is likely to occur through activities such as baby massage, swimming or having a bath together, going for a walk around the garden, or “chatting” to baby while in their stroller or carrier. Put your mobile phone away for a few minutes a day and try to get really “in the moment” with your baby. Remember that you are the most important toy to an infant and those little moments of shared joy and even shared distress is building the blocks of cognitive and emotional development that will last a lifetime.