I have a beautiful statue on my desk: a black stone carving of a mother and child that my son brought back from his travel adventures in Africa. What I love about this carving is the ‘eye contact’ between the mother and her child. Although the carving is rough and has no defined facial features, the two heads are perfectly aligned so that the connection between mother and child is unmistakable.
Sadly though, many parents and particularly mothers, are being given advice that interrupts this exquisite bond. I have had mothers call me knowing intuitively that something is amiss as they say, “my baby won’t make eye contact.”
At first I was baffled – as an eight week old baby looked directly at me and smiled. I then discovered that the mother had a normal drug-free birth and no separation afterwards, so bonding at birth had been optimal – mothers and babies are biologically, hormonally primed to fall in love after a natural birth. Apart from distress about her baby’s lack of eye contact, the mum wasn’t exhibiting any symptoms of chronic postnatal stress or depression( which could have possibly affected her responses to her baby’s cues – sometimes reactions are slowed when mothers are depressed or distracted). So what, I wondered, had happened to create a breakdown in the connection between mother and child?
It turned out that this mother – and others I have met with a similar reaction from their babies since – had been religiously following a very strict sleep training regime that advocated avoiding eye contact with her baby. Although it is wise to keep bedtimes calm and gentle, imagine how you would feel if your partner repeatedly avoided your gaze. How do you feel when people avoid eye contact with you,especially when you make an effort to connect?
Eye contact is an important element of parent child bonding and the development of trust between parent and child: your face is the most potent visual stimulus your baby encounters, and as you and your baby gaze into each other’s eyes, endorphin levels rise in your baby’s brain, producing feelings of joy. Your own endorphin levels will rise and, in turn, you and your baby become emotionally synchronised.
According to Margot Sunderland, Director of Education and Training for the Centre for Child Mental Health in London and author of The Science of Parenting , face to face conversations between you and your baby and the subsequent release of optimal hormonal levels into your child’s brain will help develop pathways in your child’s higher brain that encourage social intelligence, the ability to form relationships. Ms Sunderland says, “the ability to ‘light you up’ is the very basis of your baby’s sense of himself as lovely and lovable.
Fortunately, with a little time supporting these mothers to read and respond to their babies’ cues and, with interaction such as baby massage and games that involve face to face contact, they and their babies are soon engaging with each other again.
So, please be reassured, if you have been trying to follow a rigid baby care plan but feel it is interrupting the bond between you and your child, it is never too late to make changes. Above all, you haven’t irreparably damaged your relationship with your child, but please, look into your baby’s eyes and say, “I love you”. And wait for her to meet your gaze.
For more information on your baby’s developing brain check out Pinky McKay’s recording package ‘The Secrets of Happy Babies’ , a series of recorded interviews with internationally acclaimed professionals specialising in infant mental health and brain development.