Mummy, please look at me – when baby won’t make eye contact

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.

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  • Ika Natalia

    Thank you for this great article.. I’d like to tell all the new mum to follow your heart, not the rule.. I had midwife who gave me so many rule and she was actually staying with me for 2 weeks after labor.. She totally took me away from my baby.. I was just like feeding robot with no feeling.. But after she left, I brake all her rule and the result now is my baby has compliment from everyone that she is the most settled and happiest baby they’ve ever seen.. And this article really is my experience..

  • New Mom

    I have to say that I am a bit disappointed as your article insinuates that a baby who is delivered by cesarian is not “biologically, hormonally primed to fall in love” like after a natural birth. This is couldn’t be farther from the truth! My son, who was delivered by c-section, almost immediately calmed down when I spoke and touched him. When they took him away from me to finish the procedure he started screaming again. He didn’t stop crying until we were reunited in my room after the surgery. A mother who does not have a story like mine could feel that she will never truly bond with her child because of her c-section and that can be hurtful and frankly dangerous!

    I was searching for a reason why “sometimes” my son is looking everywhere else but at me. Sure we have plenty of warm, love eye contact moments but it seems that at times maybe he is simply tired of looking at me? ? Sounds crazy stupid but I was wondering if anyone else had this happen to them. Maybe I just stumbled across the wrong site.

  • Emma

    My Son is 5 months old and suddenly this morning started avoiding eye contact. he’s never done this before so obviously I googled it and came to your article and have in fact just sleep trained using the eye contact aversion method you mention. Of course I freaked out that I had wrecked our relationship and bond. But- Could the 5 seconds that i’m putting him down and saying goodnight really outweigh the 12 hours we spend staring at each other during the day?

  • Pinky Mckay Is One of my Favourite People

    […] and there was nobody else awake in the whole world, just me and my second newborn baby, telling me it’s okay to gaze into her eyes, that I’m not confusing her or over stimulating her – that she’ll turn her head if she […]

  • Lori

    Could this maybe have something to do with us always being on our phones while breastfeeding??