Sunday, July 24, 2011

Babies’ Emotional Development: The Power of Synchrony

There is something magical about the very first time that your 3-month-old looks into your eyes and you can see what he is feeling. Your instincts take over and in a fraction of a second, you are looking back at your baby and changing your expression, reflecting the emotion that you see. These moments are some of the most powerful in parents' lives. Few opportunities come along in life that make you feel so connected to another human being. It is in these moments that you and your baby achieve what developmental scientists refer to as "synchrony." The ability to achieve synchrony with caregivers is an important way that babies learn how to express their feelings. In this post, we’ll share some research about how synchrony works.

A Special Relationship

We’ve told you in several posts about the importance of babies' social connection with parents. By the time a baby is 6-weeks-old, she is able to smile and makes noises at nearly everyone she sees. The smiles that she gets in return fill her with excitement and she is rewarded for exploring her world. Sometime around 3-months of age (and you all know that babies develop at their own pace), babies start to focus their efforts for connection on their special caregivers - mothers, fathers, and others who provide their care nearly every day. It is with these caregivers that babies achieve “synchrony.”

Moments of Attunement

Technically, synchrony is described as “a coordinated interaction between caregiver and infant, who respond to each other with split-second timing.” (Berger, 2003) When we use our faces to reflect our babies’ joy, surprise, concern, or sadness, they see and feel the connection between facial expressions and emotions. When we talk to them about what we see (“did the balloon surprise you?), we help them connect their feelings with words. Our instincts will tell us to exaggerate our expressions as we help our babies learn about emotions and our instincts are right! Babies respond better when we make our responses a little bigger than what we see.

The Magic of Play
When your baby was a newborn, he spent much of his alert moments staring at your face and struggling to copy what he saw. Once your baby begins to experience more of his world, it is your turn to be the one to reflect what you see. We’ve already shared how important playtime can be for your baby’s development. Along with the physical and cognitive growth that comes with playing with your baby, playtime can also be the most important time for synchrony. When your baby becomes excited by a new toy, you can use your face and words to show and tell him what he is feeling. The little repetitive games that delight your baby also offer opportunities for connection. Just remember to watch for cues that let you know when your baby is tired or overwhelmed by all the fun. By balancing moments of synchrony with needed breaks from the action, you are helping your baby learn to understand feelings, connections, and that his world is a wonderful and exciting place.

Berger KS. The Developing Person. New York, Worth Publishers, 2003.
Stern DN. The Interpersonal World of the Infant. New York, Basic Books, 1985.

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