By Annie Garrett, PEPS Contributor (Estimated reading time: 8 minutes)
As a Developmental Moments trainer for Program for Early Parent Support (PEPS) and an Infant Parenting Educator, I love discovering fun ways for parents to bond with babies, setting the stage for a playful relationship that can have lifelong mental and cognitive health benefits. These interactions can stimulate connection, and nothing builds a baby’s brain like connection with primary caregivers.
The Harvard Center on the Developing Child encourages parents to engage in a ‘Serve and Return‘ style of interactions with little ones. They share, “When an infant or young child babbles, gestures, or cries, and an adult responds appropriately with eye contact, words, or a hug, neural connections are built and strengthened in the child’s brain that support the development of communication and social skills. Much like a lively game of tennis, volleyball, or Ping-Pong, this back-and-forth is both fun and capacity-building.”
These types of interactions are at the heart of infant-parent education, and I believe in them so much that I continuously recommend them as a way of helping new parents build up their skills. Take part in a delightful 5-minute Baby Brain Masterclass or check out a short 5-Step Guide, both from the Harvard Center on the Developing Child. And if regular support to initiate “serves” sounds helpful, check out Vroom, a nonprofit that will send short, age-appropriate prompts right to your mobile phone through text messages.
Betty Peralta enjoys the outdoors with a student at Vashon-Maury Cooperative Preschool, one of many organizations where she serves as a parent educator. Betty’s goal is to help “both adults and children become calmer, more joyful, and cooperative human beings.
I also want to recommend parents think about what to do with the baby and what not to do. What has American society ingrained in us that might not serve our generation well, as we seek to bond with babies? Could taking these things off our plate reduce our stress? As a parent of young children, conversing with infant mental health specialist, Betty Peralta, is like taking a deep and enduring exhale that I didn’t even know I needed. Beyond her credentials in infant mental health, Peralta is one of our region’s most in-demand parent educators and early intervention consultants. She teaches many courses, amongst them a “How to Bond” course for parents. I recently had a chance to sit down with her, and I am honored to share her deep wisdom on this topic.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Annie: I think you may be the first certified infant mental health professional I’ve ever met. Can you tell me more about this profession and your work?
Betty: It’s really Infant and Early Childhood Mental Health and generally goes from prenatal to five. It is a practice of working with a caregiver and a baby. Your client is not the child, and your client is not the parent. Your client is the relationship between the two.
Annie: I have reached out to the right person on this topic of bonding with the baby!
Betty: That’s what our primary job is, to facilitate that bonding. A lot of it is helping both parent and child with trauma. Because you know, that’s what gets in the way of bonding.
Annie: You work with countless families of infants county-wide. When it comes to helping parents bond with their baby, where do you begin?
Betty: I like to begin with crying. Because that’s a really good time to bond with babies, and it’s a less understood time to bond with babies. It’s easiest to bond with babies when they are cooing and smiling and gurgling, but when they cry, they need your bonding the most. I think we feel like failures when children cry, and we can’t get them to stop and what I like to tell people is that crying is not a problem; it’s a solution. Babies are using crying to soothe themselves. You can work as a team with your baby, alongside your baby. The goal is not to stop the crying. The goal is to join the baby as they cry in solving the problem, which is simply comfort. Of course, you want to feed the baby, change it, give it attention when the baby is asking for it, and get them to sleep, but you don’t need to stop the crying.
Sometimes you put it off, and they are still having tantrums when they are seven. That tension has stayed in their body, and they are finally letting it out now. So the earlier you can teach them to train their brains to let it out, they don’t accumulate it, and it doesn’t feel so unmanageable later. Children who feel heard and who are allowed to let out their tension by expressing emotion don’t hit and kick and bite and spit so much.
Annie: Is there a place where parents can see what this looks like?
Betty: Yes! I have a video called Viral Video of Dad Holding Space During Toddler’s Tantrum, and it’s not easy to watch because it’s not easy to watch a baby cry. It’s not supposed to be easy; you are wired to hate listening to a baby cry. It’s a survival mechanism, the baby’s crying, so it’s going to be upsetting, but that’s what the baby needs. And I like Hand in Hand Parenting as a resource. It’s my favorite.
Annie: What else is a focus of your practice when it comes to the relationship? To bonding?
Betty: One of the scientific facts that I like to share is when a baby goes through the birth canal, oxytocin goes into the amygdala [of the parent]. It just pours and fills up the amygdala, and that makes us want to protect our babies at all costs. Not only does it happen then, but it happens in the day-to-day care of babies. So, when caring for the babies day-to-day, fathers and adoptive parents get that dose of oxytocin, making it so they feel they never want anything [bad] to happen to this child. Every time a baby gets upset, our amygdala sets off alarm bells, and we want to solve the problem immediately. That gets in the way of allowing the baby to help you soothe them – and when they’re a teenager, too. They want you to listen, to support them.
Annie: What are the key challenges parents are up against today as they try to bond with their baby at this unique moment in history?
Betty: I think we could learn and know that your baby can sit by themselves and can not be with you for a while. You don’t have to be constantly soothing your child. They can have a little alone time. Children benefit from the variety of situations where you’re not always available.
I think we are so anxious. We have an anxious parenting style in the US and UK, and we need to do a little more relaxing and let our babies gain their resilience by having a little challenge and not having us be available for every tiny thing. And it’s really hard. Not only do we have that amygdala thing going on where we freak out when they’re upset, but we also have comparison and this misunderstanding that we’re supposed to be perfect.
Parents need to know that they are doing it right. It’s ingrained in them. Their worry that they aren’t doing it right is a natural outcome of our anxious society.
Annie: Ah, yes! I’ve definitely had the experience of feeling anxious about a parenting challenge and then finding some advice and taking it too fast, too far. How can we prevent this?
Betty: We need to get more familiar with our bodies. If you notice that you’re not calm, or you see that you’re not alert, that’s when you need to take care of yourself. Get familiar with your somatic experience. Am I drained, hyped up, or anxious? What do I need to soothe my [own] nervous system? What is causing me to stress out? Any advice that makes you feel anxious is counterproductive.
Thank you, Betty, for all you have done for me as a parent and parent educator and for all you’ve done for so many King County families. I have exhaled so many times during this conversation!