To help parents to think about what their baby experiences at birth, I often ask them to do the following exercise: ‘Imagine you are forcibly removed from a warm bed on a cold night. You are stripped, your teeth are removed and you are forced down a narrow tube. At the other end you are in a cold, bright, noisy room full of strangers. How are you feeling? and what do you want?’ The answers they normally give are ‘vulnerable’ and ‘comfort’, respectively.
The exercise normally takes place at the beginning of one of my antenatal sessions, which are about a baby’s emotional development. Most parents do not realise that, just like with the stages of physical development, there is a corresponding process going on emotionally. Getting parents to empathise with their baby before it is born gives them - both Parent and Baby - a head-start in helping this process to evolve. The baby does not wait until birth to begin this process – it starts in utero.
Whilst some parents are incredulous at this prospect, others have embraced it and have been reading bedtime stories to the baby from halfway through their pregnancy.
The baby is very good at ‘reading’ emotional tone. As hearing develops from about 20 weeks, the baby can hear the tones going on around their mum, and from this they get a sense of what to expect when they are born. So, already the baby will be feeling either delight or dread at the prospect, and this affects their emotional development for better or worse.
The exercise referred to at the start of this article is meant to help parents with their first job on the emotional regulation ‘to do’ list - to help their newborn settle from a state of vulnerability to one of comfort. This emotional regulation forms the foundation for the relationship you have with your baby, which in turn informs the type of attachment they have with you. Secure attachment is associated with easy transition through feeding, weaning and toileting; strong peer relationships; doing well at school, and positive mental health into adulthood.
So, you can start early to have great emotional outcomes for your baby, and these are just as important as the physical ones. Indeed, everyone benefits from good emotional as well as physical health.
The Attachment Parenting movement, which began in the USA and has more recently moved to our shores, has this at the centre of its approach. It advocates baby-led parenting and includes breastfeeding, baby-wearing (in slings) and co-sleeping in order to promote a secure attachment. Whilst these practices do help, they are not for everyone and, indeed, they can be overdone. Initially, they can help a baby with their emotional regulation; but after the first few months, when you and your baby have got to know each other, your interactions will become more reciprocal.
You can become a bit less baby-led and negotiate a bit more agency for yourself in the relationship. After all, a child whose needs are continually prioritised may not learn some basic life skills that they will need for school, such as waiting, not always being first, and fitting in with others. These skills will serve them better in the big wide world than learning that they always get what they want!