How To Develop Baby's Capacity To Engage In Social Interaction

I came to the Psychology Department at Harvard University in 1968. Back then, everyone was doing hard science studies. Visual perception, learning, memory. But I was really interested in what's going on between mothers and their infants. And that had never really been looked at before. [Ed Tronick, Professor of Psychology, University of Massachusetts, USA]

I actually had one of my professors put his hand around my shoulder and say, "This emotion stuff is not what you want to be doing." And somehow, I resisted that, because I wanted to ask, "Is the baby born ready to engage in social relationships?" Or, "Is the baby just sort of passive?"

This led me to the development of the still face experiment. We had mothers playing with young babies, three, four, five months of age. 

If the infant got really excited, the mother got really excited. Then we asked mothers to stop reacting to the baby for about two minutes, to see what the baby would do. The babies immediately picked up that the mother wasn't reacting the way she typically did. They would smile at her. Eventually, the babies might cry. But they would keep on trying to get back into a relationship. 

It was clear that the baby is born with the capacity to engage in social interaction. It's something that's built in and critical to us. And if a relationship gets disrupted it has a very powerful emotional effect on be it a baby or an adult.

Stress is inevitable. You really can't avoid it. So does a good relationship between the parent and a baby help the baby cope with stress?

We have set up a new way to use the still face experiment where we look at the amount of stress that the infant experiences. So we will take several measures of both you and your baby.

The first thing we do is we take a sample of the baby's saliva and look at the level of a stress hormone called cortisol. The higher the level of cortisol, the greater the level of stress for the infant.

The still face experiment helps us to see what goes on in regular interactions between the mother and the baby. What we see there is that they're matching one another, they're dancing coordinated.

As soon as we start, the baby sees something has changed. They know it right away. Babies try to elicit her response. They may start to fuss, even cry, when she's not responding. She's complaining a lot. But eventually, they bring their hands up to their mouth and comfort themselves.

And it doesn't take long for the baby and the mother to figure out ways to reconnect after the stress of the still face experiment. And that's really important for the infant. It means that the infant is able to trust this person to fix, to repair, after something has gone wrong in the interaction.

When we look at the levels of cortisol during the experiment, we find that where an infant has positive experience with their parents, the infant is less stressed during the still face and shows lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol.

It's really a pretty amazing finding, and it speaks to the effect of parenting on how the infant will be in the world. Every parent struggles to find out, "What does my baby need now?"

But if you keep on trying, you'll find out the answers. Trust your baby to tell you what it is that he or she needs and trust your own instincts about how to be responding.

That's how the two of you... fall in love with one another.

Source: Netflix.

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