Each of us has our own story as to the amount of nurturing we received very early in life…from parental separation and/or abuse to consistent loving emotional interactions. The fledging ego, like a plant in the seedling stage that is the fortunate recipient of the right nutrients grows into healthy expression. But when the seedling is either denied what is needed for its growth or is actually assaulted in its vulnerable plight, the internalization of nurturing experiences does not occur and the child does not know the repair of shame. Such a child feels separate and disconnected. However, given the right conditions, the ego can and will grow. Here are four behaviors parents can employ in promoting secure bonding with their infants.
Decades ago psychologists advised parents not to touch and hold infants more than necessary. In fact they told parents to not rock infants; to not pick them up when they cry; to feed them by the clock; and not to spoil them with too much handling. Quite to the contrary, behavioral research now shows that to foster secure bonding infants need to be held, touched, rocked, and cradled to the heart’s content of anyone within their reach.
When we look down at an infant in her crib with the understanding that she uses our facial expressions as a way of learning about herself, we are involved in what researchers refer to as mirroring. When an infant sees Mom smile, mirror neurons in specific brain regions tell her to imitate and smile back. By the same token when Mom is irritable or sad, the infant takes on a worried look and tenses her body. Imagine Mom looking into the infant’s eyes, her gaze communicating the wonder she feels for this little being of hers. This infant takes this in, and in grown-up language the printout reads, “I belong. I have a place. I am irreplaceable.” Similarly, the cooing, singing, and soft words spoken by caretakers cushion her world, adding to the experience of her sense of belonging and being valued for exactly who she is.
As the infant learns to sit and crawl mirroring expands into attunement. This powerful dynamic is present when the exchanges between the infant and Mom and Dad become increasingly emotionally interactive and contingent. A contingent response occurs when the quality, intensity, and timing of the infant’s signal or communication are reflected back to her. In other words, her parents align their emotional states with hers. What parental behaviors actually occur when the infant “feels felt by the other?” Eye contact, tone of voice, facial expression, body gestures, posture, timing and intensity become a gestalt as moment-to-moment feelings and sensations are echoed back to her. The infant clasps the rattle, gives it a shake, and grins. Dad pretends he has a rattle in his hand, gives it a shake, and grins. A smile is met with a smile, a frown with a look of concern, a funny face with a funny face and tears with soothing sound. The effect on the infant? “Mom and Dad are getting it. They understand what I feel. We’re connected.” Through the juice of parental contingency, the infant comes to know her emotions are part of human experience, that feelings are natural, and that she lives in a world of feeling shared by others. The richness of these emotion-filled-resonant moments not only fire connections of new neural cells within the infant’s developing brain, they bring balance to her body, emotions, and mind states as well as coherence to her sense of self.
The infant thus internalizes her relationship with her caretakers which then establishes an inner base of consistent nurturing. What this means is that her maturing brain organizes her experience of being soothed and held so they live inside her. More and more as her mental powers expand, she begins to draw on the memory of those experiences, turning to them when Mom and Dad are not immediately present to comfort her. This experience of self-soothing, with whatever sensory components and imagery overtones it carries, anchors the ego with an essential touchstone for the rest of life.