All babies are born ready to be part of a relationship. In fact, their very survival depends on it. Children's relationships shape the way they see the world and affect all areas of their development.
A child's most important early relationships are with the parents, family members and other caregivers. It's through these connections that children learn more about their world - how to think, understand, communicate, behave, show emotions, develop social skills and move around. The reason for this is relationships allow children to express themselves - a cry, a laugh, a question. In return they get something back - a cuddle, a smile, an answer. What children "get back" give them very important information about what the world is like and how to act in the world. It is through these daily interactions within their most important relationships that children learn about themselves and their world, their emotions and how to regulate their stress responses.
Recent advances in neuroscience indicate early brain development is biologically shaped in response to these early relationships. When parents help children feel secure early on, they provide a critical opportunity to optimize early brain wiring. The development of these early capacities is critical for successive brain development, which in turn builds the foundation for future learning, behavior and long term health.
Through sensitive and responsive care giving, a child learns to depend on parent to be there when needed. The feeling of safety provided as a secure base is what makes it possible for the child to begin to explore the world and try new skills. The trust and security of the relationship allows the child to set out and explore the world when it is safe, knowing the parent is available when needed.
Playful activities between parent and child are a great relationship builder. A game as straightforward as peek-a-boo fosters a healthy relationship by playing and spending time together. All areas of infant development are positively affected. Peek-a-boo also helps with the baby's thinking, learning about what comes next when the parent disappears and then reappears. When a baby squeals and reaches out his or her arms to communicate, it wants more - the baby is developing language and motor skills. And when the parent responds, it encourages the youngster to keep communicating.
It seemingly is only a simple game, but the interaction lays the foundation for the infant's language, thinking, motor skills and social and emotional development. This development is possible because of the positive, nurturing relationship between parent and child.
Pediatric primary health care providers are often the ones most likely to see families during important developmental periods. Between the ages of birth and 2 years, a typical provider will see families at least 10 times at routinely scheduled child check-ups. These visits provide valuable opportunities to promote children's physical and social emotional health. By infusing strategies that support healthy parent-child relationships into daily practice with families, health providers can more comprehensively address the overall health of the child.
Pediatricians also can facilitate the secure attachment between parent and child. A baby's secure attachment is not always immediate. It develops over time, but starts at the very beginning of life. When a baby gazes at the parent or clings to them and cries, the baby is seeking to be near them to receive comfort and protection. The attachment behaviors such as soothing, feeding and protecting allow a relationship to develop. Encouragement and support of these instincts by their health care providers can be instrumental in promoting secure attachment behaviors.
Giving parents the message that infants and young children are completely dependent on others for their care, and that responses to these needs are essential for a child's survival can aid in supporting them to respond sensitively to their child's needs.
Reference: Kelly, J. F., Dillon, C. O., Larsen, J. M., & Thordarson, N. O. (2013). Promoting first relationships in pediatric primary care.
Dr. Judy Romano is the director of Wheeling Hospital Center for Pediatrics