In the previous entry, I described variations in infant temperament and what those variations tell us about how individual babies express their needs. But no baby can live in isolation, and the primary persons with whom babies interact and depend on are their parents. It is not an exaggeration to say that the quality of parent-infant relationship is the first and most influential experience that an infant has with the world, and it will shape future interactions in her/his life. What makes this relationship unique is that both infant and parent come to it with different capacities for interaction and potentially dissimilar behavioral styles. While an infant can’t talk, they can still express needs as well as respond to others; while a parent can’t regulate the infant’s behavior, they can still learn to respond in helpful and appropriate ways. In other words, the development of this most important relationship in the lives of both is a kind of dance, largely nonverbal, that involves a great deal of improvisation, novelty, and trial and error.
Rest assured: there is no more a single prescription for parenting style than there is a single style of infant behavior.
One expert in newborn/infant behavior, J. Kevin Nugent, PhD, has described some common threads in effective parenting, no matter what the unique characteristics of a parent’s personality. Briefly, these are:
Contingent responsiveness, or the parent’s attentiveness to the infant’s expression of need;
Respect for, and acceptance of, the infant’s unique behavioral style of expression, as well as acceptance of the developmental limitations of the infant’s contribution to the relationship;
Empathy, or the ability to understand, appreciate, and identify with the commonality of human experience and need, despite developmental and stylistic differences;
Time, insofar as any relationship requires the willingness on the part of the partners (primarily here the parents) to invest in the time it takes to develop a relationship. The challenge here is that the parent needs to be willing to suspend an adult approach to time management to meet the infant on their own terms, or availability and capacity for interaction;
Tolerance for mistakes. Because no infant is ideal and no parent is perfect, both need the lived experience that love means flexibility and healthy relationships “offer avenues for repair.”
Having said all this, it bears repeating that parents need to take the initiative in engaging an infant in the first interactive experience of their life … not that our infants don’t have the capacity to engage, enthrall, and hold us to them. For varieties of reasons, though, this process sometimes presents us with overwhelming, but usually not irreparable, challenges (it’s that “tolerance for mistakes” thing).
Next time I’ll discuss such challenges, or “ghosts in the nursery,” and the idea of the “good enough” parent. Stay tuned.
Read other articles in Mary Ann Zettelmaier’s A Mother’s Journey series.
Mary Ann Zettelmaier, MSN specializes in maternal-infant communication, with a comprehensive clinical focus on developing programs of family-centered care.