As parents and children begin their lives together as a family, parents embark on a significant new challenge—that of promoting their babies' healthy growth and development. As you will see, the care that parents provide for their babies impacts all areas of their early and later development. We will begin this discussion by focusing on the important role that parents play in promoting their infants and toddlers' social-emotional development. We will then look at the ways in which parents influence their babies' physical and cognitive development. Throughout all these deliberations, we will pause to consider the implications for professionals.
Promoting the Social-Emotional Development of Infants and Toddlers
The relationships that parents establish with their infants and toddlers provide the basis for their children's social and emotional development. These early parent-child relationships also set the stage for their children's emotional well-being and social relationships in later stages of life. As will be emphasized in the forthcoming discussion, parents who are consistently sensitive and responsive to their infants contribute to the development of infant trust and attachment that in turn promotes parent-infant synchrony and is later expressed in toddler autonomy and exploratory behavior.
Infant Trust and Attachment
Probably the most important goal of parenting infants is to endow them with a sense of trust. Erik Erikson theorized that the quality of parent-infant interactions influences whether infants develop a sense of trust or a sense of mistrust (Goldhaber, 2000). Infants' development of a sense of trust parallels their development of secure attachment. Parents of securely attached infants have been described as more sensitive, more contingently responsive, more consistent, more likely to hold their infants, less intrusive, less tense, and less irritable (Ainsworth, 1973). The process by which babies develop secure attachment depends on whether or not they experience contingent responsiveness from their parents and other caregivers. Parents provide contingent responsiveness to their infants when they allow them to be actively engaged in the roles of elicitor as well as receiver of parental attention. Thus, infants play an active role in providing signals, such as crying and smiling, that guide their parents in understanding when and how to care for them. When parents reliably respond to these signals, their infants learn to trust that their needs will be met (Erikson, 1963, 1982) and also develop secure attachment. Furthermore, consistent with earlier research by Ainsworth and her colleagues (1973, 1978), recent research also links secure attachment to parents' responsiveness to infants' distress signals, such as crying (McElwain & Booth-LaForce, 2006; Posada, Carbonelle, & Alzate, 2004). Contemporary research shows that parental sensitivity contributes to infant security in diverse cultures around the world, which demonstrates that the relation between parental responsiveness and infant security is a universal phenomenon (Posada, Jacobs, & Richmond, 2002).
Short- and Long-Term Effects of Parental Sensitivity and Infant Attachment
The beneficial short- and long-term outcomes for securely attached infants are impressive. Short-range benefits are that securely attached infants are more responsive than insecure infants in face-to-face play. Furthermore, they have more varied means of communication, cry less, and quiet more easily when picked up (Ainsworth et al., 1978; Isabella & Belsky, 1991). Also, securely attached infants usually become toddlers who demonstrate more exploratory behavior than infants who do not demonstrate secure attachment (Ainsworth, 1973), and they tend to become children who are competent in a wide array of social and cognitive skills (Fagot, 1997). For example, Bakel and Riksen-Walveren (2002) found that securely attached children are notably more compliant than children who are not securely attached. Conversely, infants with avoidant and disorganized attachment demonstrate significantly more negative behaviors than do securely attached children. Finally, Hobson, Patrick, and Crandell (2004) demonstrated that infants whose mothers respond to them in a sensitive manner have a propensity to share experiences with their mother and also are more likely to engage with others in their environment.
Demand Feeding: An Example of Responsive Caregiving
An illustration of child care in which parental responsiveness to infants has developmental implications can be observed in how and when parents feed their infants. Whether to feed the baby on demand is an important decision for parents, ranking alongside the choice to breastfeed or bottle-feed. Throughout the world and all through history, babies have been fed when they cried to be fed. As noted by Nelson (1998), crying is an inborn behavior that is primarily an appeal for the protective presence of a parent. Thus, infant crying triggers corresponding care taking behavior in the parents. Because the cry of the infant is an inborn behavior, the natural response of the parent to feed the hungry baby is an appropriate one. Furthermore, ample research evidence supports demand feeding. In their classic 1969 study, linking parental responsiveness to infant attachment, Ainsworth and Bell reported relationships between mothers' feeding styles during the first 3 months of their infants' lives and the patterns of attachment behavior exhibited at age 12 months. Infants who were fed on demand were more likely to have secure attachment to their mothers than infants who received scheduled feeding.
A Cross-Cultural Perspective of Parental Sensitivity
Parental sensitivity to infants is a global phenomenon and can be seen in parent-infant interactions throughout the world. In traditional cultures such as Bali and many African cultures, parents maintain physical closeness to their babies by continuously carrying them, and by practicing co-sleeping (Ainsworth, 1967; Ball, Hooker, & Kelly, 1999). Studies of the effects of infant carrying and co-sleeping have been positively related to the physical and social-emotional development of infants. As a case in point, infant carrying by Ugandan mothers was found by Ainsworth (1967) to be correlated with secure attachment as well as advanced gross motor development. An advantage of co-sleeping is that it is beneficial for helping to regulate the infant's physiological functioning and for promoting closeness to the parents (Feldman et al., 2002). Recent research also supports the link between parental care and infant security in non-Western cultures. Posada et al. (2004) found that the maternal sensitivity of Colombian mothers is significantly related to their infants' secure attachment. Cross-cultural findings supporting the link between parental sensitivity and infant security suggest that differences in the way parental sensitivity is expressed do not challenge the sensitivity-security link. From an infant's perspective, what matters most is that their signals are responded to appropriately by their parents and other caregivers.
What This Means for Professionals
The importance of parental sensitivity to leave infants, which is demonstrated by parents maintaining close proximity to their babies and being consistently responsive to them, cannot be overemphasized. When parents provide a consistency of care of their infants by being reliably available to them and not ignoring their cries and other bids for attention, babies learn to trust that their needs will be met. When interaction with a parent inspires trust and security, the infant develops secure attachment to the parent and gains confidence in engaging and exploring the world. Furthermore, both short- and long-term benefits of parental sensitivity illustrate the value of parental responsiveness to infants and toddlers.
Parental Support of Self-Regulatory Behavior
Besides providing a responsive environment that helps babies trust that their needs will be met, parents play an important role in supporting their infants' development of self regulation (Weinberg, Tronick, & Cohn, 1999). A principal focus of self-regulation for infants relates to the adjustment of their bodies to regular wake and sleep patterns. How much and when a newborn sleeps is an issue of concern for most parents. Infants spend much of their first 2 weeks sleeping (an average of 16 to 20 hours in each 24-hour period), although there is considerable variability from one baby to another. As infants get older, they tend to sleep for longer periods of time and remain awake for more extended intervals. By 6 months, many babies begin sleeping through the night but all infants are not aware that this is how they are to behave. It is not until age 3 or 4 months that infants sleep more at night than during the day; waking up during the night, though, is a common occurrence during infancy as well as early childhood (Gaylor, Goodlin-Jones, & Anders, 2001).
By the time of their second birthday, although wake and sleep patterns have been established for some time, toddlers sometimes resist going to bed or taking a nap. This behavior might be an expression of their developing autonomy needs, a reluctance to separate from their parents, or a fear of the dark. Toddlers whose parents handle this phase of bedtime resistance with kindness and understanding are better able to make the transition than those whose parents are unsympathetic to their feelings. According to Bigner (1998), American parents are perhaps the only parents in the world who expect their children to develop self-regulated behavior early in life with little guidance from their parents. As noted by Bigner, American parents are likely to simply place an infant or toddler in a crib and close the door, whereas parents in many other cultures typically sing a short, soft lullaby to their infant or rock the infant to sleep. Interestingly, preparing their babies for bedtime by singing to them, rocking them to sleep, or reading a book with them, contributes to their self-regulatory behavior. In turns out that the face-to-face reciprocity found in these kinds of rituals increases toddlers' self-regulatory behavior. For example, the findings of Feldman, Greenbaum, and Yirmiya (1999) were among the first to support the relation between the face-to-face reciprocity between parents and their infants and the later emergence of self-regulatory behavior during the toddler years.
What This Means for Professionals
It is recommended that parents prepare their infants and toddlers for bedtime by means of regular rituals (such as rocking or singing) designed to assist their children in relaxing and settling down. Besides providing a calming and reassuring ritual to support their infants and toddlers in making the transition to going to bed, it is helpful for parents to monitor how much time their children are sleeping during the day. Whereas infants should not be roused from their sleep, toddlers who sleep for as many as 6 hours during the day might have trouble sleeping through the night. In these cases, parents might alleviate this problem by waking a toddler from a long daytime nap.
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