The Role of Parents in Infant/Toddler Development

By — Pearson Allyn Bacon Prentice Hall
Updated on Oct 25, 2010

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).

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