Little things like eye contact and face-to-face conversations are important connections. Babies and children learn basic social skills as they notice your expressions and actions. When children are ignored, even little babies, they notice that, too.
Ed Tronick, MD demonstrated this in a series of very moving videos. These were done for his research on infant development and postpartum depression. The videos show how quickly a baby is distressed by the mother’s non-responsiveness. (I’d wager the same would happen for fathers.)
Each video clip records about five minutes of interaction between baby and mother. At first they are cooing and playing with each other. Then, as her part of the study, the mother looks away and does not respond to the infant for two minutes. At first, the baby coos louder. Then she starts reaching out with her arms, then crying and pulling away in her car seat. In a short while, the mother ‘returns’ to the child with a full, expressive face and makes eye contact. The baby, for a moment, is wary yet soon brightens up again and engages. It’s hard to watch, though it reveals how lack of responsiveness can affect children.
When this occurs regularly, children can develop a habit of acting out to get attention or, not expecting an answer, become withdrawn. I thought of this as I listened to an interview with Catherine Steiner Adair. She is a psychologist who has been examining how technology affects family’s lives.
The similar frustration and sadness can happen when parents are so focused on their phones (tablets, whatever) that they ignore their children. In her interviews with 1,000 children, ages 4 to 18, she asked about their parent’s use of the phone. Most often, the children said their parent’s phone focus made them feel “sad, mad, angry and lonely.” Kids know they are not being listened to, heard, or engaged. They need that and they miss that. (One of Catherine Steiner Adair’s suggestions is to set clear limits: no phones at mealtimes, for example.)
Kittie Franz said it well. “Remember, you are not managing an inconvenience. You are raising a human being.” The times spent cooing with your newborn, small talk, observations and sharing questions with your children are valuable. There’s no special equipment or training you need for this.
Being engaged with your children does make a difference throughout their lives, and yours, too.
If you’re feeling withdrawn yourself, finding daily tasks difficult, that will not just go away on it’s own. You may benefit from some help to get out of that rut. I’ve listed links for support and information on postpartum depression.