What your baby sees in you - the look of love
Robin Grille is a Sydney-based psychologist, and author of: Parenting for a Peaceful World and: Heart to Heart Parenting. He spoke at our Birthlight womb to world conference in 2012. He travels extensively to run courses and to speak at conferences and seminars. Here we have an article written by Robin on the aspect of eye to eye contact. We learn through all our senses, as we know from all the birthlight practices, including movement. It’s fascinating to look carefully at the effects of the sensitive gaze when true communication can be felt and observed.
Many people seem surprised to find how aware newborn babies can be. A healthy newborn can look as if he or she sees right into you. My daughter was just minutes old when our eyes met for the first time, as she rested in my wife’s arms. I was gobsmacked by the attentiveness and intelligence I saw in her.
Moments after the first breath, babies begin their search for love, in the eyes of their mother. Eye-contact is a key element in the mother-infant bonding process, and this is one of the reasons why rooming-in is an increasingly common practice in the birthing wards around the world.
Mother Nature has pre-programmed the infant’s brain to recognise and respond to the human face. In carefully controlled experiments, newborns have been shown to turn their heads and eyes to follow face diagrams, and in particular, pairs of eyes captivate their attention. This innate preference for viewing faces seems to temporarily decline between one and three months though as yet, no-one seems to know why.
Babies have evolved to latch on to our eyes because more than any other part of us, our eyes faithfully reflect our feelings. Adults are able to ‘read’ complex feeling states in others, with surprising accuracy, just by looking at their eyes. In fact, adults can discern others’ feelings just as accurately from their eyes only, as from their whole faces. To a trained police profiler, a suspect’s visual expression can be more accurate than a lie-detector test.
An individual’s wellbeing, even survival, depends on his ability to decipher key signals about others’ feelings and intentions, and to clearly communicate his own. From vervet monkeys to gorillas, even our simian cousins rely heavily on eye-contact for social communication; they scan each others’ eyes, to assess motivations (are you friend or foe?). They try to influence each other’s behaviour through complex codes of visual expression and to monitor if others have understood a request.
Evolution’s design is perfect. Infants can only focus their eyes at precisely the distance of their mother’s eyes during breastfeeding. Intuitively, mothers spend about 70% of breastfeeding time gazing into their babies’ eyes. A mother’s gaze is life-giving sustenance; it is in her eyes that the infant finds love. When a baby meets her mother’s gaze, she typically revels in the contact, kicking her legs, smiling and gurgling. She signals when she is content, simply by looking away – soon to return for another life-giving dose. When putting baby to sleep, it can be helpful to know that she is more likely to become restful quite naturally once she has had her fill of nourishing interpersonal contact.
What babies look for is ‘mirroring’, that is, to be looked upon with joy, delight, and approval. But can babies really read our feelings in our eyes? You bet! A look of love cannot be faked: when love is genuinely felt it dilates our pupils. Experiments show that babies smile more when looking at eyes that have dilated pupils - they know the difference between a dispassionate look, and a genuinely affectionate look. In a brief (but somewhat awful) experiment, Ed Tronick, head of paediatric research at Harvard Medical School, instructed mothers to look at their 3 month-old babies blankly and without expression. The babies became increasingly agitated, they tried their hardest to elicit a response. When this failed they looked away, trying to self-soothe by thumb-sucking. Over and over again they returned to their mothers’ eyes, trying desperately to engage them, smiling and gurgling. The babies were remarkably persistent, but eventually they gave up altogether. Babies simply cannot do without Mother’s loving, animated face. By the third year, toddlers can consciously infer a variety of your mental/emotional states, just by looking in your eyes.
Why is loving eye-contact so vital for children’s emotional health? At our core, the way we perceive ourselves springs from the way we once saw others perceiving us. It is as if, as babies, we mused: ‘I see that my mother sees me as loveable, so I see myself as loveable’. Our self-image is being shaped from the moment of birth. Quite literally, images of our mother’s loving gaze are stored neurologically in our brains, where they become the unconscious template for our self-esteem. What we say to our children therefore, may have less of an impact than how we feel about them - as clearly reflected in our eyes.
Brain researchers have discovered a biological basis for the link between loving eye-contact and children’s emotional health. A care-giver’s loving gaze and smile suffuses babies with indescribable joy. What ensues is a cascade of dopamine, endogenous opioids, enkephalins and endorphins in the baby’s brain - all feel-good chemicals associated with loving relations. This joy-precipitated surge of brain chemicals promotes the maturation of specific parts of the cortex concerned with healthy regulation of emotion. Loving eye-contact is important for healthy brain development; and thus it helps us grow into emotionally secure and considerate individuals.
Loving eye-contact can be as important for babies and children as mother’s milk, a hug or a caress. Babies receive love through their senses; they know your love through your touch, your voice, and through your eyes. When they are close enough to hear, touch and see those they love, babies are happier by day, and they sleep more peacefully by night.
Robin Grille is a Sydney-based psychologist, and author of: Parenting for a Peaceful World and: Heart to Heart Parenting. He spoke at our Birthlight womb to world conference in 2012. he travels extensively to run courses and to speak at conferences and seminars. Here we have an article written by Robin on the aspect of eye to eye contact. We learn through all our senses, as we know from all the birthlight practices, including movement. It’s fascinating to look carefully at the effects of the sensitive gaze when true communication can be felt and observed.
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