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What you need to know

  • The best thing you can do to help your baby develop into a healthy, happy child is to love them, and show it.
  • Relationships teach tamariki about their world, and shape the way they see it.
  • The experiences children have in their early years shape the architecture of their brain, and build the connections that help them develop important lifelong skills like problem-solving, self-control, relationship-building and communication.
  • Spending time with your children, talking and listening to them, smiling and laughing with them, cuddling and showing them you love them are all ways you develop your relationship with them.

Why warm, loving relationships are important

Children learn about their world through the relationships they have, and their relationships shape the way they see the world. Relationships teach them how to think, understand, communicate, behave, and show emotions, and help them develop social skills – and you’re the most important relationship your child will have.

The best thing you can do to help your baby develop into a healthy, happy child is to love them, and show them you love them by responding to their needs in loving positive ways.

When pēpi express themselves and get something back – a cry met with a cuddle, for example – it gives them important information about how their needs are met. It helps them learn that they are loved and important. It also helps them learn about the world and how they should act in it.

These everyday moments showing affection, comforting, talking and playing with your baby build strong, healthy brains. The experiences tamariki have in their early years shape the architecture of their brain, and build the connections that help them develop important lifelong skills like problem-solving, self-control, relationship-building and communication. The quality of a baby’s relationships has a major influence on which brain connections take place and the strength of these connections.

Center on the Developing Child - Harvard University

Serve and return

When your pēpi communicates with you using babbling, movements or facial expressions, it’s good to respond in a warm, loving and gentle way with the same kind of ‘talking’ and movements. This is often called ‘serve and return’. It works like a game of tennis – the child ‘serves’ by gesturing, babbling, facial expressions or touching, and the parent or caregiver ‘returns’ the serve by talking back, smiling, playing, or through touch.

With this back and forward interaction the baby is learning that their needs are responded too. Doing this helps your pēpi learn about communication, behaviour and emotions, and it helps build your relationship. It also helps them feel safe and secure in the knowledge that you’re there, and you care.

Center on the Developing Child - Harvard University

Figuring out what your baby is trying to tell you

It can be hard to work out what your baby is needing or wanting. As you get to know your pēpi you'll learn to read their cues for when they're hungry, tired, wanting to play, or needing a cuddle. 

It takes time to learn your baby’s cues and their personality, so be kind to yourself and don’t expect you’ll get it right every time. You may need to try several different things. Every baby is different (even siblings), and sometimes what works one day won’t work the next – remember, you’re both learning about each other.

Being kind, gentle, and predictable can help your baby learn about how things happen. Try to stay as relaxed as you can (it can be really challenging when your pēpi is crying) - taking some deep relaxing breaths might help keep you calm. Naming your baby’s emotions and talking about what’s happening helps them learn, and can also help you. Saying sorry if you get it wrong also helps them learn that adults make mistakes and can make it better.

Bonding with your baby

Babies are hardwired for relationships, and their instinct is to seek connections with (or attachment to) people who’ll comfort and protect them and/or help them organise their feelings. Your instincts may help you know what to do to bond with your baby, too.

Bonding is about your relationship with your pēpi, and the love, emotion and tenderness you feel for them. You may feel this when you’re pregnant and your baby kicks, when you see your baby on a scan, or maybe when you hold your baby for the first time. For some parents the bond takes longer to develop.

Attachment is about the way your pēpi relates to you. It’s about building a relationship over time between you and your baby that makes them feel loved and secure. It develops as you respond with love and attention to your baby, giving them cuddles, food, rest, play, and warmth when your baby needs them. Attachment and bonding go hand-in-hand. If you feel a strong bond with your baby, it will help your baby to develop a secure attachment to you too.

Here are some of the ways you can bond with your newborn:

  • talk with them using a gentle, calm voice
  • give your newborn lots of cuddles and gentle touch – hold your baby against you, skin on skin, rock them, or stroke them gently when you’re changing their nappy, talking to them, or bathing them
  • make your baby feel physically safe by ensuring you support their head and neck when you hold them
  • making time to have fun - at first this might be just having time to cuddle and relax and be together; later it can things like tickles or massage.
  • watching your baby’s cues to help you learn what they’re needing at that moment, so you feel more confident to meet their needs
  • make your pēpi feel emotionally safe by responding with warm gentle voice and touch when they cry, even if you don’t know why they’re crying. Rocking gently can help calm them.
  • give your baby things to listen to, look at and touch
  • making eye contact with your baby, talking to them, singing them songs, and gently stroking or tickling them stimulates their brain and makes it grow
  • take time to care for yourself by eating well, resting and sleeping as much as you can, and taking time to relax or exercise can help give you the energy to meet your baby’s needs and to get to know each other.

If you don’t feel an instant connection to or bond with your baby, don’t panic. It’s common not to bond with your baby right away.

Having a baby is a life-changing experience, and it can feel frightening to have someone so dependent on you. On top of that, you’re most likely exhausted. New babies don’t come with an instruction manual, and it can sometimes take weeks or months to get to know and understand your baby before you bond.

If you’re feeling concerned about your relationship with your baby, ask for help. Talk to friends, family, your GP, Plunket nurse, midwife or other healthcare professional, or call PlunketLine. If you’re physically and mentally well, you’ll be better able to provide the love and comfort your baby needs.

Ways to help develop a loving relationship with your child

As your child grows and becomes more independent, your relationship with them will start to change – but that doesn’t mean they need you any less. You may find as they grow you understand their needs and wants more easily, and can better anticipate how they will respond most of the time.

They’ll be increasingly interested in other people and in the world around them, but they’ll still need lots of love from you.

You’ll notice that when they’re feeling confident and comfortable they go out to explore, but they still need you watching over them to guide them, keep them safe, and delight in them. They’ll come back to you for comfort and protection as well as to show you the wonderful things they’ve been doing.

Circle of Security International

It’s really important to:

  • spend time with your tamariki – they need your attention and your guidance
  • talk to your child or baby, and listen to them when they reply, whether they do that with movement, sounds, or words
  • tell them and show them you love them often
  • smile at them and laugh with them
  • touch them - massage and tickles are a great way to connect
  • cuddle, kiss, hug and be gentle with them
  • copy their sounds and gestures as they start to learn language.
  • listen to them
  • tell them what you’re doing and feeling
  • talk lots with them about what is happening and their emotions
  • support them to explore their environment
  • help them learn to be patient
  • play with them – it lets them know they’re important to you and is a great relationship builder
  • say sorry when you make mistakes - this helps them learn that you make mistakes and make it better afterwards
  • talk to your whānau about how you are feeling and about how you can care for your child together.

You can never spoil a baby by giving them too much love, warmth and affection. Responding to them and their needs builds trust, positive self-esteem, and strengthens your relationship with them – as well as building connections in their brain.

Your own experiences as a child

What kind of parent do you want to be? We’re all affected by the way we were treated as a child. Your own parenting style will be shaped by how you were raised, and whether you want to parent in the same way. You can choose to make different parenting choices.

It can also help to discuss your experiences with your partner or support people. Their childhood will have been different, so their way of parenting will also be different.

You don’t have to repeat what happened to you. It may help to ask yourself:

  • What do you want your child to remember about their childhood?
  • What kind of relationship do you want with your child?
  • What sort of person do you want them to be when they grow up?
  • How will I cope when I get stressed or upset?
  • What are some strategies I can use, like deep breathing or mindfulness

Circle of security

Changing old patterns takes time and effort. You may find yourself getting stressed, frustrated or angry quickly when things aren’t going well. You may feel like you have to try very hard to not do what your caregivers did when you were little.

There’s no such thing as a perfect parent. Be kind to yourself. Some days you’ll get it right, other times you’ll get it wrong. It can help to think about some strategies that might work for you.

If you are getting angry, it’s important to not hurt your child with words or actions - make sure your child is somewhere safe, and take some time to calm down. It's good to ask Plunket for help if you want to change the way you are with your child.

Things to remember

  • Parenting is a learning journey, and there’s no such thing as a perfect parent. If you make mistakes and then make it better, your tamariki learns about ways to repair situations.
  • Everyone’s different – your personality and your child’s personality will affect the way you are together. What works for one child may not work for another.
  • Some children are born placid and easy to settle, while others are wakeful and active. Some parents can live with mess, while others struggle with an untidy house.
  • Understanding your child’s nature, and your own, will help you know how best to respond when they need something from you. It will help you decide what to act on and what to ignore.
  • Have fun with your tamariki, look after yourself and be kind to yourself as you learn about parenting and caring for your precious child.
  • Talk to your whānau about how you will care for your baby and support each other on the journey ahead.