by Nettie Becker
(This article is reprinted from the official newsletter of the American Dance Therapy Association, Volume 46, Issue 4, Winter 2012)
ONE OF THE FIRST THINGS we learn in the field of infant and childcare is the importance of making eye contact during dyadic interactions between mother and child, the first building block toward the child’s relationship with the mother. But what if this doesn’t happen easily? What if the mother has trouble making this eye contact and interacting with her child?
This problem was driven home to me recently during one of the infant/parent sessions that I conduct in libraries on Long Island, New York. I have been engaged in the program conducted by these libraries, which features separate sessions for infants and toddlers, as a dance/movement therapist specializing in early child development. In one library, the infant program consists of a series of three weekly sessions.
During one of these infant sessions, I saw that a first- time mother could not make eye contact with her three-month-old baby. Each time he looked at her she looked in a different direction, and the baby looked away each time she tried to make eye contact. She didn’t seem comfortable holding him or positioning him when he leaned against her in an upright position. Perhaps it was her anxiety as a new mother or perhaps it was other problems she had. At any rate, it was important that I make her feel comfortable in the room with the other parents and with me.
Helping Mothers Respond Sensitively to Their Babies
She gradually began to feel better about herself and her mothering skills. My role was to encourage her to respond sensitively to her baby’s behavior and to keep looking at him until she succeeded in establishing eye contact and interacting with him rather than looking away. Over the course of the three sessions, she began to feel more and more at ease with her baby. During the last session, she spoke to her baby, began to hold him closer to her, and was able to enjoy him. She relaxed, held her baby behind his head, and lifted him up slightly as she held his hand and curved her body toward him while keeping her smiling face on him. I knelt behind her and encouraged her to continue talking to him as she looked into his eyes. After about five minutes they were both looking and smiling at each other. The mother began to talk to her baby, he made different sounds, which she imitated, and together they carried on a conversation. It was exciting to see how much confidence she gained when she was able to gaze into her baby’s eyes as he gazed back showing such happiness. The contrast between their affect before and after making eye contact was striking.
In addition to working with parents like the mother described above, the three-part infant/parent sessions encourage parents to sit on the floor with their babies and engage with them and to socialize with each other. There are usually eight parents with their babies between the ages of three and twelve months. I observe the parents as they play with their babies. They are always amazed how the babies themselves relate to each other when they touch each other and laugh. I also provide handouts from various sources about handling everyday problems they may face with their children and answer questions they may have. In addition, I discuss topics that they choose and cover topics that pertain to adult and child mental health. I usually find that the parents have similar interests in topics that are discussed and enjoy talking about them with me and with each other.
The program is a wonderful vehicle for reaching ordinarily busy parents with practical ideas. It often has the effect of relieving much anxiety on their part about their relationships with their infants. Many have expressed gratitude to me and to the libraries that have implemented this program.