3 Things That Every Parent Does Naturally

by | Aug 23, 2019 | Child care, Developmental Play, Infant, New parent, Newborns

Even people who say they have “no clue what to do with babies” will instinctively do exactly what’s necessary to enhance development as they singsong talk, make faces and gaze at their face as they hold them. 
We act differently with infants than we do with adults or older children.

In fact, it’s so common that we don’t even think about it! Why is that? What’s going on? Why do we talk to babies in ways we would never talk to adults or even an older child?
These instinctual behaviors are exactly what your baby needs to feel loved and cared for. In his book The First Relationship, Daniel Stern describes a repertoire of behaviors parents use to interact with their child from birth through the first few years that give exactly what they need to form a deep relationship.
Let’s take a look at what these things are — I’ll bet you’ll see yourself in all of these!
Exaggerated facial expressions

The facial expressions we use with babies are exaggerated – both
in the way they look and in how long we hold those expressions. Think about what you do when you want to get your baby to look at you. You may say something or shake a toy. Then when they look at you, you put a mock-surprise expression on your face. Eyes open wide, eyebrows up, mouth open wide with your head raised and tilted up slightly. At the same time you say “oooooh” or “aaaah”.  Along with this exaggerated facial expression, there’s also an exaggeration in time, in the length of time you hold the expression. Compared to the facial expressions that you use with other adults, this interaction with your baby is different! 
Researchers have seen time and time again that parents use a variation of this expression to engage their babies attention. It’s repeated over and over, often several times in less than a minute, with your baby refocusing their visual attention on you each time you initiate engagement. It’s almost as if every time your baby looks at you, you’re greeting them with a new hello! The basic reason we do this is to initiate, maintain and modulate social interaction. It stimulates your baby’s ability to read human facial expressions, a crucial foundation for learning to communicate using language.
Other non-verbal expressions that parents use to communicate with their infants are smiles, frowns, and an expression of concern and empathy that could be described as “oh you poor little thing!”. As you interact and play with your baby and use these exaggerated facial expressions, you are building the foundations for trust and attachment.  Each one teaches and communicates something different. 
What comes absolutely natural, this unlearned thing that you do with your new baby, is exactly what that little brain needs to learn to communicate with others. 
How we speak to babies

We all know that people use a different tone of voice when they talk to babies. This sing song, high pitched, slow speech has a name… “motherese” or “parentese”. But there’s a lot more to the way we talk to babies than just the way it sounds. These characteristics are observed in all languages as parents and caregivers engage with babies.  

Researchers look at 2 things when they study parents talking to their babies — what is said (content) and the way it is said (prosodic features). When we talk baby talk, we naturally use very simple words, short sentences and lots of nonsense words. In every language, when talking to babies parents transform words, just like in English we would say “pwitty wabbit” instead of “pretty rabbit”. 
And then as babies get older and begin to speak on their own, our speech instinctively adjusts to their level of language development. As your baby reaches their first birthday, we expect them to begin saying words like “mama”, “da-da”, “uh-oh” or “bye-bye” to communicate an idea with just one word. Parents tend to use few words in a sentence and keep syntax simple as their babies are beginning to speak. As your child gets older, your speech reflects their growing receptive vocabulary and you model simple phrases that you expect them to be able to express in return. You increase the complexity of your own speech as you see that your baby “gets it”, keeping right in step with his growing skills. And you’ll naturally stay just a step or two ahead of your baby, modeling and scaffolding the next step of complexity in their speech.

Ways parents naturally play with words in a way that supports language development: 

  • The speed at which we talk
  • Exaggeration of sounds, most commonly vowel sounds
  • Change in pitch and loudness is slower, creating dramatic inflections that capture attention
  • Pauses between the speech sounds the you make to your baby, giving him time to process
Interestingly, even with very young infants who don’t yet respond verbally, parents consistently pause as they speak as if they were in an imaginary conversation with their child. They speak, pause for an imaginary response from their baby, then reply. Here’s what it might look like…

Parent: “Aren’t you so cute?”
Pause: half a second
Parent: “Yes” (imagined response from baby)
Pause: half a second
Parent: “You sure are!” 

This imagined give-and-take conversation models how your baby will one day talk with you.  You naturally modify as your baby begins to participate with sounds of their own – you’ll just insert your imagined interpretation of their coo. As time goes by the conversation changes. But in these first months as you speak to your tiny baby, you are the speech teacher! Not only that, the combination of this sweet conversation, along with facial expressions and eye contact, forms a strong attachment that’s the foundation of healthy emotional development.


How we look at babies

There are certain cultural ‘rules’ that we follow regarding eye contact with others in social interaction. If you’re out shopping and someone is staring at you, your first response is to walk the other direction! Likewise, if you’re eating dinner with a friend or your partner and they stare at you as they eat, you’d probably say something like, “What??? Stop looking at me!”

Mutual gaze is a potent interpersonal interaction and communicates deep emotion: love, attraction or anger. In fact, in our everyday interactions, we rarely gaze at another person for more than a few seconds, it’s just common courtesy. Those rules go out the door when it comes to gazing at our babies!
Parents and infants can remain locked in a mutual gaze for 30 seconds or more. We love to study them and they love to study us. This mutual gaze initiates and solidifies relationship, just the way it did as you gazed at your partner as you fell in love. 
Another social rule we break with infants is the unspoken rule about coordinating gaze and conversation. Generally in a conversation, the listener looks at the speaker most of the time. Meanwhile, the speaker generally looks at the listener as he begins to talk then looks away as he continues talking, glancing back occasionally to see if the listener is still with them and to get feedback. Then when the speaker is done, roles switch and he becomes the listener, gazing as he listens. With infants we don’t follow that rule! We gaze at their face as we speak, spending about 70% of our play and caregiving time gazing at that sweet little face.
Gazing patterns between infant and parent change throughout the first year, just as speech patterns change. As play becomes more interactive, we vary those gazes to include games like peek-a-boo, get-your-belly which include sometimes delighted expressions of laughter as you hide then connect visually.

So even though you may worry about being a “perfect parent”, you’re perfectly equipped to do exactly what your baby needs!  You naturally use big facial expressions, slow, sing-song speech and eye contact that lingers. All these work together to build a bond of attachment and trust that creates a foundation for healthy social-emotional development.


You are exactly what YOUR child needs. And we’re here to help you understand that little one. 😍


Reference: The First Relationship, Daniel N. Stern

Meet Ann

I'm a child development specialist, parent coach and teacher trainer. I've cared for countless babies in child development programs, plus 3 kids, 3 grand babies and 5 foster babies! I LOVE babies and would come hold yours if I could. ❤️

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