Learning to be “attuned” to each individual child is a process of trial and error that takes time and effort. No parent or caregiver is “in tune” with their child 24/7.

Posted on February 5, 2013 by Kittie Butcher, Michigan State University Extension, Janet Pletcher, Lansing Community College

In our first article, Becoming a responsive parent through attunement – Part 1 we discussed how parents today are boosting their parenting skills by learning from current research on parenting and families. Psychologists and child development professionals are examining ways in which we can better understand and communicate with our children, even when they are pre-verbal. Psychologists suggest that communication begins with careful listening and the concept of “attunement.” This term is used to describe the process of focusing on your child’s vocalizations, body language and facial expression in order to understand what your child needs, wants and feels. When you are “tuned-in” to your young child, you can more easily understand what your child is telling you about their world. You create a stronger bond and a richer relationship with your child when you are attuned. You also give your child more skills to participate in a dialogue with you and others who are attuned.

Learning to be “attuned” to each individual child is a process of trial and error that takes time and effort. No parent or caregiver is “in-tune” with their child 24/7. No matter how well you know your child; there will be many times when the signals your child is sending are confusing. There will also be times when you don’t have the time to give your full attention to your baby, which is alright, as long as you can give your infant enough quality time to create a strong bond. Children need time when they are not engaged with others so they can gather their thoughts and process information, just like everybody else.

A good time to practice attunement is when your infant is in the wide-awake, alert state. Dr. T. Berry Brazelton, noted author and pediatrician, describes states of awareness that are common for most infants. There is a continuum of consciousness from deep sleep at one end, to active, intense crying at the other end. In the wide awake-alert state, your infant will have smooth body movements and an attentive look on his face. Brazelton says they may follow your movements and focus on your face, locking eyes with you. Parents want to prolong this state when possible because this is a time when babies learn a lot from their environment. However, an attuned parent will also recognize the signs that baby is overwhelmed by too much stimulation. A baby will turn his head away, break eye contact and his breathing may become shallow and rapid. It is important to recognize and respect your infant’s states of awareness, the more communicative, as well as the less communicative. Showing sensitivity to his needs at the moment is critical to responsive parenting. An attuned parent will not force their child to remain attentive when he needs to break-off contact to avoid overstimulation.

When parents are fully attuned to their baby’s vocal signals and body language, they are able to offer truly responsive parenting. Even busy moms and dads can follow these strategies recommended by Michigan State University Extension, to become more attuned to their child:

  • Hold or position your child so that you can see each other’s faces. Remember that newborns need to be about eight- to 12-inches from your face to see it clearly. As infants grow, they do not need to be so close, but you still need to maintain relatively close proximity.
  • Give your child your undivided attention and try to remove other thoughts from your mind. Be present. While we know that it is not possible to be constantly focused on your child, you will be able to set aside several times each day to try to establish this one-on-one time when you are not engaged in any other activity. Again, you will want to look for times when it is appropriate for your baby.
  • Look at your child’s body language and facial expressions. Listen to the sounds he is making. Follow your child’s eyes.
  • Match your facial expression and tone of voice to your child’s expression. Take a cue from the Latin definition of the word “respond” – give like for like.
  • Quietly echo your child’s vocalizations or tone to begin interacting with them.
  • Pace your movements and vocal pattern to match the tempo of your child’s actions.

Once you and baby are on the same “wave length,” you are in a position to understand what your baby is trying to tell you. Are they stressed or uncomfortable? Calm and content? You will read these messages in the baby’s vocalizations and body language because they are similar to the signals that all people share. You will also be able to convey messages to your child with your words, voice-tone, body language and expression. When your voice is gentle and words are soothing, you are letting the child know they are safe and someone cares for them. When you respond immediately to their cries, tell them that they can trust and that someone will attend to their needs when asked for help. When you smile and touch your baby playfully, you are saying that it is good to play and explore the world.

The appropriate response from you at the appropriate time is what responsive parenting is. You determine what is appropriate by careful observation of what your baby is telling you, by their facial and verbal expressions. To learn more about attunement and responsive parenting, you can investigate online articles such as the one at http://developingchild.harvard.edu/library/reports_and_working_papers/wp1/, hosted through the Talaris Institute website. This website contains many more articles about social/emotional development of children as well as other domains of development and a wide variety of parenting topics. Other websites that we find useful for exploring social/emotional development are www.zerotothree.org,  www.brazeltontouchpoints.org and http://csefel.vanderbilt.edu.

Many of these attunement strategies can be practiced with children beyond infancy and indeed, with adults as well. Who doesn’t appreciate the active listener who concentrates on you, matches their facial and body language to yours and gives you their undivided attention? It is an ultimate show of respect in a conversation and a relationship.

This article was published by Michigan State University Extension. For more information, visit http://www.msue.msu.edu.