And yet, as the days and weeks go on, we get better at it. With time we come to understand their cues and the little signs they give us that tell us when they are hungry, when they are tired, when they are overstimulated and need a break or when they need a nappy change. Much as two new dance partners must learn each other's steps, with time the dance flows more easily. We come to anticipate each other's moves and eventually there is less stepping on toes!
This beautiful and complex interaction can be thought of as 'attunement' ; a concept which is central to our understanding of how mother's build healthy bonds with their babies. It can be defined as the sensitivity a mother displays in reading her babies cues and meeting his or her needs. Through a wide variety of signals our babies let us know what their needs are at any given time. A baby can cry, rub his eyes, clench his fists, kick his legs, turn his head away, open his mouth, scrunch his legs up, make a gurgling sound, grimace. Each of these little behaviours are our babies way of communicating a need. The sensitive mother attunes to these signs. She reads her baby's cues and thinks about what might be happening for her baby. She then goes on to meet that need as best she can e.g. with a feed, soothing sounds, helping the baby to sleep, removing them from stimulation. Through this dance something fundamentally important happens. Trust between a mother and baby grows and a baby comes to see that their Mum or Dad is someone who can meet their needs, can help them survive their feelings and can offer thoughtfulness in relation to them.
In the early days of being a new parent, understandably this dance may be a little awkward. When faced with the multitude of signs given to us by our baby, we may feel a little bewildered as we attempt to decode our baby's secret language. To the relief of parents, however, researchers tell us that we don't need to offer perfect attunement 100% of the time. The good enough parent doesn't always read her child's secret language first time around. We misread the cue, we misinterpret the feeling , we feel out of step...and yet if we can reflect on this and meet the need eventually we offer our babies something very powerful; reparation.
The delicate dance of attunement is a dance that continues for the rest of our lives as we live in relationship with our children. Whether our child is 3 months old, 3 years old or hitting the treacherous straits of puberty, our ability to read our child's cues, make sense of their emotions and needs and respond with loving kindness is one which fundamentally underpins connection to our children.
When I was in the trenches of parenting my own newborns I took this dance for granted. In the midst of feeds, nappies, sleeps, playing, crying etc etc I did it with little forethought. Sometimes it was a bit tedious. Sometimes I felt it was a bit hard. Yet I now see it for the exquisite relationship dance that it is. I find myself wanting to rush up to every new mother I see and say 'Wow, you're doing something so amazing! You are amazing!' For the delicate dance of attunement leaves a lifelong legacy, a blueprint for all future relationships that contains within it ideas about love, trust and connection.
For all the moms out there changing nappies, offering a feed, picking up on the cues that your baby is tired and needs a sleep - I think you're doing something pretty cool. For the mother's who are soothing a skinned knee or picking up that your child's had a rough day at school - I think you're doing something remarkable. For all of those parent's who are navigating adolescence with mindful thoughtfulness, attempting to offer wisdom and listen with an open heart - I think you're inspiring.
My hope is that with time, you will too.