As Paediatric Occupational Therapists we seek to understand the magic of how development unfolds in our children so that we can nurture and support this through working closely with their families. We are fortunate to be mentored be a leading clinician in the area of social emotional development and have been fascinated by the early infant – caregiver bonding that occurs and the importance of this for building strong foundations in self regulation, social emotional development and cognitive learning. This ‘dance’ like interaction is responsive, attuned and where each seeks to learn each others steps.
The dance begins with the parent or caregiver noticing the serve from the child, the signalling to either engage or use the parent to soothe feelings of distress. Is the child looking or pointing at something? Making a sound that could indicate discomfort. By noticing serves, you’ll learn a lot about your child’s abilities, interests and needs.
The return represents the parent/carers offer of comfort with a hug, gentle words or rhythmical rocking or playing with him or her, like saying “I see!” or picking up the object he or she is pointing at and giving it to him or her. This represents engagement or soothing of distress.
These back and forth interactions, are a cycle of arousal and comfort which modulate or regulate the nervous system on a neurological level. It is what ties the baby and caregiver or the dance partners together universally. As dancers, when he steps back, she steps forward. The infant comes to anticipate his mother or caregiver will take good care of him. The infants rising certainty in his caregivers sensitivity expands the definition of co regulation.
In this, infants learn to regulate their behaviour while remaining interested in the world around them. Through these consistent, predictable, and repetitive interactions the child develops the capacity to self-regulate as well as to communicate his or her emotions. Co regulation therefore is a vehicle to self regulation.
This dance is easily disrupted however by the following examples:
- Biological disruptions e.g. an infant with reflux, an unsettled infant
- An infant who has experienced trauma in utero e.g. exposure to drugs and alcohol
- A parent/carer with a mental health diagnosis or otherwise emotionally unavailable
This results in a mismatch between parent/carer and child, or an out of rhythm dance. This mismatch can create difficulty with signalling i.e. the ability to express through subtle vocal and motor acts what one’s intentions are and/or difficulty with reading the vocal and motor cues offered by the parent/carer. While matched attunement and reading of cues is critical for bonding and attachment, we tend to get this wrong at least some of the time, resulting in a mismatch between parent/carer and child. Like any dance, what is most important is the repair of the mismatch. In situations where the parent/carer repairs the mismatch, the infant learns that reconnection is possible. It is the comeback that counts.