Attuning is recognizing the emotional state someone else is in and meeting them there. (1) Attunement is important in all relationships, but is especially crucial for the growing brains of our babies and toddlers. In the process of attunement the other person feels seen, understood and not alone. In the case of infants (defined as babies and toddlers up to 4 years of age), this process of attunement is how they build joy, learn to calm and quiet themselves, and find their way back to relational joy from distress. Our babies’ brains are born with a blank slate and the interactions we have with them build pathways in their brains they will use throughout their lifetime.
So what does it look like to attune with our infants? Whatever our baby is feeling, we join them in it. Does that mean if they are having a tantrum, we should have a tantrum too? While I remember those days well and the impulse at times to lay on the floor and cry next to my toddler as he was melting down, this level of “entering in” is not necessary to attune with our baby. I remember when my boys would have some big feelings at this age and my lip would stick out to pout with them as I would say, “Are you sad? That makes you sad!” Or my eyebrows would furrow and my lips purse and I would say, “You’re mad aren’t you? That is so upsetting for you!” When interacting with a baby, the words are more often to help us express what we see them feeling and help ourselves join them in it than for our baby, but as they grow into a toddler, (when accurately identified) these words can also help them learn to express what they are feeling themselves.
In order to attune with our infant, we have to be able to handle the level of emotion they are feeling in order to join them in it. This can be a challenge, especially as their brain turns up the volume, which many parents fondly refer to as the “terrible twos”. I remember when my sons were in this stage, attuning to their feelings was more of a challenge, but especially when I was feeling low capacity. Exhaustion, hunger, being in a hurry – all of these impacted my ability to hang with them in their feelings and I would find myself wanting to move them on quickly from those feelings. Thankfully, in these moments, we can sometimes use distraction to help them forget about what they are upset about, which is especially helpful if we are trying to get out the door, but in the attunement is where the real brain growth happens.
When our boys were in these years, we managed to capture on video a few instances where their big emotions hit and we were able to attune with them and help them recover. We’ve heard from a lot of parents that it’s been helpful to see a visual example of attunement in action and how our attunement helped our boys recover from some big upsets. Check out the playlist on our Youtube channel to see some examples.
As you are in the trenches of attunement with your infant, give yourself grace. Joining our children in their feelings is a workout for us and often it is in the midst of a physically exhausting season of our lives where restful sleep can be scarce. Remember to ask for help so you can find windows of time for yourself to be refreshed so you can be ready for the next workout.
For more about attunement and the ABCD’s of Raising Joy-Filled Kids at every stage, check out the new book The 4 Habits of Raising Joy-Filled Kids.
1. The 4 Habits of Raising Joy-Filled Kids, page 330