Finding Your Way With Your Baby: The Emotional Life of Parents and Babies

I recently visited my friends to see their newborn baby boy. When I arrived, the baby was just fed, clean and seemed happy. Nevertheless, after a while it started wiggling and finally crying, seemingly with no reason at all. My friend tried to comfort his son, but when all methods failed, he gave up and passed the little one to his wife, mumbling “Well, baby whisperer, maybe you know what it is that he wants.” As amusing as it was to observe that scene, it made me realize how little I know about infants’ emotions and inner life. What are they trying to communicate when they cry, wiggle or make funny faces that goes beyond simple physiological needs? Do we need baby whisperers or magical superpowers to understand the baby’s world? These questions led me to the book Finding Your Way With Your Baby: The Emotional Life of Parents and Babies by Dilys Daws and Alexandra de Rementeria.

The authors, two British child psychotherapists, have many years of practical experience at Children Clinics, as well as with their own children. Alexandra de Rementeria is on the doctoral training program for child psychotherapy. She is a mother of a baby and a toddler. Dilys Daws, privately a grandmother, has more than 30 years of experience advising parents worrying about problems around feeding, sleeping or excessive crying or who are trying to cope with post-natal depression. Together they created a book that is conversational in nature, but still based on research coming from the fields of neuroscience and developmental psychology.

As the book’s title suggests, the authors concentrate on the emotions around parenthood. The book is organized around three major themes: becoming a parent, being with the baby, and issues relating to the environment of parents and their children. The first section of the book - becoming a parent - explores the biochemical changes that pregnancy and bonding can trigger in both parents and the inevitable changes to identity that ensue. The second section concentrates on the problems characteristic for the early period: feeding, sleeping, crying, teething and playing. The authors do not shy from addressing difficult or ambivalent feelings; for example, the need to stay away from the grandparents, despite having a very loving relationship with them, in order to find own identity as a parent and experience the feeling of a new baby in one’s life. The final section addresses such dilemmas such as when and how to get back to work. 

Daws and de Rementeria describe the problems in an easy and accessible language that is respectful of both parents and babies. In line with the tradition set up by Donald Winnicot (1947), the authors encourage mothers to trust their instincts and not to rely solely on others’ advice. The authors see their role not as problem-solvers, but rather as providers of a framework in which parents can better understand the process that they are going through. As Daws puts it: “thinking about the cause of a problem strengthens people’s ability to solve it. My role is not to provide solutions, but to help parents to find their own.”  That is why you will not find solutions, but rather descriptions of potential problems in the form of: You might feel like this …, but you might also feel like this…, accompanied by stories of other parents. In fact, I found myself wanting to present this book to all my friends with babies just to assure them that the range of emotions they have been experiencing is perfectly normal.

The described issues are accompanied by explanations from the fields of neuroscience and psychoanalytic theory. For example, the chapter on bonding addresses the factors contributing to bonding: reacting to baby’s cues, listening, and “talking” to each other. The authors cite research by Pally (2000) showing that when babies and their parents are in emotional sync, in the baby’s brain dopamine is released in the limbic system (the “emotional brain”) and the prefrontal cortex (the “logical brain”), not only causing a wave of pleasure, but also stimulating neuron growth in those areas. Thanks to those emerging connections, babies become capable of regulating their emotions in a more top-down manner, using reasoning and logic. 

Another chapter addresses the ambivalent feelings that parents experience around their children, such as deep love and aggressive impulses, sometimes at the same time. The authors describe those difficult feelings in such a kind manner that the parents reading the book can explore their own ambivalent feelings, without feeling guilty or blaming themselves for not being good parents. In fact, one of the chapters, “You don’t have to be perfect,” addresses this issue and cites research by Parker (2005) on the maternal ambivalence that is an unescapable part of parenting. As Winnicott (1947) and Hopkins (1996) noted, a baby that experiences frustration from time to time resulting from a dissonance between its wishes and their realization, will be better able to develop a sense of agency and ability to influence its environment.

I read Finding Your Way With Your Baby with pleasure and I would definitely recommend it to parents, future parents and anyone interested in the inner life of the tiny humans.


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