Early interaction and baby's development

Early interaction entails the togetherness and sharing between a baby and his/ her parents and the way they react to one another. It not only includes activities such as stimulation, reading nursery rhymes and teaching new skills, but also caring, comforting and soothing. Early interaction means paying attention, touching, sharing, rejoicing and looking after baby. It is based on the common experiences that parents share with their baby every day.

Early interaction forms the basis for the baby's sense of security. When the baby feels that his/her parents are available and a source of comfort, the bond that is necessary for healthy development is formed. In a secure attachment relationship, the baby learns to seek comfort (directs his/ her gaze towards the parents, reaches out his/her arms or makes demanding noises) and to receive care (calms down when close to parents, cuddles up in parents' arms). Through sensitive interaction, the baby's ability to control emotional experiences starts to develop and he/she learns that being tired is not dangerous. A momentary experience of hunger no longer feels threatening. The baby's ability to control his/her emotions only develops when he/she interacts with the parents, not when the baby is left alone on an activity mat. A child who is securely attached to his/her parents can indicate the need for adult company. In a well-functioning relationship, the baby knows that the parent will attend and react to his/her needs.

Secure attachment benefits the baby in many ways. It is the basis of healthy development of self-esteem, self-image and the ability to empathise. When the baby feels that his/her needs are being considered and met, he/she is safely able to explore the environment. This helps the baby to develop a solid foundation upon which he/she can build cognitive and manual skills. Sensitive early interaction can be viewed as the cradle of development. It helps the child to achieve his/her full potential in psychological, social, cognitive and manual skills. Interaction is a prerequisite for the healthy development of the child's speech and linguistic skills. Taking part in various activities together also supports the child's motor development and play skills.  

How do you support early interaction between you and your baby?

At first, the baby needs a lot of help with his/her changing alertness levels and feeling of hunger. For a 0–2 month-old-baby, early interaction means for example calming and carrying the baby when he/she is tired or distressed. It also entails feeding the baby when he/she is hungry and making the most of the small moments when the baby is alert. When the baby's physical state becomes steadier and his/her physiological regulation begins to function, it's time for new challenges. From the age of 2–3 months, the baby needs more and more eye contact, smiling, rejoicing, turn-taking and acting silly, but comforting and soothing still continue to be important.

In a well-functioning interaction relationship, the parents are sensitive to their child’s signals. The parents usually interpret their baby's signals correctly and respond to them consistently. This allows the baby to feel he/she is delightful and loved. The parents strive to understand their baby's emotional states and to share them. A distressed or crying baby stirs the desire to help. Early interaction is often compared to dancing: the parents adapt their steps to the baby's needs in order to find a common rhythm. Occasionally they may get a step or two wrong or lose the rhythm, but sharing a sense of well-being and the joy of being together does not go away.

Early interaction relationship can also become strained or compromised for various reasons. Interaction skills can be improved and learned, just like any other skill. The City of Espoo provides help in improving interaction relationships and in dealing with parenting concerns. If you are concerned about your early interaction relationship with your baby or your own ability to cope, it is a good idea to bring it up during your child health clinic visit. The staff has the latest information on the types of support and care available. 

Link to Maternity clinics and Child health clinics

Frequently Asked Questions

How should I react when my child is angry? What should I do if my child screams?
How quickly should we respond to the baby’s needs?
Bedtime is a challenge. What should be done?
What is the best place for a baby to sleep?
Are babies afraid of the dark? Are children afraid of adults’ TV programmes/news?
Baby sleep training – will the baby be traumatised if we let him cry it out?
When can a baby have a sleepover with grandparents, for example?
My baby is shy and slow to warm up to people. What should I do as the mother in new situations?
Should we participate in activities for babies or do speech, motor and social skills and so on develop alright at home?
Can a baby’s temperament /character change?
Will your child’s first word be “no” if you need to forbid him/her all the time?
What to do when your child will not eat?
At what age should a child start attending a day-care centre or join another larger group to get sufficient stimuli and grow up to be sociable?
Using time-outs /interrupting the situation
I have concerns about my baby’s mobility. My baby is 16 months old and still does not walk – should I be concerned?
Do babies benefit from iPads and their baby software?
When should a baby give up the dummy?
When does a baby start to understand words? When do the first words come? When should we get worried if the baby still has not said his first words?
Do I need to play with my baby?
When should we start talking to the baby? When should we start reading to the baby?
How can we support our baby’s speech and language development?
How can we support language development in a multilingual family?

How should I react when my child is angry? What should I do if my child screams?

The appropriate reaction of an adult to a child’s anger and negative emotions depends on the child’s age and unique characteristics. For a sensitive and timid child, it is enough that the adult makes firm eye contact and calms down the child. A more rambunctious child may need the adult to use a more emphatic tone of voice or eye contact or physically stop the child. Children should not be allowed to act aggressively; it is a good idea to anticipate when the child might swing a fist and prevent the situation.

A young baby does not scream from anger but instead needs to be calmed down, whereas an older baby may be frustrated. At the “terrible twos” age, the child’s anger is about learning how to want things. The basic principle is that the parent should be calmer than the child in order to be able to calm down the child. The younger the child is, the less useful punishment after the fact is.

How quickly should we respond to the baby’s needs?

You should always respond to the needs of a new-born baby (0–2 months) immediately. Sometimes it is difficult for the parents to know right away what the baby actually needs. It is advisable to listen to the baby’s expression (crying, movement, whimpering and noises) for a short moment to determine whether it is due to hunger, tired restlessness, a wet nappy or the need to be held. You should also respond to the needs of an older baby immediately, but older babies are better able to delay their hunger slightly if they can have something interesting to look at or a fun chat with a parent. Toddlers and older children who understand speech gradually start to understand what it means that they will get their snack soon or that we will soon brush our teeth and then go to bed.

Bedtime is a challenge. What should be done?

Evening routines and calming down before going to bed are important. Evening routines help the child unwind from the busy day and start thinking about and preparing for going to sleep. Repeated routines strengthen the child’s feeling of security, making it easier to detach him or herself from their parents when he/she falls asleep. The child’s innate temperament may influence his/her ability to calm down and his/her need for an adult in the evening.

What is the best place for a baby to sleep?

There are many opinions on sleeping arrangements, varying from a family bed to sleeping in separate rooms. There is no single right practice, but every family must create its own sleeping arrangements. It is important for each family to find a solution that enables everyone to sleep as well as possible.

Are babies afraid of the dark? Are children afraid of adults’ TV programmes/ news?

It is important to protect your baby from excessive stimuli. One baby may react more strongly to environmental stimuli than another. Parents should be alert to what is on the TV. Even though the child does not understand what is happening on the TV, he/she may still react to any emotional experiences conveyed. For toddlers in particular, it is important to ensure that they only see programmes suitable for their age. 

Baby sleep training – will the baby be traumatised if we let him cry it out?

Babies should not be left to cry themselves to sleep.  Sleep training can be done with babies older than six months, and even then petting and nearness should be used to calm down the baby. Crying is not dangerous as such; it is a sign that the baby feels uncomfortable and needs help. In case of older babies and toddlers, there may be situations where the child cries at night out of frustration and upset because he or she is unable to calm down without the help of an adult. It is good if one of the parents can be calmly present in the situation. If the parents are sleep-deprived and too tired be calm with the crying baby, sleep training can be done with another adult whom the child knows or a sleep training professional, for example.

When can a baby have a sleepover with grandparents, for example?

The night is a sensitive time for babies because they are forced to separate from their parents while sleeping. Babies are also wary of the dark because a fear of the dark is natural to the human species. In stressful situations, the baby finds comfort in familiar things, such as the scent, voice and touch of a parent. Safe sleepovers with a young baby should be considered from several angles. With whom will the baby be left with overnight? Does the baby know the overnight babysitter well from before (such as a grandparent who has helped care for the baby often in daytime)?  And will the baby also be placed in a strange environment, or will the babysitter come to the baby’s home? For the baby, several hours’ separation from the parents and at night may cause him or her to be unable to maintain images of the parents and, in a way, freeze. Children can be safely separated from their parents for as many nights as they have years. Sleepovers should then be avoided with a young baby, and if they are unavoidable, they should be planned carefully from the baby’s perspective.

My baby is shy and slow to warm up to people. What should I do as the mother in new situations?

The baby’s natural style of reacting (temperament) should be taken into account in all situations. In new situations, a shy and careful baby needs time and opportunities to observe people from a parent’s arms. The parents can tell enthusiastic relatives that this baby likes to first meet new people while being held by a parent. Timidity and being slow to warm up to people do not mean that the baby is not interested about the world or other people. However, the baby must be allowed to work according to his or her own rhythm in order for courage and enthusiasm to win. Demanding forced liveliness and courage from a baby or young child will only increase their stress level and frustration.

Should we participate in activities for babies or do speech, motor and social skills and so on develop alright at home?

Babies develop extremely well at home in all ways as long as their parents spend time with them, react to them, take care of them and do things with them. Babies do not need hobbies, but their parents might! Sometimes a stay-at-home parent might need the company of other adults and can cope better after getting out of the house for a bit.

Can a baby’s temperament /character change?

Temperament means a tendency to react in a certain way, with some biological basis. After being born, babies have a lot of new experiences, and learning experiences gradually shape their reactions and behaviour. So what we refer to as the baby’s character is the personality that is built on the temperament. Personality is formed throughout infancy and childhood, and babies take possession of their temperament, as it were. This means that a shy and hesitant baby can later learn how to best join games and play in a relaxed and even rambunctious manner. A feisty baby who is quick to react, on the other hand, can learn calmness and forethought with time.

Will your child’s first word be “no” if you need to forbid him/her all the time?

Setting limits is part of being a parent. Sometimes a definite “no” is necessary, but you can also guide a small child positively. For example, you can ask your child to walk rather than tell him/her not to run. You can also make the surroundings safe so that you need not constantly forbid the child.

What to do when your child will not eat?

As a rule of thumb, it can be said that parents decide what food is served and the child decides how much he/she eats. It would be important to make any meal a positive event without forcing or imposing. Eating problems can have a wide variety of causes. If eating difficulties start to make everyday life harder, you should definitely discuss the matter at a child health clinic.

At what age should a child start attending a day-care centre or join another larger group to get sufficient stimuli and grow up to be sociable?

Your child’s social skills will develop in everyday life and interaction at home with his/her parents. However, when the child starts to need someone to play with, you should provide him/her with opportunities for peer contact. In most cases, the ability to play together develops when the child has turned three. Before this, the playing is often parallel play. In addition to a day-care centre, playmates can be found, for example, in clubs or at parks.

Using time-outs /interrupting the situation

Using time-outs or interrupting the situation is possible when the child does something that adults cannot accept (serious misbehaviour, destruction and aggression). Minor cases of disobedience should be handled by other means. The purpose of time-outs is to interrupt the situation, stop unwanted behaviour, and prevent the child from getting attention from bad behaviour. A time-out also gives both the child and the parent time to calm down. The purpose is to show the child that certain behaviour is unacceptable, not to make the child feel bad. When using time-outs, it is important that the child understands what is happening and knows in advance what kind of behaviour will result in a time-out. Time-outs must not be used on an impulse; they should be carefully planned and only used in extreme situations.

I have concerns about my baby’s mobility. My baby is 16 months old and still does not walk – should I be concerned?

You can first try to help your baby take his or her first steps. Let the baby stand supported by furniture and gradually increase the distance between pieces of furniture. The baby can also practise walking with a push cart. The baby should be praised and encouraged to walk but not pressured too much. Help the baby to trust his or her abilities by creating a safe atmosphere. If the baby still does not start walking, you should contact the child health clinic, which may refer you to physiotherapy.

Do babies benefit from iPads and their baby software?

Babies do not need computer software for their development. Interaction and playing with their parents are the most important thing.

When should a baby give up the dummy?

Speech therapists recommend that dummies should be given up by the age of around 18 months. Dummies keep the tongue in a low position, preventing the toddler from practising tongue movements. Prolonged dummy use may make it harder to learn sounds produced using the tip of the tongue at a later stage.

When does a baby start to understand words? When do the first words come? When should we get worried if the baby still has not said his first words?

Babies understand words earlier and more than they can produce them. Babies start understanding the first words around the age of 8–10 months. At a year old, babies often already understand around 50 words. The time when they produce their first words varies according to each baby’s individual development. Some babies say their first words at 9 months, while other wait until the age of 18 months. At two years old, most toddlers can already produce several dozen words. If, by the age of two, your toddler still does not produce words or uses fewer than 10 words, you should mention it at the child health clinic and request a referral for speech therapy.

Do I need to play with my baby?

Playing is how babies learn new things. Playing supports their mental and language development. Babies need attention from adults during play, and adults often develop and advance babies’ games. Early on, you can play simple contact games with the baby. Contact games involve offering the baby pleasant experiences of touch and movement, such as bouncing the baby on your knee or rocking the baby in your arms. The sounds, rhymes or songs that are part of contact games support the development of the baby’s phonetic and verbal interaction. Take-and-give games with objects are also good for young babies. Later on, as toddlers’ thinking and speech develop, they start playing role-playing games, such as pretending to be a princess or a knight. The toddler directs the game, but an adult can support speech and language development by participating in the game, describing it with words and giving new ideas and thoughts.

When should we start talking to the baby? When should we start reading to the baby?

Even a young baby starts getting more interested about human voices than other surrounding sounds, and it is advisable to start talking to babies right after birth. In care situations, mothers often instinctively use so-called caretaker speech, where the tone of voice is soft and the pitch is higher than normal. The baby’s hearing is sensitised for the sound frequencies of caretaker speech. Babies learn language by mimicking and example, which is why it is important to talk to and with the baby from a very early stage. With young babies, you should use short and simple sentences, repeat words, explain everyday events and name things, objects and emotions.

Reading illustrated books together with children develops their vocabulary and imagination. You can look at simple picture books with a 1–2-year-old toddler and name different things in the book according to what interests the toddler. If the child is older, it is good to speak with the child about what is happening in the pictures and read short illustrated stories. You can read longer stories to older children. After reading, it is a good idea to discuss the story with the child and ask the child to describe the events of the story in his or her own words.

How can we support our baby’s speech and language development?

Tips for supporting the speech and language development of a young child (PDF).

How can we support language development in a multilingual family?

Supporting language development in a multilingual family

  
Site texts: City of Espoo rehabilitation services for children and family counselling for families with babies.