Quality Caregiving Vital to Infant and Toddler Development

Why do babies do what they do?

Infant development is most rapid up to age 3I saw little Chloe at the supermarket today. She was sitting in her shopping cart visually scanning the space around her. The busy supermarket was full of action with stimulating signs and objects, moving carts, and people and loud noises, and Chloe was watching every bit of what was going on. As her eyes searched the area, she saw me standing in the next line…and we made eye contact.

She looked away briefly and then she looked at me again. I smiled at her and she looked away again. Then in seconds, she was back again. She looked, slowly smiled back, and we played a peekaboo game. With a ten-foot space between us and her mother next to her, she felt safe to exchange glances with me. At six months of age, she was socially competent and ready to engage with a stranger. She had come a long way in six months, as now she is able to sit up, reach and hold objects, engage in social play, vocalize, and categorize people and objects.

When I see a baby, I am mesmerized to watch how they are exploring their environment, interacting with people, and responding to sights and sounds around them. What are they thinking about? Why do they do what they do? Now we know that in the first days and months of life, infants are competent, social, and thinking beings who are seeking relationships, motivated to visually seek novelty and becoming more physically coordinated. In these first months, their growth is continuous and rapid, marking this early period as the most rapid rate of developmental change than at any other time in life. There is much for caregivers to learn to respond to their changing needs.

Infant Development Research

Although infants have been studied by psychologists for more than a century, the last few decades have led to discoveries through research that have enhanced and deepened our understanding of infant development and the competencies of the very young infant. In the 1970s, research by T.B. Brazelton, Heidi Als, and their colleagues here in Boston at Children’s Hospital highlighted the competence of the newborn, dispelling the prior belief that newborns and young infants were helpless, confused beings and not capable of social responses. Now we know that even newborns are actively seeking interactions with caregivers and dynamically shaping their behavior to have their needs met.

Technological advances in medicine and science in the 1970s also made significant contributions to decreasing the morbidity rate for premature infants. As a result, the increased survival rate for high-risk infants then led to research on interventions that could support their development and lead to positive long-term outcomes. In the 1980s, state and federal laws that mandated early intervention programs for infants and toddlers who were at risk for  developmental delay were passed with funding for continued research on program development and personnel training.

In the 1990s, federal support for infants and toddlers led to the initiation and funding of Early Head Start programs and research continued to produce new models of development, which included insights about cultural influences. Continued advancements in technology enabled researchers to discover more about early brain development, underscoring the importance of the need for positive and nurturing experiences for infants. Now there was scientific evidence for what had been previously studied by psychologists – early positive experiences have direct effects on the infant brain during the critical years of brain development. The transactional nature of early interactions and relationship building between the infant and caregiver were recognized to be crucial to survival and healthy development.

Tying Infant Development Research to Clinical Practice

As research in infancy continues, practitioners strive to incorporate these findings into clinical practice. The implications of what we now know and continue to study about early development are that first and foremost, the importance of early relationships are key. Infants are born seeking a caregiver that can respond to their needs (physically, emotionally, and cognitively) in a sensitive, respectful, and transactional way. Trusting her caregiver enables the infant to explore her environment, to experiment and take risks, and to develop a sense of self and relationships with others.

In our practice with infants, we use knowledge of infant development as our frame, then through careful observations of each infant we begin to interact and build a relationship with that baby. Infants need caregivers that are contingently responsive, consistent, and predictable, and truly invested in protecting and nurturing them. We also need policies today that reflect what we know about the needs of infants and that will support caregivers to access quality care for their children.

Catherine Donahue, MS, Ed.D. is Associate Professor and coordinator of Wheelock College’s Birth to Three: Infant, Toddler & Family Specialist master’s degree program.