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A baby is so in-tune with mom that when she holds, rocks, and cuddles her infant, the heartbeat of her baby synchronizes with her own. The baby also feels her breath, the warmth of her skin, and the vibration of her throat and chest as she speaks. 

Not only does attachment involve a biological “attunement” but there’s an emotional attunement that grows as well.

The essence of attunement is this: I see you, I hear you, I understand you.  

Attuned parents feel the emotions of the baby as if they were their own. 

When the baby cries from hunger, a healthy mom feels a sense of urgency to meet the child’s need. When the child is startled at a loud noise and begins to cry, the attuned dad feels the child’s angst and takes action to comfort the infant.

Attunement is, in a sense, the process of a parent feeling the child’s feelings, absorbing those feelings, and reflecting them back to the baby, so the baby knows he has been seen, heard and understood.

Attunement is more than simply mimicking the child’s emotional state; it communicates to the child, “I get you—I understand and empathize with what you’re feeling.” Not only do words communicate the child’s distress, but the facial expressions of mom and dad will also subtly mimic the facial expressions of the baby.

Parents are a virtual mirror reflecting back to the infant, the child’s own facial expressions. 

When the baby grimaces, the parent usually mirrors a slight grimace, interprets the grimace, and says, “Do you need a diaper change?”  

Assuming that mom has accurately interpreted the baby’s facial expression, the baby knows he’s been seen, heard, and understood. The distress of both the mom and the baby is relieved as the baby’s needs are met. 

Discerning and meeting the needs of an infant in a warm, sensitive, and timely manner, is essential to attachment.

When a mom responds with warmth and affection, she communicates to her baby that she takes great delight in meeting her needs. When a mom responds with sensitivity, it means she welcomes and accepts the neediness of her child. When she responds in a timely manner, she validates the child’s needs and he learns something about his own value and worth.

Child development experts refer to the “give and take” of attunement as the “serve and return” relationship. 

Much like a tennis player, the baby serves mom and dad with a “cue” and they respond in an affectionate, sensitive, and timely way. This seemly simple interaction has profound implications for the baby’s growth and development.

Decades of brain research has confirmed the “serve and return” interaction between a parent and a child is what stimulates the brain to make connections. This means that parents are, in a sense, brain architects. The connectivity of the brain and the complexity of connections are directly related to the quality of relationships and interactions in the early life of the child.

When the baby “serves” a smile and a giggle, and mom “returns” with a playful tickle and grin, the neurons in the child’s brain establish connections.

Attuned moms read their baby’s cues with increasing accuracy as the relationship grows and emotional connection strengthens. This is healthy attachment. A mom begins to distinguish the hungry cry from the scared cry; the mad cry from the sleepy cry. This discernment allows moms to respond more quickly and efficiently.

Isn’t child development amazing? We are indeed “fearfully and wonderfully” made.

If you liked this, you'll love our new book, SO GOD MADE A MOTHER available for pre-order now!

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Barbara Sorrels

Dr. Barbara Sorrels is a mom and grandmother. She’s also the Executive Director of The Institute for Childhood Education, author, and podcaster. Her experience as a parent, caregiver, university professor, consultant, and children’s pastor brings a unique perspective to her speaking, and writing. Barbara is co-author of the new book, Nurturing Healthy Attachment - Building Parent-Child Connections to Last a Lifetime.   www.DrBarbaraSorrels.com 

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