I recently came upon a posting from a joyous new mother citing an article on “signs your babies love you.” I soon found that many websites that cater to new parents have articles listing the ways parents can determine that their babies love them. I was appalled.
First, the title of such articles is not accurate. The “signs” that these articles list are not indications of “love,” but actually signs of appropriate social-emotional development (in Western culture). Of course, “signs of love” is a much catchier title than “developmental milestones,” but the distinction is a very important one to make. The following are some examples of behaviors included in these articles:
- Eye contact
- Smiling at you
- Noticing when you enter a room; showing an eagerness for your attention
- Coos at you
- Reaches his/her arms at you to signal that he/she wants to be picked up
- Showing distress when you leave
These behaviors should most certainly be celebrated; not as signs of “love,” but rather as signs that the baby is developing fundamental developmental capacities, such as the capacity to share attention and relate and engage with their caregivers. These foundation skills are essential in developing self-regulation, socialization, emotional processing, play skills, and many, many other developmental milestones.
Second, and more disconcerting to me is the impact of such articles on parents of babies who may not be showing these signs. There are many parents whose children with special needs do not display these signs, but under no circumstance does that mean these children do not love their parents, or that this should be questioned by the parents themselves or anyone else. It is important for parents of children with neurodevelopmental differences in relating and communicating to know that just because their children do not look at them or engage with them as expected, they still do love them. These parents and children may need the support of professionals who are specifically trained in helping parents and children attune to one another. Stanley Greenspan, MD’s DIR (Developmental Individual Differences Relationship-based) model and related Floortime approach1 specifically addresses this. Such support may include identifying and developing expressions of love in unique and wonderful ways.
Third, and probably most alarming to me is the impact of such articles on the babies themselves. Imagine a child who is born with developmental differences. Maybe he has difficulties coordinating his eye gaze because his visual system is not well-integrated with other sensory systems, which impacts his ability to make eye contact. Maybe her sensory system is overloaded and cannot process a combination of stimuli in loud and busy environments. Maybe he doesn’t register that his parent entered the room because his auditory system has trouble quieting and ignoring the extraneous buzz and brightness of the fluorescent lights. Maybe she needs so much swaddling and rocking to feel regulated that she has not yet mastered (or have time to master) attending to her mother’s face. How sad for such babies that their developmental differences may be misinterpreted as a lack of love or affection for their parents.
The last thing children who are born with developmental challenges need are caregivers who think that they do not love them. From my experience working with autistic self-advocates, they are glad to express and explain their unwavering love for their parents, even though they may never had made eye contact with them when they were babies or displayed other signs listed in the aforementioned articles.
Thinking again about the parents, giving them the false idea that their babies do not love them is far more likely to dishearten, sadden, worry, and possibly depress parents, rather than spur them to reach out for support, ask questions of their pediatrician, or initiate a developmental screening. Thinking or feeling that your baby does not love you is likely to be embarrassing, which may even be an impediment to seeking help. Further, I shudder while wondering if such parents may subconsciously change their behavior toward their babies if they do not think their babies love them, rather than understanding that they may need support in developing these social-emotional behaviors.
I am thrilled with the anecdotes often shared by parents of children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) and other neurodevelopmental challenges who have learned to attune to their children and develop more robust relationships with them. I have heard numerous accounts of how those parents recognize the, often unconventional, signs that their children love them:
- “He (five year old) never used to look at me, but when I swing him around fast the way he likes me to, he looks right at me.”
- “She (three year old) presses her chin into my knees, which prompts me to squeeze her tightly. That’s when I know she is with me.”
- “The more I join in with his (10 year old’s) interests, the closer he stays to me, and the more he wants to be around me.”
These expressions of love are reflections of the beauty of parent-child relationships among those with a range of developmental differences, and are worthy of celebration. Lets remind ourselves that the signs most commonly listed in the general media should be celebrated as signs of social-emotional milestones in Western culture. Suggesting that they are signs of love can be dangerous to those with developmental differences or special needs and their families.
1 For information on DIR/Floortime, see: Greenspan, S. & Wieder, S. (1997). The Child with Special Needs. Perseus Books, and http://www.icdl.com.