December 4, 2023 | Rome, Italy

The essence of comfort

By |2018-03-21T19:03:08+01:00November 9th, 2014|"Psych Dept."|
How we comfort a child can have a profound impact later on.

here’s a lot to be learned from modern studies about how infants interact with their caretakers. One such infant researcher is Columbia University psychoanalyst Beatrice Beebe. Over the years she’s filmed the interaction between mothers and infants with one camera trained on a baby’s face and another on the mother’s. By watching timing and responsiveness — mother to infant, infant to mother — she’s been able to observe “good” interactions, ones that bring joy to both sides (big gape smile on the baby, bright smile on the mother), and those that end up with a crying infant and a frustrated mother.

Responsiveness in the earliest months of life can be essential in helping to predict cognitive and social development months and even years later.

An important element in this early interaction is what psychologists call regulation. Regulation comes into play when a baby is bored and needs stimulation or is over-stimulated and needs to be soothed. The way an infant is soothed, a spontaneous response for most parents, can have major implications not only for the child but also for the adult in the making. How we’re soothed can help determine whether we’re later able to soothe ourselves, and others. It can also affect how we deal with overwhelming situations and anxiety in general.

When adult interactions go haywire, members of a pair — friend-friend, husband-wife, employer-employee, and so on — can end up frustrated, angry or dissatisfied. Applying some of the principles used to sooth and engages infants can help with adults.

Consider a typical positive interaction between mother and child. Let’s say the baby is fed, calm and having its diaper changed — a deeply satisfying moment (yes) for both mother and child. Mother and infant are face-to-face; the baby is being touched; often the mother starts speaking, the tone of her voice more important to the infant than her words. The mother may smile. The child will smile back. She may start playing with his feet, “What are you doing, huh? Are you wiggling those little footsies?” (With no one around, her speech will be less inhibited). “I’m gonna eat up those footsies! Yes! Um um um um!” She exaggerates the tone of her voice because the baby responds to the modulation. The baby smiles wider, laughs maybe, and she laughs too.

Sometimes, though, the playing can get out of hand. Maybe she’s a little too loud or her movements too sudden. The baby shows a tiny frown, brows scrunching together. She responds with characteristic ooooo sounds, her mouth round and soothing, letting the infant look away for a minute to catch its breath. It then turns back to her and the playing continues, this time a little less loudly and abruptly. By being closely attuned to her child, and the child to its mother, the two sides can regulate their interaction so that both are content and happy.

But what if the infant is crying — maybe scared and frantic; maybe she didn’t hear him from the other room? What then? Should she come in smiling and laughing, making funny distracting noises? No. How would you feel if you were sobbing and someone made jokes? Instead, she must show the child she understands its distress. Since the baby doesn’t know words, a mother may impulsively turn to cooing pre-speech rhythms. If the child was crying waaAAAaaa waaAAAaaa waaAAAaaa — soft-loud-soft, pause, soft-loud-soft — a mother, lifting her child, might respond by stroking the baby softly, stronger, then softly again, in tune with the pattern of the sobbing. She might say nooOOOooo, nooOOOooo, it’s ooKAAyyy, i’m HEEere… — the first part in rhyme with the crying, then gradually slowing down, oooOOOoooo oooOOOoooooo oooOOOooooooooo. A little at a time, the baby’s crying may soften and begin to resemble the mother’s tone. The sounds stretch out and slow down. Soon the child will calm down and be ready to play.

How can this help us with adults? Say we’re in the presence of a sobbing friend. We’re not going to help by telling the friend that everything’s is going to be all right. That’s like smiling and laughing at the weeping baby. Laughing or pretending nothing’s wrong doesn’t help. Instead, as with mother and child, rhythm and tone are essential. We don’t need to copy sounds as we do with a child but we do need to pay attention to how the sobbing person might be feeling — how matters more than why — and attempt to respond appropriately. Again, specific words matter less than openness to the friend’s hurt (“Wow, that’s awful,” “I can see how bad you feel…”).

Depending on the relationship, we can hug the person or sit with them, or just listen. If we’re able to get into the troubled friend’s state of mind, we need to show we get it. Then, gradually, we can start to talk about the nature of the problem and maybe even suggest solutions. Sometimes, the act of sharing emotions and having those feelings understood will make the distressed person feel better.

You might think I’m implying we’re just like babies. Not quite. I tend to think, rather, that babies are just like us.

About the Author:

Elaine Luti has been a psychotherapist in private practice for more than 30 years. She has taught psychology at various universities in Italy. Her interests include calligraphy, cooking, singing, and reading. She has grown children (and grandchildren) and lives with her husband in Rome.