By Kathleen Mulrooney and Jennifer Boss via Zero to Three
Think about any of dozens of tough moments during your day. The dog is barking, the baby needs a diaper change (again), it’s an hour past dinner time, and you’re really hungry. On most days, you’ve got this. You have the coping skills you need to take a breath, change a diaper, or make a sandwich without breaking down into tears or yelling at everyone in frustration.
Babies don’t have these coping skills yet. Even though babies’ brains are growing very fast and they are learning a lot about the world around them during the first three years of their lives, they still need us to help them make sense of it all. And they depend on the adults in their lives to soothe and calm them long before they’re able to do this for themselves. This process of “sharing your calm” to help babies and toddlers learn to calm themselves is called co-regulation.
Here’s what you need to know about co-regulation:
- Babies need parents and loving adults in their lives to help them make sense of their feelings.
- We help babies understand their feelings with our words and actions, like when we:
- Use soothing voices and gentle touches to comfort our children.
- Rock, hold, and cuddle them.
- Name their feelings (“you are mad that you can’t have the toy” or “the doggy’s bark scared you”).
- Offer them a “lovey” to cuddle or show them how to take deep breaths as a way to calm down.
But it’s not always easy:
- It’s hard to hear our children cry, scream, or have a tantrum. It’s normal to sometimes feel stressed, worried, angry, or helpless in these moments.
- Sometimes we react with frustration—like yelling. But big emotional responses from adults never help children calm down. In fact, they often make children’s distress even worse.
What parents can do:
- First: In order to share your calm, you have to first feel calm! So start by paying attention to your own feelings. Am I feeling angry, helpless, stressed, overwhelmed? Am I tired, or hungry, or thirsty?
- Second: Do something to care for yourself in the moment. Take three deep breaths. Shake out the tension in your shoulders. Put the baby down in a safe place for a few minutes. Grab a quick snack or a glass of water.
- Third: Once you’re calm, help your child calm down. You might cuddle them, stay close while they cry, talk softly to them, rub their back, show them how to take a deep breath and blow out a pretend candle on their finger, or rock them and sing a song.
- Learning to stay calm during stressful parenting moments is a new skill for all parents. But the more we practice how to stay calm when our children are upset, the better we get at helping them to feel calm and then eventually learn how to calm themselves down.
When parents help babies and young children co-regulate, children learn that their upset feelings don’t last forever. They learn that they will feel calm again with the help of their parents. Over time, your loving responses also help children learn ways to calm themselves during stressful moments. Supporting your child in this way builds the kind of relationship that will help children grow up healthy—and connected to you.