Let’s be real. Babies this little are not going to give you the kind of feedback you might desperately wish for after that grueling labor and those sleepless nights. But as you and your baby get to know each other, you’ll get glimmers that a bond is forming and that can be more meaningful than a big declaration of love. “Attachment is a process,” says Debbie Laible, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Lehigh University. When you take care of your baby, he falls more in love with you every day and says thanks in his own baby ways.
He knows you’re you
“Within a few weeks, babies can recognize their caregiver and they prefer her to other people,” says Alison Gopnik, Ph.D., author of The Philosophical Baby and a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley. Partly, your little one’s just following her nose: In one study, researchers put a nursing newborn between two breast pads, one belonging to her mother. The scent of Mom’s milk was enough to get the baby to turn toward that pad.
Become the foremost expert on what your baby’s various cries mean. Relentless and desperate usually means hunger, abrupt might mean pain, and more plaintive can signal discomfort. You’ll figure it out through trial and error, eventually grasping nuances that will baffle outsiders. The better you know his language, the better you can meet his needs. “When a baby’s distressed and his parents respond, he learns he can count on them for comfort and relief and that he matters,” says Linda Gilkerson, Ph.D., director of the Irving B. Harris Infant Studies Program at Erikson University. But don’t worry if you can’t always nail the wail: “You don’t have to be perfect,” says Gilkerson. In fact, she says, research shows that caregivers are in perfect sync with their babies only about 40 percent of the time. What’s more important is that you will learn to recognize and respond when your baby needs you. “Your baby learns ‘I can rely on Mom. Even if I cry for a little bit, she gets to me soon enough that I don’t fall apart,’” Gilkerson says.
She’ll totally flirt with you
“Within a month or so of being born, babies respond to the facial expressions of their mothers and without thinking about it, the moms start doing it right back,” says Gopnik. We’re talking about the smiles, the meaningful looks, the coy looking away and back again (think back to ninth-grade study hall; you get the idea!). These goofy games appear to be as important in cementing a baby’s attachment as your responses to her physical needs. At around 4 months, she’ll also be unable to take her eyes off of you. And who can blame her? By then, she’s gotten used to life on the outside, can suck and swallow and is physiologically more regulated (i.e., is no longer eating and sleeping like a jet-lagged traveler), so she can begin to pay attention to more than just her immediate bodily needs, explains Gilkerson.
Flirt back—and don’t be afraid to use exaggerated expressions. “Face-to-face interaction is part of how babies learn about positive give-and-take,” says Gilkerson. Your child’s starting to realize that with a single look, she can show you how happy she is that you’re around—and that it’s a feeling worth sharing, since you’ll beam back.
He smiles, even for a split second
You know those people who say that your baby’s early smiles are just gas or an involuntary reflex? Don’t listen to them. Recent research indicates that an infant’s grin may mean a lot more. The goofy newborn smiles may be your baby reflecting your own smile. He’s instinctively building a bond with you.
The first true social smiles start brightening moms’ days between 6 and 8 weeks. Your baby may smile when he sees your face — or Dad’s or a big sib’s. He’s starting to associate your face with feeling good. The bond deepens!
He’ll latch on to a lovey
Babies often pick a favorite object, like a stuffed animal or a blankie, at around a year old. Gopnik explains that these transitional objects symbolize you and your affection, which explains the histrionics if you—heaven forbid!—put it in the wash for an hour. “It represents your love, but in a way your child can control,” she says.
Let your child keep his lovey close by in situations where he might feel insecure, if that’s possible. Don’t worry that there’s some set time to get rid of it, as with a bottle. Chances are he won’t be clutching it as he walks down the aisle on his wedding day (though, let’s be honest, many of us still have Mr. Fuzzybear tucked away somewhere).
She stares at you, so intently it’s practically rude
Right from birth, a baby can recognize his mother’s face, voice and smell, says Laible. The next step is linking those sounds and smells he trusts with something he can see. That’s why he’ll start studying your face as if he’s trying to memorize it. In a way, he is. He’s making sure he knows what comfort — and love — looks like. So next time you catch your baby’s eyes locked on you, give him time to drink you in.
He gives you smooches (sort of)
Sometime around a year old, your baby might start giving kisses—and they probably won’t be chaste pecks. Expect wet and sloppy ones that land (sometimes hard!) on whatever part of you is closest. “When I ask my daughter Evvi for a smooch, she crunches up her nose, tilts back her head and then swoops up to my face and plants her lips on mine,” VA. “She totally melts my heart!”
Evvi’s enthusiasm shows she’s been paying attention to the way her mom shows affection, and she wants to do the same, says Richard Gallagher, Ph.D., director of the Parenting Institute at the NYU Child Study Center. Babies are eager learners when it comes to physical affection, and there’s no one they’d rather practice on than Mom and Dad.
This is when it starts to get really fun. Babies past the 6-month mark are a lot more aware of the world around them and are developing new abilities practically every day. So your baby can now show her big-time affection for you in some pretty adorable ways:
She holds up her arms so you’ll pick her up
Kerry Smith recently noticed that her 6-month-old son, Leo, has a new way of expressing whom he wants the most. “When someone else is holding him and I walk up, he’ll twist his body toward me and hold out his arms,” says the Prescott Valley, AZ, mom of three.
Many babies adore being held right from the start, but it takes about six months until they have the physical and cognitive abilities to ask for a pick-me-up. It’s a body-language expression of how much they’ve come to trust and adore their parents. And it can be enough, especially on one of those endless days, to make your heart lurch, too.
She’ll pull away from you, and then run back
You’ll start seeing this as soon as your baby crawls. “You’re your child’s warm, cozy, secure base. But she’s also thinking ‘Hey, wait! I can crawl! I want to get out there and find out what’s in the world!’” Gopnik explains. So she does, until she gets insecure. Then she’s all “Let me go back and make sure Mom’s still there.”
Freedom to explore—and then bungee back to a safe place—is what this is about, so let her do it. Of course, for many moms, this is harder than it sounds. But instead of hovering, put your energies into some extra babyproofing.
She’s bouncing, wiggling and cheering for you
The way your baby acts when she sees you after a few hours — or a few minutes? You’d be forgiven for thinking you’re a bit of a rock star. This glee isn’t just cute; it’s a sign of the deep attachment that’s grown between you.
On the flip side are your baby’s wails of distress when you leave. It’s part of her development, and she’ll learn that you always come back. She understands object permanence now (you exist even when you’re not around), so it’s rough for her to know that the object of her affection is out there and not here to snuggle.
Babies this age do their emotions big, so whether it’s heartbreak that you’re gone or earthshaking excitement that you’re back, one thing is clear: You are loved. By a tiny, crazy little person, yes, but loved.
- Picture Quest
As your baby goes from blob to bright-eyed to whirlwind, the way he shows his love gets more complicated, too. In the early toddler stage, your child is exploring his little world and testing boundaries and he relies on you—yep, because he loves you—to help him. It’s a busy time for a toddler, and that’s why the ways he expresses his love can seem indirect:
He does what you do
Whoever said imitation is the sincerest form of flattery must have known a toddler or two. Whether he’s lugging a briefcase down the stairs or cooing over a baby doll, he’s definitely showing how cool he thinks you are. Like all people—adults included!—toddlers imitate the activities and behaviors of the people they love most, says Laible.
Making a beeline for you when he’s hurt
When Emily Cook of Calgary, Alberta, gets a scrape or a sniffle, nothing makes her feel better like rocking on her mom’s lap. The fact that your toddler runs to you for comfort—and then can dry his eyes and run off—means he loves and needs you.
Of course, you may also notice that your kid doesn’t have to be that hurt to come to you wailing. Even a minor accident can make for big drama if Mom’s around to see it. “Emily puts on this pout, coupled with dramatic sniffling. Then she throws in a big, unblinking stare that says ‘Poor me!’?” says her mom, Heather. Yes, there’s a plea for attention in there, but it really does make your baby feel better to get proof that you love him as much as he loves
- Age Fotostock
He reserves bad behavior just for you
What mom hasn’t heard “He was an angel!” when picking up a toddler from a sitter, then witnessed downright devilish behavior mere minutes later? Toddlers test limits with abandon—but most often with those people they love and trust. This isn’t exactly the warmest, fuzziest way your child will say he loves you. But that’s exactly what he’s doing. “You know you’ve done your job well if he can hold it together in public but saves his blowups for you,” says Elizabeth Short, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Case Western Reserve University. “He knows that you’re safe—he can act up and you’ll still love him.” You may never welcome a meltdown, but at least you can stop thinking your thrashing, screaming toddler is out to get you. He isn’t. He just loves you sooo much.
He’ll freak out when you leave
Starting around his first birthday, and often continuing until he’s 3 or so, your child may get upset when you have to part—and rejoice when you return. “Separation anxiety is a sign he knows that the person he loves is different from others, and he’s beginning to have object permanence—an understanding that people and things don’t disappear the minute they’re out of sight,” says Gilkerson.
This is one behavior you don’t want to reinforce. Because, let’s face it, it can be excruciating to listen to your child’s wails as you leave him in daycare. Offer reassurance: Say “I know you’ll miss me, but Mrs. Rosie will take great care of you and I’ll be back to pick you up.” Rest assured that he’ll be fine, says Gopnik, and know that you’re teaching him that he can count on you to come back for him later.
She wants to marry one of her friends at school
At 3 or 4, she’s figured out that getting married means you love someone. Even if she doesn’t push for wedlock with her pals, she’ll start to love certain friends in a way she didn’t when she was younger than 2 and it was all about her parents. “It’s an extension of the bond she feels with her intimate caregivers,” says Gopnik. As kids enter kindergarten, their friendships become more central to their lives. Wanting to marry a buddy isn’t a direct expression of her love for you, but it shows you’ve created a caring environment for her, both at school and at home.
Arrange playdates and praise her when she does things like sharing or hugging. Just be aware that some kids go a little overboard with displays of affection. Teaching your child how to recognize when someone’s feeling a bit smothered (“Sweetie, see how she’s pulling away?”) will help her learn to respect others’ boundaries.
Meagan Francis, a mom of four, is the author of Table for Eight: Raising a Large Family in a Small-Family World.