Mothers buy into freeze-frame parenting
Instructed to play with my baby, Max, for 20 minutes while he sat in an infant seat, no toys allowed, I pulled out every trick in the book.
Sign language ABCs. An animated version of “Itsy Bitsy Spider.”
All the time, a camera was trained on my face, another on his.
I returned a few weeks later to see the results: Aimee Wheeler, a therapist, had synched up the footage into one split-screen video and analyzed all the tiny interactions between us, frame by frame by frame.
“Great narrative. Jenny gives Max space to acclimate to the room,” says one page of Wheeler’s notes.
“Jenny’s contact turns into a gentle invitation for play with stroking of feet,” says another. “Max takes the invitation and creates his own play.”
Why would I subject myself to such scrutiny? And why would anyone be interested in dissecting, in such detail, how one mom interacts with her baby?
As founder of the Parenting Discovery Center in Los Angeles, a nonprofit offering support and therapy to people adjusting to parenthood, Wheeler believes such analysis is key to helping parents forge better, healthier bonds with their babies.
Until recently, the taping of interactions between parents and infants has mostly been used as a research tool or as intervention for mothers who are impoverished, severely depressed or otherwise at-risk. But as the technology has become accessible to anyone with a camera and a laptop, the service is starting to pop up in more mainstream therapeutic settings, geared to average moms, dads and caregivers.
Not everyone thinks that’s a good idea.
When I became a mom last year, I wondered: How can I tell whether I’m attuned to my baby? Are my best intentions good enough?
I knew, from reading the research, the importance of mother-infant attunement. (And most of the research does focus specifically on mothers.) Gazing into my son’s eyes, smiling when he smiles, trading high-pitched coos — these are the moments every mother loves. But there’s much more to this early face-to-face communication than many parents realize.
When caregivers respond sensitively to an infant’s emotional cues, the child develops secure attachments, which contribute to future mental health. Interactions between mothers and infants also affect development of a part of the baby’s brain associated with emotional processing, studies show. That, in turn, affects a child’s ability to regulate emotions and manage stress later in life.
Even highly functional people tend to repeat the patterns of their own parents, even when they don’t want to, says Ruth Newton, a psychologist who uses a video feedback technique to help homeless mothers in San Diego bond with their babies and will soon offer it to middle-class parents at her Newton Center for Affect Regulation in La Jolla.
“We do the same things our mothers did,” Newton said. “How we were treated is encoded in a nonconscious part of the brain. We act on it without knowing it, despite our best intentions.”
I wasn’t experiencing any unusual problems with Max, but perhaps I was repeating mistakes my own parents made without even realizing it. So when I stumbled across an opportunity to find out, I jumped at the chance.
At that time, Max was 7 months old, and Wheeler was just gearing up to offer the mom-baby video feedback service. A relatively new therapist with a doctorate in psychology, and a mother of two young kids, she had posted a call for volunteers for a trial run on an online mother’s forum.
Though she had no formal training in video microanalysis, she was a devotee of Beatrice Beebe, a clinical professor of medical psychology at Columbia University’s medical school and one of the nation’s leading researchers on mother-infant face-to-face communication. Beebe has used video feedback to help mothers who were pregnant and widowed on 9/11, as well as others having serious trouble interacting with their babies, learn to relate more effectively.
Wheeler believed average mothers in Los Angeles could benefit from the same techniques.
“Just because someone isn’t in a lower socioeconomic group or didn’t grow up in a household of drug users or wasn’t physically beaten as a child doesn’t mean they don’t have their own attachment history traumas that can play out in their now relationship as a mother with their own children,” she says.
It actually made me feel less nervous that Wheeler didn’t have years of experience with video analysis. If I didn’t like what she had to say, I would have an easier time dismissing it. As it turns out, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I learned.
At full speed, the video just looked like I was working hard to entertain Max and keep him happy. Many intricacies of the interaction — fleeting facial expressions, body movements and vocal rhythms — happen so rapidly that they don’t register in our conscious awareness.
But when Wheeler slowed the footage down, I discovered subtleties I had never noticed. For instance, every time I manipulated his body, rotating his legs during “Wheels on the Bus” or clapping his hands together during “Pat-a-Cake,” Max would look away. If I sang the same songs using my own hand motions, he watched with rapt attention.
Young babies often avert their gaze to calm down when they are overly excited. Mothers and infants sometimes get into what Beebe calls a troubling “chase and dodge” pattern when a mom tries to regain an infant’s attention before the baby is ready, and the baby takes greater and greater measures to get some space.
“If a mom is not aware of her own need to be reassured and accepted, when her baby looks away she can experience that as rejection,” Wheeler said. “So she might continue to come in and try to get the baby to reengage rather than giving the baby a break.
“If a child can’t get away, the only place for them to go is to physically pull away. You will see them arch their back. They will just start to shut down emotionally. If they can’t get physical space, they will get mental space. They will look away and just stop interacting.”
Mothers trapped in this pattern sometimes worry that their babies don’t like them, when really they just need to back off, Beebe explains. “If you are chasing your baby, he’s going to be more aroused, and he’s going to need more time to calm down before he can come back. But if you stop chasing him, he’ll come back quicker.
“If I see a mother like that, I teach her what she has to do is counterintuitive: Sit back and wait and breathe, and trust that her baby will come back to her.”
Fortunately, I seemed to intuit that when Max looked away I needed to slow down or drop the game we were playing. But by watching the video, I saw a clear pattern of when he disengaged. Wheeler explained that I could avoid the pattern altogether by giving him more freedom to move independently. Instead of clapping his hands together, for instance, I could just let him watch me clap.
Mothers can also learn through video analysis whether they’re consistently responding to their babies’ attempts to engage, mirroring their emotional states and responding to their distress with empathy.
Wheeler also gives clients a chance to examine how they were parented and how the past might be influencing them today. During my hourlong follow-up session, we reviewed the video frame by frame and discussed whether my patterns were similar to ones I experienced with my own parents and the emotions that evoked in me.
I took home the video, along with four pages of Wheeler’s notes and a few key ideas about things I wanted to change.
Since then, I have tried to slow down my interactions with Max and give him more of a chance to participate in the nonverbal conversation. And instead of immediately distracting him when he’s upset, I let him have his feelings, while still attempting to comfort him.
It’s not easy to change habits overnight, but seeing the patterns on tape really helps.
“It’s very, very powerful. I call it a shock to the unconscious,” Beebe said of the video feedback technique.
Overall, I’m glad I did it. But still, I wondered: Is it really a good idea for ordinary, well-adjusted mothers to have an “expert” dissect her interactions in such detail? Is this overkill — just one more way to make mothers feel even guiltier and more neurotic? Could it sap the confidence of moms already doing a decent enough job?
Wheeler went out of her way to explain that all mothers have moments when they’re not attuned to their babies, and this normal process of “rupture and repair” leads to resiliency. But mothers don’t always find it easy to absorb that message.
“After walking out of the assessment, I felt not that great, because I feel this need to be a perfect parent, and to have in your face that you do make mistakes, it kind of hurt me,” said Kasi Peters, 34, a mother of two in Santa Monica who participated in Wheeler’s project. (After some reflection, she added, she ultimately felt fine.)
“You want to hear you’re the most perfect mom, you’re doing everything right,” said participant Sara Carlson, 33, a first-time mom in Eagle Rock. She added that she found the experience useful even if she felt a bit self-critical: “I definitely was surprised by some of the feedback. There were some things I had no idea I was doing. I still, to this day, use a few things she told me.”
But Beebe is concerned that the service is increasingly being offered to those who don’t need it and could even be harmed by it. “Everybody learns something from it, but I don’t know that I would advocate it. I have been so worried that people are going to misuse it as a way to make mothers feel bad and make mothers feel like they’re not doing it right. That is very, very important — that we avoid that.”
She believes that this type of mother-infant work, when done at all, should be performed by people with extensive research and clinical experience. “Protecting the mother’s self esteem is No. 1,” she says.
And she wants mothers to understand that “there is no one optimal mode of interaction.... The best approach is to teach how the interactions work, not what’s right and what’s wrong.”
Mothers should not try to constantly track their baby’s every movement and emotion, Beebe adds: Her research shows that problems develop when mothers are either too vigilant or too withdrawn in their interactions.
Her 2000 study of vocal rhythm coordination between mothers and 4-month-old infants, for example, found that babies whose mothers were the least and most coordinated developed insecure attachments at age 1.
And in another, 2010 study, Beebe found that babies whose mothers spent less time looking at them had trouble with attachment — but so did those whose mothers were too invasive.
“There’s a lot of work that says more attunement is better, more synchrony is better, more coordination is better,” she says. “But in two big studies, we don’t find that — we find the mid-range is better.”
Most mothers should just relax and trust themselves more, Beebe says: They don’t need a detailed video analysis to figure out if they have solid, healthy relationships with their babies. They just need to look at the evidence in front of them.
“If her baby is on average reasonably happy, capable of looking at her, capable of smiling at times, interested in the world, doesn’t have a serious sleep problem, doesn’t have a serious eating problem, isn’t a cranky baby — she’s fine,” Beebe says.
“The proof is in the pudding.”