The Age-by-Age Guide to Bonding with Your Baby

Snuggling, playing, and even making goo-goo eyes are all key to helping your infant develop into a healthy child.

dad holding happy baby and bonding
Photo: Sasha Gulish

Ever notice how your baby's beautiful face—those chubby cheeks and sparkly eyes and that mischievous smile—is somehow more fascinating to watch than even the Oscar-winningest blockbuster? That's no coincidence. The two of you are hardwired to thoroughly enjoy each other's company. And if you follow your instincts and develop a great rapport now, you could set them up for a lifetime of stellar relationships.

In one study, babies who were securely attached to their mother at 12 months (they turned to her for comfort when exploring an unfamiliar place) were more likely in their early 20s to come out of an argument still feeling connected to their partner. "The results of this research suggest that our ability to love, trust, and resolve conflict stems in part from how we're treated as infants," explains study author Jeff Simpson, Ph.D., adjunct professor of psychology at the University of Minnesota.

Loving your little one may also help safeguard their health. Research in Psychological Science suggests that attentive parents buffer kids against chronic stress, which can cause sleep disorders, digestive problems, memory impairment, depression, and obesity.

Bonding with your sweetie is intuitive—and a joy. "Attachment isn't about acting the 'correct' way," says Daniel Messinger, Ph.D., a child-psychology professor at the University of Miami. "It's really about watching her and responding sensitively." So if you're both having fun, you're doing it right! Need a few pointers? Read on to find out what your infant wants from you during their first year.

0-3 Months

Picking favorites

There's a reason the scent of your baby's skin triggers pangs of affection. When you smell, hold, or breastfeed your little one, your body releases oxytocin, the bonding hormone that prompts you to be loving and protective—and that also encourages your baby to cuddle right back.

Oxytocin isn't Mother Nature's only nudge to keep you and your baby all lovey-dovey. From birth, your baby is also programmed to connect with you. They can distinguish human faces and voices from other sights and sounds, and loves to watch your every move. Plus, it's no coincidence that your baby sees best at about 8 to 12 inches away—it's exactly the distance between your face and theirs when they are cradled in your arms. Your baby even recognizes parental voices and will turn when they hear you. Aww-mazing!

Babies are also eager to spend time with someone who's equally jazzed to be hanging out with them. As early as 2 months, an infant will notice if something's off in the way their mom is reacting to their cues. In one study, researchers hooked up cameras and TVs so that mothers could coo and smile at their infant from another room. When the team created a one-second delay in what the baby saw on-screen—so the mom's reactions lagged behind just a tiny bit—the infant looked away. "Babies want to feel like they're in control," explains study author Tricia Striano, Ph.D., a psychologist at Hunter College, in New York City. "When mothers tune in to their child's behavior, babies engage in ways that elicit a response."

If your little one smiles in those first few days, that grin doesn't mean much. It's a reflex. At around 6 weeks, though, babies start to respond to their environment, and at 2 to 3 months, their brain is developed enough that they can look right at you when they smile, letting you know that you're the reason they're so happy, Dr. Messinger says.

Build your bond

Show your little one you care. "Get in tune with your baby," advises Meredith F. Small, Ph.D., professor emerita at Cornell University and author of Our Babies, Ourselves: How Biology and Culture Shape the Way We Parent. "Hold him when you're able, and pay attention when he's squirming or unusually quiet. This will help you figure out how he tells you he's hungry or content." Breastfeeding, cuddling, or giving your baby a massage are great ways to bond, and research shows that wearing your baby in a carrier when you're on the move also helps keep you connected.

During face time, interact using the expressions, coos, and cuddles that feel natural to you—but don't automatically plaster a grin on your face every time you turn your baby's way. They will know you're faking! "If a mom is smiling but it's not related to what the baby's doing, they'll eventually prefer to look somewhere else," Dr. Striano says.

4-8 Months

First friends

Your baby's blossoming intellect helps them recognize that interactions with you are different from those with strangers. "She learns, 'Unlike other adults, Mom comforts me, and when I cry, Dad usually feeds me,' " explains Dr. Messinger. "They expect certain things during an exchange."

If you've been consistent in your efforts to soothe, and your baby feels as if you're watching out for them, they will begin to play (with toys, your keys, anything!) and explore the world, which is exactly what their developing brain needs right now. "An infant learns something unique when she picks up an object or puts it in her mouth, versus just looking at it," Dr. Striano says. "So it's important that your baby is encouraged to get hands-on with her environment."

If your baby is feeling comfortable in their surroundings, your transition back to work won't be as scary for them. Plus, your baby will be capable of playing and learning without you by their side. "This is the perfect time to start teaching your baby that strangers, like a nanny or day-care workers, will take good care of her," she adds. When you return home, your baby greet you with a big grin. If your baby turns away, it's because they are learning to regulate emotion, and the joy of seeing you is just too intense.

Build your bond

To feed your baby's hungry mind, keep them close as you go about your day. "A baby can tell when you're ignoring her—say, by planting her in front of the TV—and when you're just busy," Dr. Striano says. "She'll appreciate it if you make her part of the action." Talk to your tot whenever you're nearby, and play peekaboo while you fold laundry. And as your baby starts to play with blocks and toys, encourage them with lots of verbal appreciation!

That being said, don't take it personally if your baby's not in the mood to interact. "Sometimes infants need to look away," Dr. Messinger says. Making googly eyes is exhausting!

9-12 Months

Let's stay together

Your baby may start trying to cling to you when you try to leave their side. This is normal—and temporary. Separation anxiety appears around the 9-month mark, when your baby has the ability to remember you even when they can't see you. But they can also sense patterns and understand that you always come back. "If you give your baby consistent cues, and if you really do reappear 'in a minute,' they'll begin to trust that you will," Dr. Striano says. "The babies who struggle the most are often those who really can't predict whether their caregiver will come back or not."

Amid those teary goodbyes, you'll see another social stride: Your little one will begin to communicate using gestures, like waving or raising their arms to be picked up. "Babies will start to share their intentions. For example, they may stare at something, fully expecting that you'll turn to look at it too," Dr. Messinger adds. They also "share" smiles, grinning at a toy and then turning their smile toward you. "That shift in gaze is purposeful," he says.

Build your bond

Continue sending clear, consistent signals that you love your baby and that you're doing your best to intuit what they're trying to tell you. That isn't a marching order. It's more like a permission slip to hit pause on your busy life and do exactly what your instincts are telling you to do. "In our culture, it's hard to put down the things we like to keep in order, such as our finances or the laundry, and just sit with our baby and see what he's doing," Dr. Small says. "Your baby does want to engage with you, so allow yourself to let the other stuff go sometimes and just enjoy him!" Skipping cleanup for a snugglefest? We'll hug to that!

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