As you sit and stare at your itty-bitty newborn, one of the instinctive hopes and wishes of new parents is that your child will grow up to be happy and healthy. Raising our kids is one of the most important things we do, but there is no rule book or manual for parenting, and it’s a role that we learn on the job. And, it turns out, while there is no one-size-fits-all approach to raising a happy baby, there are a few things we can do from day one to ensure the possibility of the future happiness of our little bundles of joy.
A key element for how to raise a happy baby is to take care of their basic needs, including stimulation and attunement. Attunement is essentially being “tuned in” to your child, understanding what they need, and then helping them meet that need. When we meet our baby’s primary needs for food, cleanliness, stimulation, safety, and affection, they experience a secure bond. This makes them feel safe, comfortable, and open to exploring and learning, which helps them thrive and feel happy.1,2
How Do You Create a Bond and Sense of Attunement?
To create and foster a bond and sense of attunement with your baby, start by tracking and responding to their primary needs. For example, be sure to change their diapers as soon as possible, feed them when they show you they’re hungry, and help them sleep. You can also:
- Smile and look at them and make eye contact
- Provide a gentle touch like infant massage, following their cues, interest, and tolerance for touch
- Read to them, talk to them, and narrate your activities3
- Play with them by tickling their toes, singing songs, and exposing them to new environments or exciting things to look at
With babies aged 3 to 6 months, focus on being more communicative with them. Warmly respond when they try to communicate with you. They may try to communicate through eye contact, smiling, cooing, and laughing.3 You can also narrate to them while you do things around the house. While they can’t make sense of what you’re saying or doing, they’ll love hearing your voice and will start learning what all those words mean soon enough. You can also:
- Have them facing you when they’re in the pram or carrier so they can see your face and reaction to them
- Demonstrate you are tuned in by learning what their different cries or noises mean and try to meet those needs
- Show you are listening when they communicate. Smile, open your eyes wide, and say things like “Oh goodness, is that right?” or acknowledge their attempt to engage you in another way
- Co-regulate with them. When they are overwhelmed or overstimulated, support them by reducing triggers such as light, noise, and too much stimulation. Also, soothe them with cuddles, rubbing their backs, making shushing noises, singing to them, or even using skin to skin
From 6 to 9 months, your baby will start trying to navigate its world but will need a secure base to return to. Don’t be too far out of reach. To help raise a happy baby, it’s essential to allow them some space to explore safely and know their cues for when it’s all gotten a bit much and they need to return for some comfort. At this age, you’ll also want to:
- Notice your baby’s attempts to communicate their needs and add words like, “Oh, you are so sad and need a cuddle,” when they cry and reach for you. Or “I can see you feel hungry” when they start mouthing things or use a particular cry
- Repeat sounds like “mama” and “baba” to encourage them to keep communicating with you. See how they respond and make sure you pause so they have a chance to “join” the conversation
- Play peekaboo! Babies enjoy peekaboo at this age, and you are exposing them early to object permanence by playing the game. This means they think you have disappeared and can be unsure where you have gone or if you will return when you aren’t in sight—even if you are only hiding behind your hands
Your baby isn’t such a baby these days. They are probably on the move and want to explore their world. So, to raise a happy baby, give them opportunities to explore safely. Just ensure you are around to encourage them but avoid helicopter parenting and swooping in too soon to comfort or save them unless it’s for safety!
Your child will show their unique interests at this age, so pay attention and engage in what they are playing with. Watch for their invitations to join in the game or wonder alongside them. Adults often forget how much is new and how wonderful the world is when we first figure it out.
You’ll also want to show empathy and help them learn the early building blocks for emotional intelligence. Name the emotions when you see your child expressing them, but share your own. For example, you can say, “When you smile, I feel so happy,” or “I felt a bit worried after I heard that big noise; how about you?”
But What About Temperament?
Even though there are some key things we can do to raise a happy baby and set our children up to thrive, unique differences still make your child an individual. This will influence or adapt how you parent them.
Children are born with their temperaments, and the term “temperament” refers to how our kids respond to the world and can be thought about as three main qualities and how much or little your child shows these qualities.4,5,6
You probably already know your baby’s temperament: Are they strong-willed and sassy? Introverted? A big thinker? Temperament is usually static, meaning it stays the same, forming part of their unique personality. So, while you can’t change your child’s temperament, you can nurture their development by highlighting their strengths and being aware of their challenges, where they need additional support, and then building up their capacity. Here are some things to consider for different attributes of your child’s temperament as you notice their personality starting to shine through:4
Self-regulation means to what level someone can identify and then manage or express their emotions and behaviors. Children who can regulate themselves well tend to be calmer, less impulsive, and more resilient. You probably don’t need to take much action during infancy, but as they grow, watch for perfectionism and help them learn that making mistakes is okay. It can be challenging for babies and small children who aren’t naturally good at self-regulating. They struggle to manage big feelings, have trouble maintaining attention, or need lots of support to persist with activities. So, working on bonding activities, attunement, and self-soothing or co-regulating with them can help them develop the building blocks for independent self-regulation.
Reactivity is how strongly they react to things. Are they laid back, nothing phases them, or are they highly strung and react strongly? If your child is very reactive, being their parent can be super exciting. They have big feelings, and it’s easy to get swept up and have a great time with them when they are happy or having fun. However, they might also become easily overwhelmed, so you could support them by expelling excess energy with lots of time outdoors and being busy.
You might also need to teach them skills to wind down or co-regulate to support them. A less reactive child might be easier to parent in some ways as they are more relaxed about things. Still, as they get bigger, they might lack assertiveness which comes with its challenges (particularly socially), so these children might need additional support and skills to manage these social situations. Or be explicitly asked for their input so they feel included or start learning to express themselves and feel comfortable doing it.
Sociability is someone’s sense of comfort when meeting new people, being around people, and their capacity for communicating in a social context. Infants and small children who are highly sociable can be more adaptable and open to new experiences or changes in their environments. They will enjoy being social or want to be nosy and know what other people are getting up to. This can be great but can influence distraction when sleeping or feeding. So, it will be essential to think about ways to minimize distractions to keep them focused on one activity.
Less sociable babies will find it harder to be settled by others, might experience more separation anxiety, or find transitions hard. So, try and keep routines the same, when possible, plan things around their routine, have a comfort item that transitions with them, prepare for transitions, or introduce them to change slowly to help them feel the most comfortable you can.
Although these strategies focus on how to parent, structure your day, or even adapt to your child’s unique temperament, one of the most significant factors in how to raise a happy baby is whether you (yes, you!) are happy and well. So don’t forget to carve out time to look after yourself by practicing self-care, and ask for help and support if you need it.