What is co-regulation?
From the moment you bring your new baby home you’re learning about the process of co-regulation. The ability to regulate our feelings, often called self-regulation, does not develop on its own. We learn it from our caregivers, in infancy and early childhood, through a process called co-regulation. Co-regulation refers to the interaction between parents and their children to reduce physical or emotional stress.
How does co-regulation work in infancy?
In early infancy, approaches to co-regulation are focused on physical soothing. This means engaging with your baby to calm their nervous system through physical interactions, such as:
- Soothing strategies: swaddling, rocking, bouncing, shushing, singing or cooing
- Practical activities: feeding or changing clothing or diapers
- Smiling and providing good eye contact
- Interactive play
Physical co-regulation is most effective when a parent is able to respond from a calm place, with a stable heart rate and slow breathing. It’s similar to putting an oxygen mask on yourself before putting one on your child; you need to be okay before you’re able to help others.
But as many new parents know, new parenthood can be anything but calm. From sleepless nights to never-ending diapers to feeling a loss of personal identity, this stage of life can be very stressful.
So how do we calm ourselves so we can calm our infants? One approach is to use mindful breathing.
What is mindful breathing?
Mindful breathing is the practice of focusing your attention on your breathing for a set duration of time. Taking long, slow, deep breaths is one approach to calming the nervous system, and you can practice this with your baby.
Below is one exercise you can try the next time your baby is crying:
- While holding your baby to your chest…
- Close your eyes or look downwards
- Breath in through your nose and exhale through your mouth
- As you inhale, mentally count 1…2…3
- As you exhale, mentally count 1…2…3
- If comfortable, see if you can lengthen the time you spend on each breath
- Continue with your deep breaths and their time intervals
- Repeat for 5 full breaths or more
As your breathing slows, so will your heart rate. If your baby is held close to your chest, your baby will feel your slowing heart rate too. When infants have limited ability to understand language, your deep breaths and slow heart rate are the best way to tell your child that they are safe, secure and loved.
These exercises may be difficult at first, but with time and practice they can become accessible ways for you to ground yourself and soothe your baby. These shared calming experiences can lead to improved bonding between you and your baby.