What do babies want? An insight into baby development

In this guest blog post, social worker and mum, Aoife Bairéad, helps give an insight into what babies want!

When I looked online I found 62,000 books on parenting available on Amazon. Sixty-two thousand! How did we make the most primitive and basic of our human functions so complicated?

Probably because while it is the most primitive, it is also the most essential. In terms of our biology, reproduction is the mark of success. We have more information than ever before about how our early years and childhood experiences impact our lives. Each of us is aware ourselves, of the hurt, vulnerability and anxiety that every child experiences to some degree or other, often within our closest childhood relationships. Given this, for our own children, our desire and need to make things better, safer, happier for them, can fill us with anxiety and concern. And yet, in general, most of us develop happy relationships, and form enough of a bond with another adult to go on and reproduce ourselves. Here’s why….


We are social beings. Babies’ sight is just enough to see a face from the distance of the breast. Babies hearing is attuned to the voice of their mother and to some extent her partner from the womb. A baby is familiar with its mothers smell from birth. The neurological pathways in our babies brains are mainly built on the repetitive caregiving experiences they have. Just by being with our babies, talking, looking, listening, soothing, holding and rocking them, functions to develop their brain and regulate their nervous system. 

It is important to remember at this point that though almost all babies seek comfort and closeness, each baby has their own level of need in this regard. Lots of babies are happiest when they are held all the time, but many find intense or prolonged eye contact overwhelming (hard when we only want to gaze at them!). Some enjoy time to wriggle or sleep independently while others are only comfortable when they are being held. As adults we know each of us has levels of tolerance for affection, time alone, conversation, noise and quiet.

Babies, though so much more reliant on us emotionally and physically, are the same. Thankfully they give clear signals; crying, grumbling, cooing or relaxing their body, so that we can soon tell what works for them. 


All the signals babies give display their clear emotions, and bring ours quickly to the surface. And this is how we are designed. Mother’s normally experience a higher level of oxytocin during pregnancy and immediately post birth. Father’s and non-birth mothers have also been found to have raised oxytocin levels following the arrival of their child also. 

This is the feel-good, or ‘cuddle’ hormone, and makes us feel more affectionate and warm towards another person. The act of being affectionate, gentle and comforting using our touch, eye contact, voice and movement, stimulates oxytocin production in the child. The baby’s  response; calming, wanting to be close to their parent, wanting to be held and look at their parent’s face, further replenishes the parent’s oxytocin.

This process over the first six weeks of life – being held, comforted and attended to, is what a baby needs to form their first, secure relationships in life. In terms of our emotional experiences, understanding that a person can respond predictably and comfortingly to our needs is the first milestone, and one that both parent and baby are biologically designed to achieve!


A baby’s negative state of arousal – fear, rage and distress- is continuously triggered in the first weeks of life. This is because the higher levels of brain functioning have yet to develop. Babies are overwhelmed by the changing sensory states they find themselves in. You’ll know this if you have a new baby who throws themselves into a fit of rage every time they need their clothes changed! And what is with frustrating frequency? To allow the brain to develop the cognitive functioning to predict and understand these various states infants require the calming, soothing response of an adult.

Each positive experience develops the neurological pathways that allow their arousal system to regulate. Babies have needs that require attention almost constantly in the first weeks of life, from hunger to sleep to clothing and nappy changes. We are given the opportunity to help our baby manage and regulate their arousal constantly, and thus help them develop these positive pathways that will serve them for the rest of their lives.

It is amazing that our bodies and our babies are so prepared at so many levels to succeed in these areas. However, these processes evolved before we became more nuclear in our family functioning, so distracted by the pressures of work, relationships and education, and consistently reminded of the importance of being successful in each area of these areas of our lives. It may seem trite, but the adage of ‘happy parent, happy baby’ couldn’t be more true.

We have every reason to be the most successful parents that our species has yet to experience. Women survive childbirth with increasing frequency. Babies survive to adulthood in larger numbers than ever. We are, in general, healthier than the generations gone before us. It is time to take a breath and spend time getting to know the wonderful, unique little people each of our babies are, and learn to acknowledge and appreciate the natural skills and talents we have in parenting them.

At each stage of development our babies social, emotional and sensory needs expand and enhance. By understanding what stage they are at, and how we can support and help them in our day-to-day responses and interactions, we can facilitate the growth of healthy, inquisitive and flexible responses to the people and the world around them.

If you would like to learn more about how babies develop physically and emotionally throughout childhood, why not join Aoife at our Baby Bonds Parenting Workshop on June 11th.  

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