The Social Needs of Babies


By Betsy Stalcup, founder and executive director of Healing Center International

What? you may be thinking. Is Betsy going to tell us that babies like to party and need a Facebook page? No. Not that. But they are social. Get this: according to Beatrice Beebe, Ph.D. babies begin seeking social interaction when they are only ten seconds old! 

In a world where parents are primarily concerned with their children’s physical (can he walk yet?) and cognitive (can he read yet?) development, I find the idea that babies have social needs absolutely fascinating. Studies show that meeting a baby’s social and emotional needs impacts their mental health not just during their childhood but for their entire life span. 

If this is so important, why is no one talking about it? I wondered. The truth is, the info is out there in the scientific literature but not covered much in the popular literature. Why? I wondered. Perhaps it is because looking at the studies can be triggering. 

As I read, I wondered, Should I tackle this topic? Some people won’t want to know. But some will and it is for those who want to know that I am typing away. 

In today’s blog I am going to look at the amazing work of one clinician, Beatrice Beebe, Ph.D., a clinical professor of psychology at Columbia University Medical Center who has been studying nonverbal communication between mothers and their infants for more than 30 years. In a recent talk,[1] Beebe showed video clips of these face-to-face interactions between mothers and their four-month-old infants. 

Even the brightest baby is not talking at four months, so how on earth do they communicate? Beebe says that “babies talk to us before they have words and you can learn to understand the baby’s non-verbal language.” Why should we learn? She continues, “As early as four months the nature of the baby-mother non-verbal language sets the trajectory for that babies development.”

How do babies “talk” before they have words? Babies communicate through facial expressions, voice tones, and body movement. Some mothers can instinctively decode what their baby is saying and communicate back their babies using the same skill set—facial expression, voice tones, and body movement.

Interactions between mom and baby occur too rapidly to be seen in real time, so Beebe and her students analyze recordings of the two interacting second by second. Since one camera is focused on the baby and another on the mother, they can see the split-second instinctive responses that go back and forth. Responses that are too fast for conscious thought. But when seen slowly, one can recognize that there is a “turn-taking” rhythm between mother and child as they respond to each other. Beebe is highly skilled at interpreting their interactions and provides her verbal interpretation of the videos in her talk.

You can see a video filming the communication between a healthy mother and her baby here:

From watching the two interact, Beebe can predict if an infant will have secure or insecure attachment when he/she is just four to six months old. A secure attachment will affect the baby’s life in so many good ways. It positively affects social and cognitive development as well as the capacity to regulate emotions, be empathetic and have healthy intimate relationships.

Skilled mothers regulate their babies emotions through their interactions. Beebe explains that “the infant’s emotional development depends on being recognized (by his/her mother) in positive moments and in distress moments. We want to show the baby that we are on his/her wavelength. By joining the infant’s unhappy sounds and reflecting them back we show the infant that we see him/her and are with him/her in it.”

Another word for this is attunement. Tuning in to another person so that they feel seen, heard, and understood. We all need attunement from others, even babies.

Sadly, not all babies get the social stimulation they need. This lack predicts both social and cognitive difficulties later in life. Beebe stresses that that the video you see here is not a live recording. It is a series of drawings of the mother and her baby, painstakingly compiled by an artist who altered the mother’s features so as to protect her identity while preserving the facial expressions of each.

You can see a video of a mother interacting poorly with her infant here:

I find this video painful to watch. The mother does not know what to do to synchronize and attune to her baby which amplifies the baby’s distress. A skilled person could come alongside them at this point because the baby has yet to develop separation anxiety and will gladly interact with another human.

Why do some mothers struggle to connect with their babies? Allan Schore, M.D. was once asked that in an interview. He replied that “this is not a conscious voluntary” response. Rather it is an “unconscious involuntary response, and that typically women who cannot mother their child in an attuned way are suffering from the consequences of their own unresolved early emotional trauma.” Later he adds, “if early childhood trauma remains unconscious and unresolved it will inevitably be passed down the generations.”[2]

Many thoughts come to mind when I consider this study. I think mostly about the need we all have for healing, to face our losses and bring to Jesus out hurt and pain. We can respond to these studies on many levels. Firstly, we can ask what about us? Did we get the social stimulation and joy building that we needed as infants? Did we build joy with our little ones? Or did we not know how to connect because no one demonstrated this skill to us? Did we know that tiny babies need not just clean diapers and nourishing food but social interactions?

The answer, as always, is not to judge ourselves, our parents, or our children and grandchildren. We cannot judge those who struggle, but we can do our own work to recover so we can come alongside those who are careworn to help them and their children recover. 

At HCI we are dedicated to making prayer ministry more available by training leaders in the Immanuel Approach so they can both receive their own healing from Jesus in safe community and minister to others. We now have more than 65 people in training. Please pray for us that the intercession of the Holy Spirit will be fulfilled in our lives.

Many other ministries are doing the same (check out our partner page to see a few more). As a relational, healing community we are working to change our world so that each and every person can know the reality of a joyful relationship in Christ, as well as belong to a safe community where they can share the joys and sorrows of their lives.

I want to encourage you today to make space to ask God, What is my next step? Is there someone in my life that you are calling me to love? How should I start? 

Ask yourself, Am I willing to grow in my Immanuel skills so I have a more intimate relationship with God as well as the skill I need to help others come closer?

It is never too late to form a secure attachment to Jesus. He is utterly reliable, knows you inside out and loves you more than you can imagine. 

We love to hear from you. Please comment below to start the conversation.

Consider joining us this summer for our Annual Leadership Retreat, June 27, 28, 29 where we will Journey to Trust.

[1]The talk can be viewed here:

Thank you to Marianne Sicilia who sent me this article.

[2]“Excerpts from the interview with Daniela F. Sieff,” 2012, pg. 24. InRass, Eva, editor, The Allan Schore Reader: Setting the Course of Development, Routledge, UK, 2018, 197p.