Right from birth, babies have an inbuilt instinct to interact with their caregivers. But too much interaction or excitement can be uncomfortable for babies, and they need downtime as well as stimulation. Babies may need to break eye contact and turn away briefly from an intense interaction with their caregiver. It’s therefore normal for babies to sometimes avoid interacting with their caregiver when they need a break. But, when all goes well, parents and carers and their babies learn ways of being together that feels right for them.
Babies and small children, like adults, also have differing temperaments - some children are by nature shy and retiring until they feel confident in their surroundings. Most parents or carers adapt to the needs of their shy child, introducing change gradually and allowing the child to approach new experiences in their own time.
- When to be concerned
There are times when withdrawn behaviour is a cause for concern. When there is a noticeable change in a child’s behaviour, this suggests that there is something wrong. Equally, ongoing withdrawn behaviour isn’t good for healthy emotional and social development. It is important to understand what’s happening for the child and to consider it in relation to their age and developmental stage.
When a baby or young child seems withdrawn, much quieter or less responsive than usual, it may be because they are feeling frightened or anxious. When older children and adults are faced with stress or something that feels like a threat, their fight or flight response kicks in. However, babies can’t fight or run away, and are therefore left with ‘extreme passivity’ as their only way of avoiding harm. It’s easy to misunderstand the baby’s passivity as a lack of awareness. For example, we know that when babies are subjected to frightening sounds of domestic abuse, they may appear quiet or even asleep. Withdrawal can be a baby’s way of defending themselves.
- Supporting the parent-child relationship
Quiet, passive babies are sometimes responding to their parent’s (usually their mother’s) emotional unavailability. If their mother is depressed and feeling unsupported herself, she may find it hard to respond to the demands of a baby and their emotional needs. In turn, a baby does not then feel understood, and if the situation doesn’t improve, they might give up trying to connect.
Sometimes, behaviours are misunderstood and there is an ongoing miscommunication in the relationship between the parent or carer and child. For instance, a parent or carer might misunderstand and read the baby’s normal need to take a break from their interaction as a rejection or even a dislike of their care. If the parent or carer then tries to re-establish contact too quickly, it creates stress and discomfort in the baby who then tries to avoid the parent or carer. This has been described as ‘chase and dodge’, where the parent or carer is desperate to maintain contact and the baby equally desperate to get away.
In some cases, a referral to more specialist care like parent-infant psychotherapy might help to support the relationship between the baby and parent or carer and get it back on track. Therapeutic support can help a parent or carer to understand how their own early experiences of being parented are perhaps coming into play in an unhelpful way, and how they can respond differently to their baby’s cues.
If a baby seems withdrawn, observe them and listen to what they are trying to communicate. Try to build up your interactions with them slowly. Begin gently, showing consistent and appropriate interest in them, their play and their communications, while giving them the space they need.
Keep in mind their developmental stage, and the amount of stimulation they can manage and for what time periods.
Help caregivers to imagine what babies and toddlers are experiencing. If doing so feels uncomfortable for the parent or carer, or if they feel blank and cut off, it may be connected to the parent or carers own experiences as a child.
Consider whether the parent or carer and baby might need more specialist help to support their relationship.