Imagine you are in your car waiting for another driver to pull out of a parking space. The car pulls out of the space, but before you can pull in, another car whips around the corner and takes it. You lay on your horn, roll down your window, and yell, “Can’t you see I was waiting for that parking space!” The driver gets out of his car, laughs, and walks away. You get out of your car and yell, “How dare you! Come back here!”
YOUR INTENSE RESPONSE IN THIS SITUATION could be considered a loss of self-control or a breakdown in emotional regulation. Even as adults, we can be overwhelmed by emotions, although we probably have learned some strategies to help us regain control. We may take a deep breath, count to ten, call a friend, or choose to let go of our frustration. We can
think about what happened and why we reacted so strongly. But when very young children have such feelings, they are not yet able to do these things.
Babies are born with some ability for self-regulation, but they cannot always control their strong emotions. Infants and toddlers who are overwhelmed depend on the outside help, or external regulation, that responsive caregivers provide. Through caring relationships with adults, babies begin to develop their ability to self-regulate, an ability they will continue to work on and need throughout their lives.
What is self-regulation and why is it important? In the report From Neurons to Neighborhoods: The Science of Early Childhood Development, Shonkoff and Phillips (2000) define self-regulation as a child’s ability to gain control of bodily functions, manage powerful emotions, and maintain focus and attention. The growth of self-regulation is a cornerstone of early childhood development and is visible in all areas of behavior (Shonkoff & Phillips 2000). When caring for an infant or toddler, parents and caregivers act as extensions of or supports for the child’s internal ability to regulate. The adults put a young baby’s pacifier back in her mouth, provide a soft blanket for a toddler falling asleep, and use consistent routines to support self regulation by helping very young children know what to expect. Feeding is one example of a daily routine that adults structure for infants and toddlers. The feeding process requires several aspects of self-regulation. Physically, it requires a baby to suck, swallow, and breathe. Emotionally, a baby’s cries signal her distressed reaction to hunger. Cognitively, a baby attends to the task of feeding long enough to become full. Imagine the three scenarios that follow.
Hosea is three months old. His mother, Naomi, comes to the child care center during her lunch hour to breast-feed him. Naomi holds Hosea and offers him her breast. Hosea latches on to her nipple and nurses. He watches Naomi as he nurses. She smiles and talks to him in a low, soothing voice. Hosea pauses in his sucking to smile at his mother, who smiles back and gently jostles him to bring his attention back to the task of nursing.
When Naomi feeds Hosea, she meets his basic need for food. Perhaps he cried to signal that he was hungry. Although he
may have had to wait a few minutes, his developing capacity to self-regulate is supported by his mother’s response. Experiences with manageable challenges, like having to wait a short time to be fed, promote healthy emotional regulation
(Shonkoff & Phillips 2000).
While feeding, Hosea gazes at his mother’s face. Naomi talks to him soothingly, facilitating the feeding process by associating it with a pleasant atmosphere and warm feelings. Over time Hosea has repeated experiences of feeling hunger, signaling his distress by crying, and having his needs met by a caring adult. Although feeling hungry is uncomfortable,
Hosea learns that this feeling will pass. He learns to trust that an adult will come, help him calm himself, and then provide
the milk he needs. An attuned, responsive adult helps a child build the capacity to wait, knowing his needs will soon be met (Perry 2005).
Hosea, now eight months old, sits in a high chair. He fusses because he is hungry. Eleanor, his caregiver, calls to him, “I’m fixing your food. I will feed you in a minute.” Hosea quiets upon hearing her voice. Eleanor arrives a few minutes later with a bowl of food, and Hosea bounces in his seat in anticipation. Eleanor dips the spoon into the bowl and brings the food to Hosea’s mouth. He swallows and opens his mouth for more. After a few bites, Hosea grabs the spoon. Eleanor says, “I knew you were going to want that spoon. I will use another one to feed you.”
Throughout this interaction Eleanor talks to and smiles at Hosea. Hosea responds with conversational
sounds and smiles. At one point Hosea offers Eleanor imaginary food with his spoon, and she pretends to take a bite.
In this scenario Hosea’s behavior shows his growth since he was three months old in both the cognitive and emotional areas of self-regulation. He has gained more control over his body, emotions, and attention. Eleanor’s verbal cue signals him that his food is coming, and her voice provides enough external regulation to help him stop fussing. When Hosea sees Eleanor with the bowl, he becomes excited; he knows from past experiences that his need for food is being met. Eleanor talks to Hosea while feeding him, creating the positive social interaction he has come to expect as part of the mealtime routine. Hosea shows his beginning need for independence and his ability to imitate when he takes the spoon from Eleanor and offers to feed her. Supporting Hosea’s emerging independence, she lets him have the spoon. She also permits his continued dependence by recognizing that he still needs her to feed him. She fosters his developing empathy (part of his emotional development) by pretending to eat the imaginary food he offers her.
Hosea at 18 months sits in a booster seat at a table with other toddlers. Eleanor sits next to him at the table, eating her own meal. Holding his spoon in one hand, Hosea busily shoves food into his mouth with the other. Eleanor gives the children foods they can easily pick up. She encourages Hosea to use his spoon. Eleanor talks to Hosea about what he is eating: “Those strawberries are so good! You are really hungry.” As his hunger subsides, Hosea uses his spoon to get the last few bites of fruit. Eleanor comments, “You used your spoon to get that last strawberry. Good for you!”
Even though Hosea can use a spoon, when he is really hungry, he goes back to using his hands. Eleanor is patient as Hosea acquires self-feeding skills. The teacher provides social interaction and emotional engagement as she sits with Hosea and talks about what he is eating. In the presence of his teacher’s calm, supportive interactions, Hosea eventually uses his spoon, and Eleanor comments positively on this. Through consistent feeding routines, Hosea learns that people respond to him in positive, nurturing ways and that the world is a safe place. Caring, consistent relationships with adults provide external supports that serve as the basis for developing selfregulation. One of a child’s most important developmental tasks is moving from external regulation to self-regulation (Shonkoff & Phillips 2000; Perry 2005).
Hosea’s growing capacity for self-regulation integrates his cognitive, physical, and social-emotional abilities. The three vignettes show the beginnings of this process and how supportive, responsive adults facilitate it.
Temperament and goodness of fit
Imagine that when Naomi responded to Hosea’s hungry cries in the first vignette, he arched his back and screamed. Or instead of latching on to the breast to nurse, he was distracted by the slightest sound or movement. Suppose this fussiness or distractibility continued, and Naomi became stressed trying to figure out how to meet Hosea’s needs. Hosea’s view of the world would be different if Naomi could not read his cues and meet his needs.