Relationships, play and development

15 November 2018

First published September 2011

What is the impact of early relationships on babies development?


Nurturing infant mental health 

By Dr Suzanne Zeedyk

If you had to give one single message to parents about what's important in their baby's first year of life, what might that message be? Here's what neuroscientific studies would suggest: Help your baby to feel emotionally safe. Nurturing emotional safety Babies who are confident that their parents will quickly respond to them develop brains that are wired differently from babies who have to learn to cope without much reassurance. Long-term consequences tend to be very different for babies starting life from these two separate ends of the emotion spectrum. So, since every parent wants to do the best they can for their child, a key thing they can bequeath to them is an inner sense of safety.

There are lots of ways that parents, and others regularly caring for children, such as nursery staff and childminders, can nurture this feeling. Such practical suggestions make most sense when they are grounded in a basic understanding of infant psychology and brain development. In this article, I am going to summarise some of the scientific findings recently emerging in these areas, and then use that to frame suggestions for simple ways in which parents can help to ensure that their child's brain is being wired for emotional confidence, rather than emotional worry.

Babies are born social

Psychology has been, for some time now, teaching us that babies come into the world already connected to other people. From birth, babies exhibit an awareness of and sensitivity to other people's attention and movements. They tune into the sounds and voices that became familiar while they were still in the womb. They engage in tum-taking exchanges, and they become discomforted if their companion fails to take their turn in that exchange. They coordinate the rhythm of their body movements with the rhythm of their partner's speech. In short, infants do  not need to learn how to engage with other people. This is a capacity that they possess innately. Evolutionary forces have ensured that, to our very core, humans are social beings. How do we know all this? Psychology has investigated a range of abilities that demonstrate innate sociability. One example is imitation, shown in newborns' ability to copy facial expressions and hand movements, such as sticking out tongues or extending an index finger. Another example is babies' reaction to a mother's 'still face', in which researchers ask mothers to hold their face still, so that they aren't responding to their baby's bids for engagement. Within seconds, babies start to become still and uncomfortable, exhibiting fretfulness and looking away. When mothers once again resume responding, the babies exhibit relief - but also often confusion and even continuing bouts of discomfort, as if to say 'I really couldn't figure out why you had just stopped talking to me so suddenly and I'm still a bit bothered that it happened in the first place!'. Other examples of connection include the fact that babies are born already familiar with their mother's smell, that being touched facilitates their growth, and that, at only a few days old, they have already learned to discriminate their mother's face from that of a stranger's.

Babies' brain development

Babies' brains are primed with everything they need to start building relationships. Neuroscience has been adding to this picture, by revealing that the responses babies get back from other people - parents, siblings, grandparents, nursery staff - do more than shape their behaviour. Social responses actually mould brain development, by influencing the formation of synapses between cells in the brain (which are called neurons). The advantage for humans of having brains that are so heavily influenced by the environment is that it allows each individual to develop a brain perfectly suited to the particular world into which they are born.

They become physiologically attuned to its rhythms, its rules, its rituals. Babies are able to speak the language of their 'tribe', complete with its very specific accent and intonation. They learn to cope with a particular sleeping style, so they can manage in cultures where they sleep next to their parent through the night and also those where they are placed in a cot down the corridor. Babies can survive in families where there is lots of shouting and chaos, and even violence, or where there is extreme neglect, or where there is a constant stream of cuddles and smiling. In short, our very tailored brains have allowed us, as humans, to survive in a wealth of settings, even where settings bring with them greater emotional cost.  


Motorways in the brain 

The most important question that the baby's brain is trying to work out is whether its world is a safe and predictable one, with someone coming quickly to comfort her when she is upset, or whether the world is often overwhelming, which happens when he is left to handle anxiety and unpredictability on his own. A child is literally building a set of neural pathways - what I like to think of as an emotional motorway system - that allows them to transport messages about their world as fast as possible. They can't build a motorway system on their own, though; it is always done in conjunction with input from others. As the author Sue Gerhardt puts it, in her book Why Love Matters: "The human baby is incomplete. It arrives ready to be programmed by adults." How early are the 'early years'? The brain is developing more rapidly between birth and 3 years than it ever will again. By the age of 3, approximately 90% of final brain mass is established. Of course, this isn't the end of the brain's development, as that continues right up until adulthood, but the early years do see the period of its most rapid growth. The developmental stages that occur later in childhood, especially in adolescence, all build on whatever neural foundations have been laid down during the early years.

Hormonal baseline

It isn't just the foundations of neural pathways that are being established in these early years, though. It is also hormonal baselines. So, if an infant lives in a stressful environment - which is essentially one where they feel unsure about the responsiveness of their parent - then their body learns to produce more of the hormone cortisol. Cortisol is a hormone that we all need to help us cope with stress, such as when we get to work late, or are being shouted at by our partner, or, in prehistoric times, needed to if we run away from dangerous animals that wanted to eat us. So cortisol is very useful for acute threats. But chronic cortisol isn't good for us. It causes our immune system to slow down; it stops us from thinking clearly; it makes it harder for us to read other people's faces and thus to act empathically.

Babies' experiences of their world 'teach' them whether they live in a high-cortisol world or a low-cortisol world. They then set up physiological systems that allow them to cope with those expectations, and they carry this physiological expectation forward with them into adult life. If their body has been primed to rapidly produce cortisol, then this will have consequences for all of the functions that cortisol is meant to affect. It will lead to weaker immune systems; it will mean they quickly feel threatened; they will find it hard to stay calm in the face of that sense of threat. This makes it more likely that, as an adult, they will act more impulsively in their relationships with others, or explosively, or aggressively.

Long term effects of the early years

There are now a large number of longitudinal research studies that have enabled us to track the consequences of children's early emotional experiences. These include the 'Dunedin Study: which has followed the lives of all the children born in the New Zealand city of Dunedin in 1972, and the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study, which has been gathering data from 17,000 adults living in California, USA, and linking their experience of childhood trauma to medical problems later in life. Studies like these reveal that children who have experienced a regular sense of threat in their young lives have, in their later years, higher rates of mental illness, physical illness, teenage pregnancy, poorer school performance, and a greater tendency to drug use. The sobering insight from these studies is that we can identify those individuals who are at greater risk of such adult problems, already at the age of 3 years.

Simple things that we can do

So it seems that one very successful thing we can do, as parents, as professionals, and as a society, is to focus on ways that we can help our children to develop a sense that the world is emotionally safe. Here are five simple ways we can do that. 

  1. Cuddle
    We can make sure that we are cuddling our children a lot. Touch produces a hormone called oxytocin, which acts in an opposite way from cortisol. It helps you to relax, makes you curious about the environment around you, and, as KerstinUvnas-Moberg, the author of The Oxytocin Factor says, it probably lies at· the heart of empathy. It is easy for babies' cuddling needs to get overlooked these days, in a busy world where our cultural practices include transporting them in buggies and then car seats, having them sleep in their own cot, and sometimes spending long hours in nurseries where staff may, feel worried about how much it is okay to cuddle babies. Babies love sensitive cuddling because then there is no question they are safe. 
  2. Talk to them
    Talk to them. Babies come into the world already recognising the sound of a mother's voice, and also that of anyone else who was regularly present during the pregnancy, such as dad, siblings, or grandparents. This has been shown, for example, in a classic study carried out in the 1980s, by researchers DeCasper and Fifer, who had pregnant women read the same story to their 'bump' every day. Testing them during the first 3 days after birth revealed that they could tell the difference between recordings of their mum reading that story and other women reading the story. So simply talking with your baby generates for them a sense of assurance and joy.
  3. Get a buggy that has an option to face you
    Although it is common for most modem buggies to face away from the parent, the neuroscience suggests that babies are more likely to prefer seeing their parent, because that is more reassuring and also more enjoyable for them, especially on busy, loud city streets. Indeed, a study released by the National Literacy Trust in 2008 found that babies were more likely to laugh when facing their mum or dad. We need more research to tell us the best age at which to start turning the buggy to face out, but for the early months especially, having a buggy that lets the baby see you whenever she wants will help her brain to build pathways to emotional confidence. 
  4. Play
    The importance of play can be underestimated by adults, precisely because it sounds like a childish thing to do. But playing is important at all ages, because it brings with it relaxation and ease, during which our immune systems and muscles can relax and refresh themselves. It is especially important for babies and children, because play is their work In her book The Science of Parenting, Margot Sunderland explores the way in which children's 'seeking systems' are activated 
    when parents offer them lots of interesting experiences. This helps children to develop pathways of curiosity, drive, and motivation, which will serve them well throughout life. So time spent simply opening box tops, blowing raspberries on the tummy, crawling across the room to retrieve a ball so that it can be rolled again, and looking out together through a bus window are nurturing valuable pathways in babies' brains.
  5. Get yourself support
    Parenting is a very hard job. Amidst the many joyful moments, it is often frustrating, confusing, and exhausting. It is impossible to manage such emotions well without a support system. Health visitors and their colleagues within the public health nursing team are well placed to be part of the support system. So also are good friends and family. 
    You can't 'hold' your baby emotionally unless someone else is 'holding' you emotionally. Just like babies, adults do better in life when they have a strong sense of connection to other people. 

Creating motorways to joy

In effect, what the science is telling us is that, as humans, relationships are central to our health and happiness. That is as 
true for babies as it is for adults. So the most valuable thing parents can do for their infants is to build a strong, joyful 
relationship with them. This will also be building a motorway to joy in their brains. 


Supporting play in the home

By Penny Tassoni

Play is something that most people associate with children and childhood. It is generally recognised as being a cornerstone in young children's development and learning. Most play involves physical movement, be it gross or fuJ.e motor, but most importantly opportunities for interaction, learning and socialisation. When it comes to parents playing with their children, there are particular benefits. The shared enjoyment, interaction and eye contact and interaction are all ways in which attachment can be fostered.

What is less known is that there are many models and theories of play, thus making it quite a hot and sometimes even heated topic in early years education. The good news, is that whilst there some dispute as to what constitutes play and how adults 
should promote it, everyone working with children endorses its potential value! In this article, I propose to sidestep some of the politics that surround the theories of play and focus instead on two models of play that have been particularly influential in early years settings and can easily be adopted by other professionals to support parents. 


Play with real objects for babies and toddlers 

Elinor Goldschmied (1987, 1994) showed the importance of giving babies and toddlers 'real objects' using treasure basket and heuristic play. She suggested that this type of play can help very young children's concentration, creativity and also fine motor development. Treasure basket and heuristic play are now established ways of stimulating babies and toddlers in early years settings but can easily be used by parents in the home. 

Organising treasure basket play (for babies under 12 months)

A treasure basket is literally a low basket that has everyday objects inside. (Parents who do not have this could leave objects out in a low container or just on the floor) The idea is that a baby can reach inside and pick out an object to handle and mouth. This helps babies to explore objects and textures. Ideally, all the objects provided should all be made of natural materials such as a metal spoon, leather purse or a wooden egg cup. These give more sensory feedback to the baby and so are likely to be of more interest. There is no prescribed list of objects -the key thing is that they have to be clean and sufficiently large to avoid the risk of choking. Babies using treasure baskets need to be supervised at all times (remember the items are not 'toys", therefore care and common sense must be employed). It is worth putting out at least 15 or so objects at a time -fewer than this tends not to give babies sufficient choice. 


Items for treasure basket play

  • Wood - eggcups, spoons, jigsaw pieces, door wedge 
  • Metal - tea strainer, spoon, sturdy chain, metal lids 
  • Fabrics and leather - leather purse, scarves, lavender bag, pompoms
  • Natural materials - large shells, natural sponge, lemon, orange, pumice stone, corks 


Heuristic play (From around 12 months) 

Heuristic play comes from the idea of toddlers 'discovering' for themselves. Heuristic play can be introduced when toddlers no longer seem so engaged with treasure baskets and this may coincide with walking.

With heuristic play, items are chosen for their interest rather than the material they are made from. Smaller items can be put out, provided that parents have considered whether their child is still using mouthing as the primary way of exploring. Objects are grouped on the floor. As toddlers seem fascinated with putting things in containers (see enveloping/ containing below) it can be worth putting out some different sized containers or tubes along with some smaller objects.


Schema theory
Some of the most recent and exciting developments in watching and understanding children's play have been based on the work of Chris Athey ( 1990). Building on Piaget's concepts of schemas, Athey suggests that children explore different 'play schemas' as part of their learning. Athey observed in children's play some repeating themes that were present even when children were using a variety of materials. These themes were dubbed 'play schemas' and Athey concluded that children explore them at different levels. 

Using schema theory with parents

Whilst schema theory is used widely in early years settings, this model is very helpful when working with parents. It gives an 
explanation as to why toddlers love dropping bits and pieces down the back of radiators or why some children are fascinated with 
opening and closing cupboards! For some parents, understanding their children's play is quite transformative in terms of their own attitudes towards what otherwise might be seen as nuisance behaviour. It can also help parents to 'tune in' to the needs of their children and so has benefits in terms of their overall relationship. Below are some easily identifiable schemas that might be good starting points to work through with parents. Transporting Toddlers and older children are often interested in moving things from one place to another. When this is observed, it is often very purposeful activity. 

Anything that is not nailed down might be scooped up and moved! Look out for 'bag ladies' -toddlers who put a 
random collection of objects inside a bag and walk around with it. As part of this exploration, children might also move water from the bath onto the floor! 

Opportunities for interaction

Passing items, one by one, for children to take somewhere is an easy way of engaging children whilst they are exploring this schema. A toddler might be offered a plastic cup to take to the table, followed by a plate, followed by another beaker. Whilst shopping, children might well enjoy being handed an item so, that they can take it to the trolley or'basket. Containing/enveloping 
These are two individual schemas, but overlap in many ways. When children are exploring 'containing', they are likely to be dropping objects inside boxes or putting things in and out of drawers. They may also be interested in putting lego into the loo. The enveloping schema often builds on this and is about wrapping things. Children may wrap a teddy in toilet paper! Opportunities for interaction Tidying away can be a good activity for containing as it allow children to put things into boxes and drawers (They may take them out again, though!). At bath or shower time, wrapping a child with a large towel. Children may also enjoy wrapping up presents or helping to put cards in envelopes.


The trajectory schema relates to children's fascination with the way things move, particularly through the air. This means that many toddlers and children love throwing things. Toddlers might not particularly be bothered about aiming, just enjoying the action and watching the object move.

Opportunities for interaction

Babies and children are likely to enjoyed being lifted into the air. Good interaction and eye contact come naturally when children are pushed in a swing. Getting out some bubbles is also a fantastic way of engaging with both babies and children. It is worth recommending some 'party bubbles' as these can be a great distraction and are easily slipped into a changing bag.

This schema is about how things turn and rotate. It explains the way in which some children love stirring things and drawing circles. Children who are exploring this schema may love turning on taps to enjoy the rotating movement.

Opportunities for interaction

Many wonderful activities for rotation may well need an adult. Children will love going inside a revolving door or turning on the cold tap. Inside a kitchen, possibilities abound. Washing a salad and then spinning it in a salad spinner or stirring as part of cooking are likely to be winning activities.

Tips about play schemas

  • Children may explore more than one schema at a time 
  • Adults can support children's interests by putting out materials and resources, but schemas are essential child-led.
  • Young children, especially toddlers, are likely to repeat the same actions over and over again - and so time and patience is needed. 
Schema  Examples of resources and toys
Transporting  Shopping bags, plastic beakers, bottles, plastic bowls Sit and ride toys, brick trolleys or suitcases on wheels 
Containing/Enveloping  Boxes with lids, plastic bottles, saucepans, empty chocolate boxes, scarves,towels, newspaper for wrapping up, cuddly toys, cash registers 
Trajectory Soft balls, bean bags, bubble mixture, bats and rackets, toy aeroplanes Visits to the park for swings and slides
Rotation Safe objects that spin e.g. spinning tops, yoyos, saucepans or bowls with some dried pasta that can be stirred. Crayons and markers so that children can make rotational marks. 


Learn more about NMC revalidation here.


Professional further reading (Penny Tassoni) Goldschmied E. (1987) Babies at work (video), National Children's Bureau Goldschmied, E., Jackson,S. ( 1994) People Under Three: Young Children In Daycare, (2nd Edition), Routledge 

Athey, C. ( 1990) Extending thought in young children: A parent teacher partnership, Paul Chapman 

Gerhardt, Sue. (2003) Why Love Matters: How Affection Shapes a Baby's Brain. Routledge. 

Sunderland, Margot. (2006). The Science of Parenting: Practical Guidance of Sleep, Crying, Play, and Building Emotional Wellbeing for Life. Doring Kindersley Publishers. 

Moberg, Kerstin. (2003). The Oxytocin Factor: Tapping the Hormone of Calm, Love, and Healing. Da Capo Press. 

Grille, Robin. (2008). Parenting for a Peaceful World. CP Publishing. 

Blythe, Sally. (2004). The Well-balanced Child: Movement and Early Learning. Hawthorn Press.

Useful resources to share with parents 
Play Schemas 
'Making the most of play patterns', a resource within the Learning Together with Threes file by Peers Early Education Partnership ( PEEP). 
'Schema Booklet for Parents and Carers', a resource for parents available from the Penn Green Centre 
Treasure basket and heuristic play 
Web page on PEEP's website ( written for parents with a list of possible resources.


Information to support parents' playing with their children 

  • Learning and Play. This colourful booklet aimed at parents gives tips on play and development from 1-3 years. It can be downloaded or ordered from the Family and Parenting Institute's website www.
  • Playing and Talking, a free downloadable resource developed by Talk To Your Baby in conjunction with the National Association of Toy & Leisure Libraries. This can be found on the literacy trust website
  • Play Talks. This downloadable resource has been developed by SCOPE. It contains plenty of tips and practical suggestions to help children who have motor difficulties engage in play and communication. uk
  • Goldschmied, E., Jackson,S. (2003) People Under Three: Young Children In Daycare, (2nd Edition), Routledge.
  • Excellent description of Treasure basket and Heuristic Play along with a list of suggested items. 
  • Moyles, J. (2010) The Excellence of Play, (3rd edition) Open University Press. A good all- round look at play and its value in the early years.
  • Tassoni, P. (2008) Penny Tassoni's Practical EYFS Handbook, Heinemann. A popular guide to the Early Years Foundation Stage. It includes many activities for children aged 0-5 years.
  • Featherstone, S, Beswick C, Louis S. (2008)Again, Again: Understanding Schemas in Young Children Featherstone Education Ltd. A very accessible and practical look at children's play schemas.


Further professional resources (Suzanne Zeedyk) some related videos: 
Sue Gerhardt: 










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