The New Dance: Developmental Changes in Emotional Regulation

I always knew 3-months was a major developmental marker, yet I have been blown away by Dani recently. It is as though the moment she began holding her head up, she became a whole new person. She is more alert and aware of her environment, more interactive, and I am seeing the first hints of her personality emerge: my little girl does not like it when she cannot conquer a challenge – such as rolling over from her tummy, she resists naps, and she absolutely loves silly songs and The Nose Book by Al Perkins.

I am certainly not alone in noting the dramatic changes that accompany the end of the ‘4th trimester.’ “It has been suggested that at about 3-months, the infant ‘becomes human,” able to have “psychologically organized behavior… a function of central nervous system growth” (Kopp, Regulation, p 346). In other words, the 3-month old’s nervous system is mature enough that they can move beyond the realm of neuro-physiological regulation into new leaps in cognitive, motor and social-emotional development. With these exciting new changes comes a whole new realm of parenting. One of the biggest differences is in how we work together to regulate emotions; the dance needs new moves.

Regulation is a hot button term in developmental psychology, replete with many meanings. I prefer to use Dan Siegel’s interpretation:  “With adaptive self-regulation, the two branches of the autonomic nervous system are flexibly in balance.” This is opposed to “excessive sympathetic accelerator activity” – an over excited, chaotic state of agitation, anxiety or anger, and “excessive parasympathetic activity” – the rigidity and emotional paralysis of depression, dissociation and withdrawal (Siegel, p 249). When regulated, we are able to maximize the amazing potential of the human mind – unfathomably complex, and adaptive enough to remain stable while undergoing extraordinary growth.

Self-regulation is a process that we spend our lifetimes learning to master. And throughout or lives, it is accompanied by mutual regulation (also known as dyadic or co-regulation), in which interactions with others “help us to achieve balance or regulation in our own minds” (Siegel, p248). As adults, we access mutual regulation when we call our best friend to talk about a stressful event, sing in a group, or work together on an activity such as fixing a car. Infants and young children rely on mutual regulation – they need the supportive presence of a loving adult to manage the moment by moment input that throws their nervous system off balance.

Just how much should we be supporting an infant with mutually regulating acts, and how much should we be letting them practice the skills of self-regulation? This is one of the great balancing acts of parenthood, and is subject to much debate. I recently read an on-line article that used the language of neuro-development to suggest that infants are incapable of any form of self-regulation, and that allowing them the opportunity to self-soothe is a form of neglect. This is a fundamental misunderstanding of the science of the developing brain. I think our role in the development of self-regulation is the same as in any other realm: the parent’s job is to scaffold the child, providing a zone of proximal development in which they are challenged enough to move forward without being so challenged as to feel overwhelmed or give up – such as when we place a toy just out of reach of a baby who is about to crawl.

Doing this requires an intuitive understanding of the self-regulatory capacities of infants and young children, and how they change over time. It was T. Berry Brazelton who first described the innate self-regulation skills of newborns: inborn reflexes actually create a circuit that leads to self-soothing behavior. When a newborn startles – dysregulated by a sudden sensory experience or an internal disruption – their hands jerk upwards towards their head. The startle reflex leads to the lesser known tonic neck reflex – in which the infant turns their head, effectively bringing their hands within range of the face, which activates the sucking reflex – their primary self-soothing behavior (Brazelton).

Once we realize that this capacity is innate, we can give newborns a moment to act upon it before we step in. Practitioners of Brazelton’s Newborn Observation technique, teach parents a step-by-step way to promote newborn regulation with the minimal necessary intervention (assuming there is not an obvious physiological need such as hunger, which of course the caregiver must resolve). First, see if they are capable of soothing themselves as above, then let them see your face, then hear your voice, then intervene by placing a hand on their tummies, then holding their hands together at the mid-line to prevent further jerking movements. If none of this works, then pick them up and begin the routines of rocking, swaddling or offering something to suck. By following this sequence, we give them the opportunity, at each juncture, to access their self-soothing capabilities, while discovering the amount of mutual regulation they actually need in the moment.

This is hard to do as a parent, because we have a strong, instinctual desire is to soothe a newborn’s distress as soon as we witness it. But the danger of stepping in too aggressively too soon, is that our babies will not learn to access and build upon their self-soothing reflexes, and will become dependent on us for regulation. One day all too soon, we will not be with them at every moment, and they will need to rely upon their internal regulatory capacities to soothe themselves.

Along the same lines, when I was pregnant with Dani we were introduced to the book Bringing up Bebe, written by Pamela Druckerman about her experience as an American raising her young children in France. The author describes how French children seem more able than their American counterparts to sleep through the night, sit through a meal, and play on their own without demanding constant attention from their parents. She attributes these differences to the French injunction to “pause” before intervening, from the earliest days of parenting. We have been practicing the “pause” with Dani. When we hear her beginning to fuss during bedtime or floor time, we pause for a moment to see whether she calms herself down, or moves towards increased agitation and crying. Often, she will self-soothe a few times, for a moment or two, before ultimately crying out for our support. The end result is the same – we still are there when she needs us, but I believe those few minutes of successful self-soothing will go a long way towards the development of her self-regulatory skills.

The newborn’s primary concern is neuro-physiological regulation: the capacity of the nervous system to regulate heart rate, breath, temperature and other physiological factors in response to internal and external stimuli. The brain stem, the most primitive area of the brain, is responsible for regulating these basic life functions. The brain stem is the only part of the brain that is fully developed inutero, and it “organizes around the non-stop syncopated rhythms” of mom’s heartbeat, breath, movement and digestion. The fetus typically has all of its physiological needs met, and the brain stem learns to associate this feeling of comfort with the rhythms and sensations of the womb. That is why caring adults intuitively help newborns to regulate with repetitive, rhythmic actions that imitate the womb, such as rocking, singing, and walking (Perry). These soothing actions regulate older children as well. As adults, we use rhythm to self-regulate when we exercise, listen to music, or perform repetitive activities such as gardening or knitting.

At about 3-months, the developmental task of self-regulation shifts from neuro-physiological to sensorimotor in nature, defined as “the child’s ability to engage in a voluntary motor act (e.g., reach and grasp) and change the act in response to events that arise” (Kopp, Antecedents, p 203). Dani demonstrated this developmental shift very clearly a few weeks ago when she rediscovered her hands. Dani was blessed to have her hands positioned near her head in the womb, so that she was quick to find them for self-soothing as a newborn. But when she was about a month old, she stopped spending so much time in her fetal position. She effectively lost her hands, as she did not yet have the cognitive or motor capacity to deliberately move them towards her mouth. A few weeks ago she found them again, and now she deliberately sucks on them voraciously when distressed. About a week ago, she began grasping and holding objects well enough that she can now bring them to her mouth too  – a key sensorimotor form of self-regulation.

Over the last few weeks, I had gotten myself stuck in the parenting trap of assuming that development is linear. Since Dani self-soothed relatively well as a newborn, of course she would easily master self-regulating as a 3-month old, with new skills added to her repertoire. But “the caregiver’s role in facilitating emotional regulation during the 3- to 8-month age period is paramount. Infant abilities are burgeoning, but their behavioral repertoire is often inadequate to meet new experiences, thus they become overwhelmed.” (Kopp, Regulation, p 346). Indeed, Dani has hit a “touchpoint” – a moment in development when children appear to regress just as they make the next major leap. Her blossoming ability to tune-in to and interact with her environment – her expanding cognitive, visual, auditory and social skills – leaves her frequently overwhelmed. And her new self-regulating capacities have not yet caught up with her needs.

For example, Dani was once a master of one of the newborn’s primary self-regulation tricks: she could fall asleep instantaneously whenever external events overwhelmed her senses. Extended family members used to express frustration that she appeared to be sleeping in every photo that was taken outside our home. Indeed, for the first 8-10 weeks of life, Dani slept through nearly every venture out and about. As a 3-month old, she still gets overwhelmed by new environments, especially when they are highly stimulating, such as gatherings of people who love her. But she can no longer flip a switch and shut down. Instead, she has grown into a baby who resists her naps, and such settings require far more mutual-regulatory action on my part than they used to. Sometimes I find myself trapped in a quiet back room during a gathering of family or friends, walking and singing to Dani until she finally calms down.

I did not expect Dani to need more mutual regulation now than she did in the preceding few months, but in retrospect it makes perfect sense. It can be frustrating when our children need increased regulatory actions from us, or when what used to work no longer does – for example, Dani used to love to be swaddled, but now loathes anything that prevents access to her hands. But without that frustration, we would never get to experience the great joy and satisfaction of discovering the next thing that does work, both to support them in self-regulating, and to meet their needs through mutual regulation. Such is the magical nature of the ever-changing dance.


Brazelton, T. Berry. (April 26, 2014) The Neuro-Relational / Neuro-Developmental Touchpoints.  Lecture conducted from IPMHPCP, Napa, CA.

Druckerman, Pamela. Bringing Up Bebe: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting. New York, NY. Penguin Press, 2012.

Kopp, Clair B. “Antecedents of Self-Regulation.” Developmental Psychology. 1982: 18(2), pp 199-214.

Kopp, Clair B. “Regulation of Distress and Negative Emotions: A Developmental View.” Developmental Psychology. 1989: 25(3), pp 343-354.

Perry, Bruce. (June 27, 2014) Neurosequential Model of Therapeutics. Lecture conducted from IPMHPCP, Napa, CA.

Siegel, Daniel J. and M. Hartzell. Parenting from the Inside Out. New York, NY. Penguin Press, 2014.


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