The early weeks with my daughter were an endless blur of thankless days and nights. She fed every 90 minutes, cried for hours in the evening, and resisted sleep most of the time. But I’ll never forget the first time I saw love beaming out from my baby’s face. I was on the phone with a colleague, pacing around the room while my three-month-old slept in her bassinet. When my colleague asked about my daughter, I remember saying “Oh, she’s asleep—” as I looked in her direction. But her little eyes were open, shining at me as she tracked my movements. Surprised she hadn’t made a sound, I walked closer, and her eyes shone even brighter. My heart melted. She just laid there, content, following my voice until I hung up the phone. Afterwards we cuddled for an hour. It truly felt like she was telling me she loved me—and it made every other difficult moment feel worthwhile.
Recognizing love isn’t quite as easy as tracking your baby's developmental milestones, such as the first laugh or rolling over, but it is possible. Here’s how the experts say you can identify expressions of love from your baby.
Young babies start to reciprocate the bonding process by turning toward the voices they know (and love) the most. As early as 16 weeks in utero, babies have been listening in on Mom, Dad, siblings and anyone else Mom is around frequently—even the family dog. Because of this, Michelle Ponti, a paediatrician in London, Ont., says it’s important for parents to initiate the bonding process by chatting and reading to the baby in utero. By the time they’re born, babies are primed to turn towards the voices they recognize. “They can’t talk, but they can communicate by gazing. They can wriggle and move their head from side to side,” explains Claire Watson, a registered psychotherapist in Toronto.
It’s well documented that babies are primed to seek out faces, with one recent study saying infants can process faces as well as an adult by just four months. But it’s the primary caregivers’ faces they want to study the most. According to Watson, they do this to figure out if they can trust you. “The baby is sending signals that they want to attach, they want comfort, and they want an emotional response back,” she says. When you do reciprocate and gaze back with affection, this builds a loving connection between you and your baby. All that gazing in each other’s eyes helps them quickly learn to trust you, and want to grow their relationship with you.
If parents or caregivers don’t reciprocate and look back at the baby with emotion on their face, Watson says the infant doesn’t develop a sense of trust that their needs will be met. “Even if they’re well fed, it’s not just food they need, it’s the emotional connection, too.”
Learning to recognize your specific scent happens right from birth, as babies sort out who is the source of nourishment, says Ponti. But there’s more than basic instinct at play; babies are looking to develop emotional bonds right from the first minute. And according to Watson, the mother’s heartbeat and unique movements are already imprinted on the baby’s brain at birth, making them feel extra safe and secure in her arms. So, when your baby noticeably relaxes in your arms and settles in for a good cuddle, it’s her way of saying she knows and trusts you. The more consistently babies receive warmth, nourishment and comfort from parents, the more they’ll respond to their embraces with calmness and the occasional wriggle to get as close as possible.
I remember when my daughter first made a “Hey, you!” noise at me with an expression to match. Though the sound may have been undiscernible, the meaning was clear: She needed me. According to Watson, these bids for attention are just another way babies try to grow their relationship with you. By responding to their signals, you develop a way to converse, which makes the baby feel important and connected, and strengthens their bond with you.
Don’t downplay your infant’s first smile as a case of gas. By smiling right back at them (could you really resist?), Watson says the baby quickly learns that when they smile, Mom or Dad smiles back. “When you respond to a smile as if the baby intended it, you set up this expectation for the baby: When I do this, someone responds. And that’s a good thing,” she says. So while the first or second smile may in truth be a gassy grimace, it won’t be long before it's genuine.
As with any relationship, if you want your baby to show that they love you, let them know you love them right back. “Babies are primed to fall in love, but love is earned,” says Watson. “Parents who fall in love with their little babies have babies who fall in love with them.”