Strategic Initiatives: Human Development – Discovering Your Baby



By Claudia Gold, MD

Claudia Gold, MDWhen comedian Michael Junior reviewed the videotape of his daughter’s birth he discovered something remarkable. Just minutes after emerging into the world, her father’s gentle voice transforms her from a screaming, flailing, disorganized newborn into at state of stillness and calm. Then a few moments later, when the nurse putting on her diaper leads her to again descend into disorganization, her father’s declaration of love leads her to back to quiet, and for the first time she opens her eyes.

Under the auspices of the Austen Riggs Center’s new Human Development Strategic Initiative, I recently showed this video during a professional development program for Berkshire Hills Regional School District on trauma-informed schools. My aim, drawing on contemporary developmental science, was to show the connection between an out-of-control teenager cursing at a teacher and a helpless newborn girl. I describe how the capacity for self-regulation develops in the ongoing second-to-second co-regulation with primary caregivers.

The mutual regulation model, described by world-renowned developmental psychology researcher Dr. Ed Tronick, shows us that, in every relationship, missed cues are not only normal, but also central to healthy development. Detailed videotape analyses reveal that typical infant-parent pairs are mismatched up to 70% of the time. In repeated repair of second-to-second disruptions, children develop a positive sense of self and capacity for resilience. However, when these mismatches are not repaired, whether due to factors in the infant, the parent, or both, the infant may be left on his or her own to manage; development of the ability to self-regulate is derailed. 

Qualities in the baby, parent, or both may interfere with parents’ capacity to offer the kind of containment that the uniquely helpless human infant demands. Children may have signals that are very difficult to read. Parents may struggle with mental illness, substance abuse, and a range of other challenges including social isolation. Often these issues are passed down through many generations.

These very concerns are at the center of our work in the Human Development Strategic Initiative, and are informing the actions we are taking. Our first project is a training, supported by Berkshire United Way, for Fairview Hospital maternity nurses and South County pediatricians, early intervention clinicians, family physicians, nurse practitioners, and home visitors to learn the Newborn Behavioral Observations (NBO) system. The NBO is a clinical intervention that grew out of the work of pediatrician T. Berry Brazelton, who was among the first to call our attention to the newborn’s capacity for complex communication. This video of a three-day-old baby turning to his mother’s voice, following my face and voice and moving his mouth in imitation of mine shows the power of this approach.

We are riding a wave of investment in infancy and early childhood in our local community and Riggs is pleased to be a partner in these efforts.

“We are happy to partner with Austen Riggs in bringing this unique training opportunity to south county. We know from our work in early childhood development that fostering the bond between parent and child is crucial to developing strong, healthy families,” says Kristine Hazzard, president & CEO of Berkshire United Way.

In these challenging times we are currently facing, development of resources that promote listening to parents and babies in all communities is crucial to the well being of us all.

“I'm so moved by the community response to our upcoming training in the Newborn Behavioral Observations System. More than thirty healthcare providers in Southern Berkshire County will be devoting a weekend to learning this new approach to helping parents tune into their newborn’s unique qualities and capacity for communication. Our heartfelt thanks goes to Berkshire United Way for their generous support of this effort. We look forward to future partnerships aimed at supporting children and families in our community,” says Donna M. Elmendorf, PhD, director, Human Development Strategic Initiative.

United Way



Strategic Initiatives: Clinical Systems

Strategic Initiatives: Biopsychosocial Advocacy

Strategic Initiatives: Human Development

Strategic Initiatives: Suicide Research and Education

Strategic Initiatives: Psychodynamic Psychopharmacology