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Mothers buy into freeze-frame parenting

Video evaluations are increasingly offered as a way for everyday mothers to check how they interact with their babies. Not everyone thinks it's a good idea.

October 31, 2011|By Jenny Hontz, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Therapist Aimee Wheeler, with daughter Rory, is interested in parent-infant communication.
Therapist Aimee Wheeler, with daughter Rory, is interested in parent-infant… (Anne Cusack, Los Angeles…)

Instructed to play with my baby, Max, for 20 minutes while he sat in an infant seat, no toys allowed, I pulled out every trick in the book.

Sign language ABCs. An animated version of "Itsy Bitsy Spider."

All the time, a camera was trained on my face, another on his.

I returned a few weeks later to see the results: Aimee Wheeler, a therapist, had synched up the footage into one split-screen video and analyzed all the tiny interactions between us, frame by frame by frame.

"Great narrative. Jenny gives Max space to acclimate to the room," says one page of Wheeler's notes.

"Jenny's contact turns into a gentle invitation for play with stroking of feet," says another. "Max takes the invitation and creates his own play."

Why would I subject myself to such scrutiny? And why would anyone be interested in dissecting, in such detail, how one mom interacts with her baby?

As founder of the Parenting Discovery Center in Los Angeles, a nonprofit offering support and therapy to people adjusting to parenthood, Wheeler believes such analysis is key to helping parents forge better, healthier bonds with their babies.

Until recently, the taping of interactions between parents and infants has mostly been used as a research tool or as intervention for mothers who are impoverished, severely depressed or otherwise at-risk. But as the technology has become accessible to anyone with a camera and a laptop, the service is starting to pop up in more mainstream therapeutic settings, geared to average moms, dads and caregivers.

Not everyone thinks that's a good idea.

Vital bond

When I became a mom last year, I wondered: How can I tell whether I'm attuned to my baby? Are my best intentions good enough?

I knew, from reading the research, the importance of mother-infant attunement. (And most of the research does focus specifically on mothers.) Gazing into my son's eyes, smiling when he smiles, trading high-pitched coos — these are the moments every mother loves. But there's much more to this early face-to-face communication than many parents realize.

When caregivers respond sensitively to an infant's emotional cues, the child develops secure attachments, which contribute to future mental health. Interactions between mothers and infants also affect development of a part of the baby's brain associated with emotional processing, studies show. That, in turn, affects a child's ability to regulate emotions and manage stress later in life.

Even highly functional people tend to repeat the patterns of their own parents, even when they don't want to, says Ruth Newton, a psychologist who uses a video feedback technique to help homeless mothers in San Diego bond with their babies and will soon offer it to middle-class parents at her Newton Center for Affect Regulation in La Jolla.

"We do the same things our mothers did," Newton said. "How we were treated is encoded in a nonconscious part of the brain. We act on it without knowing it, despite our best intentions."

I wasn't experiencing any unusual problems with Max, but perhaps I was repeating mistakes my own parents made without even realizing it. So when I stumbled across an opportunity to find out, I jumped at the chance.

At that time, Max was 7 months old, and Wheeler was just gearing up to offer the mom-baby video feedback service. A relatively new therapist with a doctorate in psychology, and a mother of two young kids, she had posted a call for volunteers for a trial run on an online mother's forum.

Though she had no formal training in video microanalysis, she was a devotee of Beatrice Beebe, a clinical professor of medical psychology at Columbia University's medical school and one of the nation's leading researchers on mother-infant face-to-face communication. Beebe has used video feedback to help mothers who were pregnant and widowed on 9/11, as well as others having serious trouble interacting with their babies, learn to relate more effectively.

Wheeler believed average mothers in Los Angeles could benefit from the same techniques.

"Just because someone isn't in a lower socioeconomic group or didn't grow up in a household of drug users or wasn't physically beaten as a child doesn't mean they don't have their own attachment history traumas that can play out in their now relationship as a mother with their own children," she says.

It actually made me feel less nervous that Wheeler didn't have years of experience with video analysis. If I didn't like what she had to say, I would have an easier time dismissing it. As it turns out, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I learned.

At full speed, the video just looked like I was working hard to entertain Max and keep him happy. Many intricacies of the interaction — fleeting facial expressions, body movements and vocal rhythms — happen so rapidly that they don't register in our conscious awareness.

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