Understanding your child’s needs and how to respond to them

This article explores how to create a warm and responsive environment for your child to thrive.

Many of the theories about parenting involve the idea of responsiveness. And this makes sense because just like adults respond to each other by chatting, you’re interacting in various ways with your child from day one. You interact through language and actions, and create a bond together. Ahhh.

How a good environment helps

Showing your child you understand their needs by being sensitive and responsive can shape the emotional relationship between you both. Sensitivity as a parent means being able to respond to your child’s signals promptly and appropriately (Ainsworth, 1974). In the beginning, their signals (obvious or not) are usually their body language (like their feeding cues) and cries. That’s how you’ll figure out whether they’re sleepy, hungry or uncomfortable.

Being sensitive so you create a warm and supportive environment is associated with positive effects on children’s language and cognitive development during toddlerhood (Malmberg et al, 2016). It also has social benefits for them as they grow older (Steinberg, 2001).

Building a strong, trusting bond in this way is important too. It can give your child confidence in other social situations (Darling and Steinberg, 1993). And it can even pave the way for their independence and ability to form secure relationships as an adult (Sears and Sears, 2001).

But as your baby starts to interact more as they grow, the idea of facilitation can be a useful one to explore. We’ll explain…

So what is facilitation and why is it important?

Facilitation means helping a child to do something that they’re already doing or had signalled they wanted to do (Stein et al, 1994; Stein et al, 1999). Facilitation can help your child’s literacy skills, the start of developing stories and aid their comprehension (Weitzman and Greenberg, 2010).

Two useful ways of thinking about facilitation are:

1. Serves and returns

It could be helpful to think about your interactions with your child, and try to make sure you’re creating an environment for ‘serves and returns’ between the two of you (Kennedy, 2011).

  • Try to guide them, tune in and interact with them during play.
  • Say ‘yes’ in these play moments (with body language and words).
  • Encourage your child’s initiatives.
  • Try to be attentive (watching, waiting, wondering).

This approach can help them to verbalise and understand language and improve development for their age (Kennedy, 2011).

2. Strive for five

Another useful nugget of advice to keep in mind is to ‘strive for five’ in the conversations you have. When your toddler starts to chatter (or interact non-verbally), try to keep a conversation going for five back and forths (Weitzman and Greenberg, 2010). View it like a game of tennis.

The toddler tantrum phase

It’s worth always remembering that as your baby grows, they are constantly learning about and experiencing new stuff. Part of this is them testing different boundaries and getting used to regulating their emotions (NHS, 2016). Inevitably, there will be times when they can’t do what they want – eating the TV remote, for example – and this is when you can get the tantrums.

The job of the parent is to help their little one understand that actions have consequences. The real job is doing it a positive way that reinforces feelings of love and respect but still gets the message across. See our articles on toddler tantrums and handling public tantrums for more tips.

We all want good relationships with our babies. From day one, they’re able to absorb your interest, care and attention. And by responding to their cues, you can help develop a happy, healthy bond between you. You could give these facilitation techniques a try if you like the sound of them.

This page was last reviewed in March 2019.

Further information

For more ideas when it comes to all aspects of parenting, see our other articles on parenting styles, such as our one on the most popular styles and how to identify yours, through to how to raise my child to be happy, confident and considerate.

Our support line offers practical and emotional support with feeding your baby and general enquiries for parents, members and volunteers: 0300 330 0700.

You might find attending one of our Early Days groups helpful as they give you the opportunity to explore different approaches to important parenting issues with a qualified group leader and other new parents in your area.

Make friends with other parents-to-be and new parents in your local area for support and friendship by seeing what NCT activities are happening nearby.

Ainsworth MDS, Bell SM, Stayton DJ. (1974) Infant-mother attachment and social development: 'Socialisation' as a product of reciprocal responsiveness to signals. In: The Integration of a Child into a Social World. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Darling N, Steinberg L. (1993) Parenting style as context: An integrative model. Psychological Bulletin. 113(3):487-496. Available from: http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.865.7470&rep=rep1&type=pdf [Accessed 20th March 2019].

Kennedy H, Landor M, Todd L. (2011) Video Interaction Guidance: a relationship-based intervention to promote attunement, empathy and well-being. JKP, London.

Malmberg LE, Lewis S, West A, et al. (2016) The influence of mothers’ and fathers’ sensitivity in the first year of life on children’s cognitive outcomes at 18 and 36 months. Child Care Health Dev. 42(1):1-7. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26538379 [Accessed 20th March 2019].

NHS Education for Scotland. (2016) Infant Mental Health. Developing Positive Early Attachments. Available from: https://www.nes.scot.nhs.uk/media/3552795/final_imh_interactive_pdf__3_.pdf [Accessed 20th March 2019].

Sears W, Sears M. (2001) The attachment parenting book: A commonsense guide to understanding and nurturing your baby. First edition. Little, Brown and company. New York.

Steinberg L. (2001) We know some things: parent–adolescent relationships in retrospect and prospect. Journal of Research on Adolescence. 11(1):1-19.

Weitzman E, Greenberg J. (2010) ABC and beyond: Building emergent literacy in early childhood settings. The Hanen Centre Publication. Toronto.

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