Help Infants Learn Self Regulation Through Relationships

When babies are born, they have very little ability to regulate themselves. The development of self-control occurs within the context of the infant-caregiver relationship. Babies are almost entirely dependent upon their parents or primary caregivers to identify and respond to their ever-changing needs. One of the most important tasks of parenting during a child’s early years is the task of managing our children’s emotions, needs, and impulses when they do not have the capacity to do it themselves.

Over time, responding to babies’ needs in a responsive and consistent manner helps them to learn that the feelings of distress they are having are not permanent. They learn that these feelings do pass. They also learn that there are both external and internal ways to manage these feelings so that they do not overwhelm them. They begin to develop within themselves the capacity to take care of their feelings and impulses, and to feel secure in knowing that their needs will be met.

Individual Differences and Self-Regulation

From the moment they are born, infants are presented with the challenging task of sensory integration in their new, expansive world. Sights, sounds, lights, hunger, fatigue, movement, and smell are just some of the sensations that the young infant is attempting to organize and react to on a continual basis.

Differences in how children perceive and respond to sensory information can impact how they respond to the world around them. It can also impact the development of self-control. For example, a child who is sensitive to sound may become easily overwhelmed in a loud classroom or home environment. His caregivers may notice him hitting or pushing his friends, or having trouble focusing and paying attention on days when the noise level is higher than usual.

Finding ways to support a child’s unique sensory needs can help him or her to regain or maintain a sense of self-control and feel more successful and self-confident. In this case, what might help is lowering the volume of the class or providing a “quiet space” for the child to go when things become over stimulating. Observing and paying attention to your child’s unique ways of perceiving, organizing, and responding to his or her surroundings can provide you with important and valuable clues. You can learn how to help your child negotiate her growing skills of self-regulation.


Brazelton, T.B. (1992) Touchpoints: Your Child’s Emotional and Behavioral Development, Development, Birth to 3—The Essential Reference for the Early Years. Cambridge, MA. Perseus Books.

Greenspan, S. & Wieder, S. (1993) Regulatory Disorders. In Zeanah, C. (Ed.), The Handbook of Infant Mental Health (pp. 280–290). New York: Guilford Press.

Lerner, C. et al. (2000) Learning & Growing Together: Understanding Your Child’s Development. Washington D.C.: ZERO TO THREE Press.

Williamson, G.G. and Anzalone, M.E. (2001)Sensory Integration and Self-Regulation in Infants and Toddlers: Helping Very Young Children Interact With Their Environment. Washington D.C.: ZERO TO THREE Press.