Messiness=Healthy Infant Development

Children are born with an innate drive for neural and mental growth and the science is backing up what we have always known to be true: growth is nurtured in the messiness of everyday life!

Related: Growth-Promoting Mental Challenge

Dr. Ed Tronick and colleagues have been at the forefront of scientists studying how infants and parents actually interact in the real world. Their work has resulted in a revolution in the way that psychologists view the early parent-infant relationship.

First, rather than viewing early relationships as perfectly ‘attuned’ and ‘synchronized’, Tronick and colleagues discovered that in real life the relationship is quite ‘messy’ with frequent, ongoing episodes of mismatches followed by repairs. Of equal importance, they have hypothesized that this relationship messiness is an essential component of healthy infant development. It is through the repeated process of mismatches followed by reparation that infants learn about their own agency, develop the motivation for co-regulation and  develop trust in their relationship with parents.

The RDI program works to help individuals with developmental difficulties function in a very messy world.

The Inherent Messiness of Infant-Parent Relationships

Excerpts from Tronick and Beeghly (2011), Beeghly & Tronick (2011)

“In early work, researchers were so impressed by findings of orderliness in infant–mother interactions that they adopted a Fred-and-Ginger model of dyadic synchrony as one reflecting optimal functioning.  They argued that the mother–infant interaction was characterized by low levels of anger, sadness, or distress, long periods of mutual gazing and vocalizing, and a high proportion of shared positive affect expressed by big smiles. While this synchrony model is lovely and romantic, subsequent research on infant–parent interaction has provided little support for this view.

Our dancing is hardly perfect; there are missteps, apologies, tries, retries, match ups, and missteps again. In systems terminology, the typical interaction is messy: It moves from matching (coordinated, synchronous) states of shared meanings and intentionality to mismatched (miscoordinated, dyssynchronous) states and back to matching intentional states via an active, jointly carried out reparatory process. This general lack of coordination—messiness—suggests that infants and caregivers do not share similar intentions most of the time during interactions (e.g., the caregiver looks at the infant while the infant looks away) and that they cannot continuously coordinate their engagement states.

Whatever the reasons, messiness is an inherent quality of infant–caregiver interactions, and therefore the task of creating shared meanings is a daunting one for infants, children, and adults alike.

Studies show that healthily developing infant–parent dyads do not achieve perfect synchrony at all times, but instead move from moments of engagement to moments of disengagement and back again.  Parent–infant interactions consist of rapid successions of errors and repairs, brief alternating periods of matching and mismatching infant and parent emotional states occurring roughly every 3–5 seconds.  In one study mother–infant mismatches were repaired 70% of the time in the next interactive step, with new reparations occurring about every three to five seconds. In turn, the newly formed dyadic matches were followed by the reemergence of mismatches, which were followed by reparation of mismatches to matches and, we hypothesize, the formation of new meanings.”

“Developing a successful reparatory history with a specific person via repeated exchanges such as  playful interactions or social games leads to an implicit, “knowing” by infants that “we can repair mismatches.”  Initially the miscommunication creates negative affect, but, when interactive errors are repaired, the negative is replaced by positive affect in both infant and parent. Infants and parents learn about themselves and each other and develop their capacities for self-regulation, co-regulation, and mutual regulation as they experience these brief mismatches and engage in efforts to make reparations and re-engage. For infants, successful reparatory processes contribute to the formation of a core sense of positive affect, conveying a general sense of well-being and an emergent sense of mastery and agency.”


This article is published in the RDI Learning Community, along with other resources that help parents understand typical neural development.


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