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Making Motherhood Mindful

Mindful motherhood, simply put, means being present in your body and connected with your baby. It’s being aware of your experience from moment to moment, as it is happening, without pushing the moment away, trying to make it stay, or judging it as bad or good. Mindful motherhood means meeting each situation as it is, and approaching whatever is happening with curiosity and compassion.

A mindful mother approaches all of the experiences she encounters with open eyes and an open heart. Whether those experiences are internal (such as thoughts, feelings or body sensations) or external (such as relationships, workplace situations or environmental matters), mindful motherhood means being aware of and connected to what is happening.

It sounds simple, but it’s not easy.

We are always, quite literally, in the moment— there is no other place to be. But often our attention is not directed toward the present moment. For example, you are always connected with your baby, although you might feel like you’re distracted at any given point in time. Bringing mindful awareness to that connection can enhance it for both you and your baby; it’s a process that happens naturally, without having to try at all. Mindful motherhood is about being aware of that connection and creating the optimal conditions for it to flourish. For the most part, you don’t need to do anything except get out of your own way and allow what is happening to simply be.

As a mom, focusing your attention on the present moment lays the groundwork for what developmental psychologist Daniel N. Stern called being “attuned” to your baby—accurately perceiving your baby’s communication of her emotions and needs. Attunement with your baby is sort of like a tuning fork–when your baby hits a particular tone, you resonate with that tone, reflecting it back to her with your facial expressions, tone of voice, touch and way of being. These subtle actions communicate, “I see and hear you, and I get what you’re feeling.” Through thousands of these little micro-interactions with your baby, her sense of self develops, as does her own capacity to learn how to deal with her emotions.

For example, let’s say you’re talking on the phone while your baby is playing on your lap, and she starts to squirm. You keep talking but begin to notice what she’s doing. Now your daughter screws up her face and arches her back. You could try to continue your conversation, maybe bounce her up and down on your knee, or toss her over your shoulder and pat her back. You might tense your own body somewhat because you were really hoping to talk to your mom, and speak a little louder.

Alternatively, you could stop and ask your mother to hold on for a few minutes, or tell her you’ll call her back, and take a look at your baby’s face and body. You might reflexively screw up your face a little too, making a soothing sound in response to the baby’s sounds.

Neither of these choices is necessarily right or wrong. Mindful mothering does not require you to drop everything whenever your baby squirms. But bringing mindful awareness to the moment will help you notice what’s going on in your baby and make a conscious choice about how to respond. The keys are to be present in your body and connected with your baby. Let the experience be exactly as it is, and approach it with curiosity and compassion.

Attunement does not necessarily mean matching your baby’s state. It’s making a complementary response, one that both conveys your empathy (“I understand what you are feeling”) and responds appropriately to what your baby is communicating. For example, if your baby gets upset, ideal attunement does not require you to become equally upset. Attunement means making sure your baby knows that you see that he’s upset and reflecting a sense of being able to tolerate or contain his emotion. This reaction might mean holding him securely and making low, soothing sounds. Luckily, with mindful awareness you can trust your instincts— you don’t have to figure it out with your thinking mind.

Use your present-moment awareness to explore what your baby might be trying to tell you. It could be, “Get me off my back. I want to be on my tummy,” or “I’m tired but can’t get to sleep,” or even “My diaper is wet.” You won’t always be able to tell exactly what’s going on; sometimes you’ll have to guess. But the main thing is that you’re communicating with your baby, essentially saying, “I get it. I see you are uncomfortable. Let’s work as a team. What can we do?”

Transmitting a secure sense of self through attunement happens in thousands of micro-interactions. The opportunities are infinite, so it’s not about being perfectly attuned all the time. That’s impossible. It’s about deciding that you want to actively engage in present-moment awareness with your baby and cultivating the capacity to do so. Your baby is always in the present moment. Mindful awareness allows you to join in.

Cassandra VietenAbout the Author:Cassandra Vieten, Ph.D., is a psychologist, a mind-body medicine researcher at California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco, and the director of research at the Institute of Noetic Sciences. She is the author of Mindful Motherhood: Practical Ways for Staying Sane During Pregnancy and Your Child’s First Year, and is co-author of Living Deeply: The Art and Science of Transformation in Everyday Life. She is mom to eight-year-old Indigo.