In these challenging times, we risk losing our sense of balance. Technology and global competition have changed how we work.

Multitasking has been glorified while new stresses on working parents sap more energy. Yet the most important jobs — like child raising — can’t be done without our full attention.

Working parents are less productive when they worry about their child care arrangements or about their co-workers’ resentment of parental time off when a child is ill.

Families suffer when parents — tethered to smart phones and laptops — bring work home. They may be home, but their jobs are their focus. They may be less engaged with their families, less available to them emotionally.

Yet that availability is critical for child development and strong family relationships. Children and parents need protected time together to focus on each other, to watch, listen and respond with a minimum of intrusions.

From the start, babies and parents are learning to understand each other and themselves.

Since newborns have been listening to their parents’ voices for several months before birth, I like to help parents discover how much they and their babies already matter to each other.

I hold a newborn with his head in one hand and his bottom in the other. I ask the mother to stand on one side and to talk to her baby in one ear while I talk in the other.

Of course, most every newborn turns his head to his mother. And every mother grabs her baby, kisses him and says, “You know me already!” Then I do the same thing for the fathers. Eight in 10 babies turn their heads to their father’s voice instead of mine. With the other two, I tip their heads toward their fathers — to establish the “conversation.” The fathers react just like the mothers.

In our research, we found that 2-month-olds are already “conversing” with their parents. Sometimes a baby leads; sometimes he follows. He is learning that he can act on his world, and that he will be heard.

Babies and parents are working hard to get to know each other. They are already sharing emotions.

In another experiment, researcher Ed Tronick and I ask mothers to interact normally with their 2-month-olds — and then to turn away. When the mother turns back, we ask her to be unresponsive, expressionless: the “still face.”

Within 11 seconds the baby realizes that something is not right. Then he’ll try 15 different behaviors — smiling, crinkling his eyelids and cooing — to try to win back his mother’s attention.

The baby’s response changes if the mother is depressed. In the “still face” experiment, the baby gives up after only three tries.

Since we can detect maternal depression early and know how to treat it, we have an opportunity to protect children and families.

We used this research on Capitol Hill to advocate for the Family and Medical Leave Act (passed in 1993), which mandates job-protected leave for up to 12 weeks a year, although it is unpaid.

Parents need time with their new babies before returning to work. But these crucial interactions do not end after the first three months.

Workplaces can encourage strong families (and boost productivity, too) when job and family life are in balance.

Families also depend on strong communities where parents can find and share emotional support, practical advice and resources.

For many families, the workplace is their community. Workplaces must learn from strong communities about how to support healthy families. We must all put families first to keep our nation strong.

For more information on family and workplace:

Family and Work Institute

National Association of Child Care Resource & Referral Agencies

National Partnership for Women and Families

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration

 

Questions or comments should be addressed to Dr. T. Berry Brazelton and Dr. Joshua Sparrow, care of The New York Times Syndicate, 620 Eighth Ave., 5th Floor, New York, NY 10018. Questions may also be sent by e-mail to:

[email protected]

 

— New York Times Syndicate