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Barriers to Reflective Functioning-Teach by Asking

Think Link & Respond

Reflective parents take time to listen, watch and think about what is happening with Baby. They tap
into their knowledge and experience & consider possible explanations; then they choose a response.
Parents who do not reflect, react to their emotions rather than responding to baby's needs.

The Three Moms
Three breastfeeding moms all went to a party and ate salsa. Their three babies had reactions to the salsa.
(I know, this is unlikely; please suspend disbelief for the sake of illustration.) Let’s look at their levels of
reflective functioning.

At home after the party, Alice’s baby woke crying. Alice thought to herself, “Why is he awake? Uh, oh...
all that salsa. Celeste (her home visitor) told me Baby might have a reaction. Sorry, Baby.” She rocked him
singing softly until he finally fell back to sleep.

Alice thought about – reflected on - why her baby woke up crying. She linked Baby’s crying to her own
behavior (eating salsa) and to what she had learned about breastfeeding. She chose an appropriate response.
Alice demonstrates strong reflective functioning and responsive parenting. Remember the reflection
process: Think, Link & Respond – Alice got all three steps.

Across the street, Bella’s baby woke up about the same time. Bella looked for what might be bothering her
daughter. She checked for wet diapers, noise, too much light. Baby wouldn’t eat and would not stop crying.
Near panic, Bella loaded Baby into the car and sped to the ER. There she waited. By the time they were seen,
Baby was sleeping soundly. The doctor said he was fine and they went home.

Bella thought about possible explanations for her Baby’s upset. But she missed a Link. Either she did not know,
or did not recall the possible link between eating salsa and Baby’s reaction. Without that link, her thinking
broke down as she approached panic and triggered unnecessary intervention. Cathy exhibits beginning
reflective skills, and a gap in knowledge. Happily, the nurse at the ER took time to talk with Bella and
filled the information gap. Next time, Bella will make the link.

Down the road, Cathy’s baby woke up crying, too. Cathy covered her ears. The crying continued. She got
up went to the crib and shouted at Baby, “Shut up! There is nothing wrong with you. You are just trying
to make me mad and it’s working.” She slammed the door and went back to bed. Eventually Cathy and
her baby both got back to sleep.

Cathy reacted. She did not think or link or respond. She was unable to observe her own behavior and
feelings, consider her possible role in the situation, or see that Baby’s behavior was not directed at her.
She did not consider that she may need more information. She did not weigh the possibilities and options.
Cathy has low (no) reflective function.

Reflect on the Moms' Behavior
We can see from the story that one barrier to strong reflective functioning is lack of knowledge.
One way to promote reflective, responsive parenting is to increase parents’ background knowledge.
When parents respond inappropriately, assume they are doing the best they can now. Take a cue from
the ER nurse who acknowledged Bella’s strong desire to do her best for her Baby. The nurse worked with
Bella to discover what knowledge would enable her to formulate a more appropriate response.

Reflect now on Cathy’s unthinking reaction. Wait to judge – assume that she did the best she could at the
time. What might explain her behavior? Perhaps Baby’s crying in the night reminds her of her own childhood
traumas, so she cannot link her feelings to current events. If she is accustomed to chaotic, painful,
overwhelming feelings, she is probably in the habit of shutting down in order not to experience them.
Maybe she does not have the cognitive ability to reflect – that would be an exceptional case. More likely,
she can think about possible explanations and solutions; that just is not her habit.

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