Your Four-Month-Old: Optimizing Play Activities for Mental and Physical Milestones

It is outstanding what a mother and baby can express to each other through simple, quick facial and vocal expressions at four months. Some moments of interaction last only one-third of a second but send a lively message. Be sure to catch it!

The Split-Second World of Face-to-Face Interaction with Your Four-Month-Old

When choosing how to optimize playtime effectively, mothers and infants who play repetitively can come to predict and anticipate each other’s moves. Videos of infant’s eyes watching regularly alternating patterns showed “anticipatory eye movements.”

How was this found? The infant’s eyes focused on a slide they anticipated after watching it several times a fraction of a second before it appeared! This is because the slide had become predictable.

Your infant can thus show “anticipatory eye movements” if you observe her very closely. Thus, with play, a mother can generate expectancies in her baby.

This is all about what’s referred to as “action-dialogue,” which helps us see that infants come to expect the following scenarios in The Smiling Game:

  • “As I look at you (mother) and begin to smile, I open my mouth and raise my head more and more until I am bursting with my biggest smile.”
  • “Mother, as your smile widens, your mouth opens more, and your head goes up and up.”
  • “As I open my mouth in bigger and bigger smiles, you (mother) smile at me and open your mouth and raise your head up until we are both reaching our smiles up and up toward each other.”
  • “As you (mother) open your mouth and smile at me, I return your smile and open my own mouth more and more.”

These sequences are learned by your baby as action sequences and don’t require verbal language. So, your playtime activity can simply be filled with smiling back and forth with eye contact.

As smiling sequences are repeated, your baby comes to expect, anticipate, and remember them. This guides your infant in her relationship with you. Try new things, but also allow your baby to anticipate events by getting used to his environment and enjoying what he already knows.

How The Mother Amplifies Her Baby’s Play

When playing the smiling game, it is as if the mother is an amplifying mirror of her baby.

How? Easy. The baby sees herself resonating in her mother’s eyes. Do you feel your baby’s gaze? Sure, you do. She is staring at you very closely, even if for seconds at a time. You cannot help but respond with your eyes. This isn’t a decision or a choice. It’s natural. It’s not even conscious.

But when you do, there is resonance between you and your baby. This resonance is called “intersubjective” because a baby and parent cannot be seen as separate from each other at that second but must be considered to be mutually influencing each other.

Intersubjective resonance is created by both or co-created.

Did you think you needed a whole basket of expensive toys to play with your four-month-old? Think again and relax. You were both born with all you need. All you have to do is be there smiling and eyeing your baby, and the two of you are engaged in warm, loving play.

Playing During “Mismatched Communications” Increases a Mother’s Appreciation of Her Baby’s Development

Mommies and babies’ voices, or smiles, coos, and actions, affect each other and blend and resonate creating together, or co-creating their connection.

However, as babies and mothers play, they are not always in concert. While emotions are reflected in the eyes, facial expressions, head orientations, and hands of the mother and her infant, mother, and baby are often out of synch. This is normal and expected—not to worry!

Related: How to Play With Babies: Newborn to One Year

It is important to understand that when mothers and babies communicate and interact, there is periodically a rupture or mismatch in how they are relating. Remedying of this often occurs, so you needn’t worry about always communicating right on target.

Imagine your baby is looking out the window at the light coming in through the blinds, and her mother is seeking her baby’s attention on her at the same moment.

Okay. This is just a mismatch, but soon mothers learn that light draws their four-month-old’s attention, and this is to be understood, expected, and enjoyed. Simply join in this delightful experience your baby is having by saying something like, “Ooh. Look at all that light coming in from the blinds. How beautiful, sweetie.”

Then the infant naturally turns to the mother’s voice. Mother and baby then receive from each other the loving attention sought. Mommy has repaired the mismatch naturally and easily. A baby following light, and a mother responding is wonderful play.

Furthermore, during these moments of mismatch, see how your infant offers several motor and expressive schemes such as crying, protesting coos, or funny faces. She knows just what to do to help you re-establish a level of “contingency” with her.

Contingency learning refers to the relationship between a baby’s actions and behavior and what happens in response. The response is contingent on the baby’s behavior.

Sensitive mothers attune to their infant’s emotions and respond to their vocal and motoric initiatives to interact. Thus, the mother-infant communication seen during play is helpful for a baby’s development.

The Early Process of Mother-Infant Communication Seen in Play

Beginning at four months, patterns of interaction are becoming predictable. As a parent, you will communicate with your baby.

  • through attention by gazing at and away from your baby’s face
  • through emotion with positive to negative infant and mother facial and vocal expressions
  • through orientation such as sitting upright, leaning forward, or looming in, toward your infant’s head while she is facing toward you or arching away

Eye Love is Play

During play, special communication moments can occur, such as “eye love,” when mothers and infants sustain a mutual gaze for up to 100 seconds with positive affect.

  • Remember, this parent-infant process cannot be explained based on either partner alone. The parent and infant “co-create” the nature of the infant’s experience.
  • Mommy and baby work together, interacting when they play.
  • The mother tends to look at her baby’s face most of the time, while the infant is the one who makes and breaks the mutual gaze—looking away and looking back in order to regulate arousal.
  • If this is a time when your communication might misalign or be out of synch, your baby is just telling you she needs to dampen or lessen her arousal when you want to stimulate her with eye contact.
  • Just follow her lead and watch your playful interactions take off.

Four-Month-Old Infants and Parents Sense the Mental State of Each Other During Play

Infants and their mothers sense each other by reading how the other responds to different behaviors. For example, a mother can sense her baby’s state by talking to and imitating her baby during playtime.

If the mother matches her baby’s sounds well, the baby feels that “someone is on his wave-length.” We call this mother-baby rapport. Also, when a mother can share a “woe” face in response to her baby’s distress, there is also rapport.

A mother can be attuned to both positive and negative responses by her baby.

When Rapport is not the Outcome of Play

Rapport is not always the outcome of play. “Mismatching” can occur. For example, if the mother and infant continue to overly escalate the arousal of the other, the baby may become distressed. She’ll not only show that with a grimace or cry, but in the extreme, the baby may vomit.

If this is typical for a mother and her baby, the result will be a severely insecure attachment—without rapport—by twelve months. But you can easily prevent this by your close observation to your baby. And if you are distracted as mothers always are, your baby will increase her way of expressing distress until you catch on.

Babies are determined little ones. They can express themselves at four-months-quite clearly. It’s just up to us as mothers to turn from our distractions and regain our attention.

To avoid mutual escalation, a mother learns, maybe for the first time, perhaps from another caretaker, more experienced parent, or friend how to be sensitively attuned to her baby’s comfort level of arousal when interacting.

It’s not as difficult as this may seem and certainly nothing for a mother to be ashamed of. Learning is part of playing during motherhood with a small baby.

How Emotions are Communicated During Play

  • When a baby averts her head during play

If you see your baby avert her head over and over, turning further and further away from the front of your face, you will soon catch on that she is over-aroused.

You will know after the first and second time this happens that your baby is trying to tell you something without words. Simply follow your baby’s lead, and everything will be fine.

  • Additional way parents sense the mental state of their infant is through “mirror neurons”

You don’t have to make your brain do anything. This happens naturally.
This occurs when the mother figures out that she can understand the baby’s intention by understanding what her own intention might be if she were doing the same thing. This is how mothers can get attuned to their baby’s needs.

  • Feelings expressed in play

For example, if a mother sees her baby reach out with her little fingers, she most likely wants to touch the mother’s hand. It’s so natural for a mother to almost instinctively feel this, and she will respond by giving the baby her hand to play with.

  • “Embodied simulation” is when the action of either baby or mother influences the other’s perception of their partner’s action

This is most effective when the mother or baby is in tune with the subtle nuances of her partner’s emotions and expressions—such as her gestures and postures.

Let’s say your baby leans forward when she is sitting on your lap facing outwards. If you look and see what she is seeing, you’ll know what is influencing her.

Holding on to her for safety, let her reach out to the object or person she is seeking, and she’ll be delighted that you perceived what she intended. As her hand contacts the object or person, she’s enchanted with you because you understand what she’s trying to say. Your baby will feel in concert.

  • Imitation shows understanding

Let’s say, on the other hand, your baby is on your lap, facing your face. Mommy sticks out her tongue. How does your baby respond? She will most likely imitate you if she can or at least open her mouth widely. The baby’s action shows she understands what you, her attuned mother, did.

Again, when the baby does what the mother just did, the baby is more able to understand it because she feels it with her motor action.

This is especially the case when your baby imitates gestures and postures you experiment with. How much fun this is to discover how you can respond to each other with movements as forms of communication.

The Optimal Midrange Model

When playing with your four-month-old, more is not necessarily better. Midrange coordination is preferable. It provides the most secure and flexible attachment.

Midrange coordination refers to the combination of vocal rhythms and gestures that a mother and her baby use to stay in tune with each other. This means that the two are coordinating their sounds and their silences, that is, altering their behavior, based on what the other just did.

A midrange or medium level of coordination predicts the most secure level of attachment at twelve months. If the coordination between mother and baby is very high or very low, it predicts an insecure attachment at twelve months.

In other words, it is important for the mother to coordinate her sounds to her baby’s (as well as she can) rather than trying to exactly imitate her baby’s sounds. This usually happens naturally.

That is, when mothers approximately match their babies’ sounds, they are creating mid-range interactions. These four-month-olds feel that their mothers are in synch with them.

How do you avoid coordination that is too high or low?

  • High coordination is when the mother tries too hard and is vigilant.
  • Low coordination means that there is a withdrawal; both mother and baby are behaving relatively independently of the other, and neither is adjusting to the other’s behavior.

Slowing down, sitting back, and waiting to see what your four-month-old does next can allow both you and your baby time to readjust to each other. When playing, you will know your baby is distressed when you see expressions such as a grimace, frown, compressed lips, fussing, whimpering, or even angry protests and crying.

When your baby is distressed during play, there are things you can do to calm him without “trying too hard.”

  • You can loosely, empathically join, or match your infant’s fuss or cry rhythm with your own empathic vocal woe voice and face. The distress is approximately matched, but not the volume or intensity—which would risk overstimulating the baby.
  • When you subtly match your infant’s distress in a quiet and soothing way, the baby knows that he is sensed and feels better. Once the baby has been joined in this way, he can continue to regulate his distress. Then, both mother and baby can gradually calm down.
  • If your baby can continue to look at you during her distress, de-escalation or ramping down of her distress occurs most easily. So, babies actually shape their mother’s responses. They contribute “to the co-creation of distress regulation.”

Isn’t it amazing that your baby can help you know how to calm her down and that the two of you work together to return to a relaxed and contented state?

Mismatched States or Interactive Errors

You needn’t worry about being absolutely in tune with your infant. When there is a rupture in the interaction, it can easily be repaired by an empathic mother. In fact, this is very natural and common.

Such “mismatched states” or “interactive errors” happen “approximately two-thirds of the time in face-to-face interactions.” Remarkably, transitions back and forth occur once every three to five seconds. They are a part of normal interactive play and mother-baby conversations.

It’s not unusual for a mother to intuit that her baby isn’t reacting happily, so slow down for a moment in time and wait for your infant to rejoin you. These four-month-olds feel that their mothers are “in synch” with them.

Optimal Playtime Suggestions

A simple place to start is playing peekaboo. It requires no toys whatsoever and is very apropos for this age when your baby is learning how you appear, disappear, and reappear.

This game teaches object permanence: when an object isn’t seen, it still exists.

Toys that are stimulating to the senses are perfect for four-month-olds:

  • a mirror or mobile (sight)
  • a clown with a chime (sound)
  • a cradle gym or activity board (touch)
  • a teething ring (taste)
  • all kinds of rattles that make different sounds
  • hitting a rubber spoon on a drum
  • holding up picture books, turning each page, and naming objects.

Keep in mind that four-month-old babies are very social and responsive, so capitalize on your baby’s intense desire to interact with you and take time to play.

Most important: she is a loved one who enjoys you delighting in her! This is communication at its best.

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Website: Laurie Hollman, Ph. D.
Laurie Hollman, Ph.D. is a psychoanalyst with specialized clinical training in infant-parent, child adolescent, and adult psychotherapy and is an expert on the Narcissistic Personality Disorder.

She is an authority on modern parent-child relationships who has published six award-winning parenting books and her book on narcissism. Her newest book in 2021 is Playing with Baby: Research-Based Play to Bond with Your Baby from Birth to One Year.

She has been on the faculties of New York University and the Society for Psychoanalytic Training and Research, among others.