Positive relationships: Baby room - Holding the baby

Students on placement in early years settings are discouraged from bonding with babies by various factors, as Jackie Musgrave found.

Holding babies so that they feel safe and secure is vital to their holistic development. Yet the everyday activity of picking up and holding babies can cause unexpected difficulties for student practitioners.

It is essential that early years settings:

  • - recognise the difficulties that students face
  • - understand and communicate to students the importance of holding a baby
  • - provide plenty of opportunity for students to learn how to hold a baby confidently and appropriately
  • - accept the responsibility of dealing with a student-child relationship that will inevitably end when the student returns to college.

Conflicting messages

Some of the problems that students face stem from the differing beliefs and practices that they observe in settings, at college and in their own experience.

One such example of conflicting college-setting views is illustrated by a comment that I often hear made by college-based level 3 National Diploma student practitioners in class discussions - 'You don't pick the baby up, she will become spoilt!'

This conflict in opinion can in part be explained by changes to early years training. Until a few years ago, college-based courses included a mandatory baby unit, which offered an opportunity for current research to be passed on to student practitioners. Its removal means that today's students are often working with practitioners whose knowledge and practice fails to reflect current research into the importance of picking up and holding babies.

For my master's degree in Early Childhood Education, I decided to investigate further the difficulties student practitioners face by researching their experiences of picking up babies, of holding them and of meeting their needs. The quotes here are from the students who participated in my research.

What I found was that some of the difficulties that they face arise from purely practical issues related to the students' inexperience. For example, many of the students have never even held a baby before starting their placement.

In college, tutors attempt to bridge the gap by simulating snuggling, feeding and changing nappies on electronic babies. But nothing is the same as holding a lively, squirmy or distressed baby.

Students often experience difficulties in understanding how to anticipate and meet babies' needs, and this was reflected in their comments about babies. For instance, they expressed the view that 'babies are boring' and that all they do is 'poo and cry'.

One student remarked, 'They are really annoying - well, not really annoying. I got really frustrated when I didn't know what was wrong and what they needed to make them stop crying.'

Such frustration was sometimes compounded when students were told in the settings that they should not pick up crying babies 'because they will become spoilt'.

One student highlighted the dilemma that student practitioners can face when their beliefs clash with those expressed in the setting, commenting, 'Picking them up won't spoil them and I think it is a horrible thing to say!'

Another factor contributing to student difficulties are recent medical advances, which mean that increasing numbers of settings are caring for babies who are born prematurely. These babies may experience feeding difficulties as a result of their physical development, or a congenital defect, such as cleft palate.

One student recalled her shock when the baby she was bottle-feeding started to choke and milk started to come down the baby's nose because of a congenital defect that was still to be operated upon.

The student said, 'I was really scared. I handed him over to a practitioner, but if I had known, I would have been okay.' One can only imagine the distress the student and the baby experienced.

Relationship issues

Students' relationships with their target child and the child's parents were another source of anxiety.

As part of their assessment for their qualification, students carry out a longitudinal study of a 'target child' in their setting. This requires the student to carry out detailed observations of the child, as well as exploring the child's health and development with the parents and practitioners.

Not surprisingly, as the student practitioner gets to know her target child and how to respond to and meet the baby's needs, a strong bond can develop.

One student illustrated the level of involvement and attachment to their target child several months after leaving the setting when she said, 'I can remember everything about his routine and what he needed'.

The student then looked at the clock in the classroom and, smiling reflectively, said, 'He would be having his morning nap now. I really miss him.'

One student whose placement had finished abruptly said, 'I didn't get to say goodbye to her and I really wanted to.' As she recalled this memory, she became tearful.

Another student, commenting on her strong bond with her target child, recalled how the baby would crawl round the room after her and would only be comforted when she picked him up. When the baby showed reluctance to go to his mother as she came to pick him up, the student reported that 'the mum was in a rush and seemed angry with me'.

The student was bewildered by the mother's reaction, thus demonstrating the student's lack of understanding about the possible jealousy and guilt that the mother may have been experiencing about the relationship between her baby and the student.

Research findings

To learn of the need to hold babies, practitioners need only turn to recent research, which points conclusively to the importance of babies having close and meaningful relationships with the adults in their lives (David 2003).

  • - Neuroscientific research (Gopnik et al 1999) has revealed that babies come into the world equipped to form attachments, and a secure attachment can only be developed with the presence of warm, loving and appropriate interaction between adult and baby.
  • - The importance of the quality of attachments cannot be over-emphasised, because early relationships form the basis of later relationships in life.
  • - It is now recognised that babies learn and develop holistically, but emotional and social development is the foundation for other areas of development.
  • - Holding helps adults build meaningful and close relationships with babies and gives babies psychological, physical and emotional comfort. Babies communicate their need for comfort partly by crying.
  • - Babies who have experienced positive relationships are more likely to develop higher levels of independence and self-assurance.
  • - If babies' emotional needs are not met, they can become irritable and regarded as difficult. Responding to babies' irritability by denying them physical comfort (in case they become spoilt) can lead to a vicious cycle of miserable behaviour and impaired emotional and social development.

Good practice

It is easy to forget that many student practitioners are only 16 years old when they start their placement working with babies. So, what should settings do to help students during their placements?

Some of the following suggestions come from the students' responses during my research to being asked what they felt could help make their placement experience a positive one for their learning and for the babies:

  • - Highlight the importance of the Key Person Approach and explain how it works in practice. Emphasise the role of the Key Person in caring for babies and meeting their needs
  • - Check students' levels of knowledge and experience
  • - Ensure that information about individual babies' requirements is made known to the student
  • - Provide opportunities for student practitioners to watch experienced practitioners model good practice in holding babies
  • - Take opportunities to make clear to students the links between theory and practice. For instance, encourage them to observe babies' capabilities to develop relationships by providing interactions such as play or snuggle time
  • - Manage the relationship between target child and student practitioner closely. Consider the feelings of the baby when the student practitioner leaves the setting
  • - Report any concerns about the student to their college tutor as soon as possible
  • - Explain to students the pressures and emotions that working parents may experience when leaving their baby in a daycare setting, and how feelings of guilt and jealousy can sometimes result in their behaving badly towards practitioners.

We owe it to the babies of the future to ensure that the practitioners of the future understand why babies need to be picked up and held.

Jackie Musgrave is lecturer in early years at Solihull College, West Midlands


  • Early Years Foundation Stage: Positive Relationships 2.4 - Key Person
  • David, T, Goouch, K, Powell, S, and Abbott, L (2003) Birth to Three Matters: A review of the literature. Nottingham: DfES Publications
  • Gopnik, A, Melzoff, A and Kuhl, P (1999) How Babies Think: The science of childhood. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson
  • Nutbrown, C and Page, J (2008) Working with Babies and Children from Birth to Three. London: Sage Publications

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