Saturday, January 13, 2024

Bonding for Life: FirstPlay Therapy

by Vanessa Mortillo

How do we know when we are in a healthy intimate relationship? What might we notice? Empathy? Mutuality? Comforting Touch? Security? Are skills for healthy relationships something we are born with, or can we learn these?  Expanding out further into community, friendships and social interactions: How do we balance the needs of others in a way that allows us to be part of a community without losing sight of ourselves?

The science shows that we are actually not born with these skills, but that the bonding during infancy and in our earliest years creates a roadmap for healthy relationships in the long term and is vital to the baby’s developing brain. Healthy bonding in infancy and childhood establishes a safe base for children and a felt sense of confidence in the world — referred to in child development research as secure attachment.  Without nurturing touch, interaction and play, babies cannot survive and feel secure. Through caregiver attunement, or the caregiver’s ability to notice and attend to their baby’s needs, a baby begins to feel securely attached, learns empathy, healthy coping strategies, a positive sense of self, and a good relationship with their body.

Attunement can be challenging with infants because they are not able to tell us what their needs are with language. In an ideal world, we would have all received attuned caregiving — full of back and forth play and connected interactions  — and enter parenthood knowing how to do this with our babies. However, in our human world, many of us may not have received this and grapple with increasing demands for our attention (including work obligations and technology). In addition, complications in the birthing process can include trauma and mental health challenges for parents and babies that impacts these early bonding experiences.

The good news is that regardless of what has happened in our lives, we can learn skills for healthy relationships. No matter our age or stage of life, it is possible to develop our abilities, changing ourselves and fostering healthy growth in our children. To help parents build these critical skills, Dr. Janet Courtney, an internationally recognized teacher and play therapist, developed FirstPlay Therapy, a short-term intervention, to support parents with skills for attuning to and bonding with their baby or child under 5. FirstPlay engages the powers of play, infant massage/touch, and story to build your bond and set your baby up for healthy growth and development.

In FirstPlay therapy, parents learn skills for relaxing themselves, creating daily times for connection with their child, reading and responding to their child’s cues, fostering back and forth playful interactions, and providing healthy touch. The benefits of FirstPlay impact the child’s development, increase caregiver confidence, and support parents with postpartum depression. And even better news: FirstPlay interventions can be done with children up to 5 years of age to continue to strengthen healthy bonding. 

For more information about FirstPlay therapy, contact Licensed Professional Counselor and trained FirstPlay therapist Vanessa Mortillo at or (267) 507-5793. Vanessa has a play therapy office at The Resiliency Center where she works with children and families to support healthy attachment, facilitate trauma healing, and help children with sensitivity, autism, and emotional and behavioral challenges to cope better, enjoy life, and thrive. 

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