photo shared by peaceful parenting mother, Danelle Frisbie
I was so glad to meet a happy, confident, socially engaged baby this week. Baby Loren was a stark contrast to most babies (children under 2) that I encounter these days. Most tend to look distracted, unhappy, dazed, and pretty uninterested in others. And their eyes don't glow or communicate understanding like Loren's did. I even had a hard time finding a photo to put up with this post of a glowing, clued-in baby, whose eyes did not look wounded or clouded.
Why are so few babies "glowing" any more?
Although babies obviously represent the future of your family, my family, our society, and the human race, fewer and fewer people in the United States seem to understand what babies need. Charles Blow has been documenting the declining support and wellbeing of children, as in his August 26th New York Times article, when he documents how many children in each U.S. state have food insecurity.
Food is clearly a basic need for a thriving baby. But there are things beyond such staying-alive-needs that human babies require for thriving.
Here is some basic information about babies and some of their needs.
Human babies, unlike any other creature, have only 25% of the brain developed at birth (assuming 40-42 weeks gestation at birth - i.e., full term). Most of what is available at birth are basic survival mechanisms that kick into gear when the child feels imbalanced or life-threatened (i.e. panic at separation from the caregiver).
Unlike most other animals who are mobile at birth, humans emerge from the womb many months early because of head size. Social mammals like humans have lots of growing to do after birth too, and our ancestral parenting practices provide good early care that fosters optimal social and intellectual brain development. What's good care? Good care in the first year or more includes an 'external womb' kind of care (i.e., carried close to the body constantly, needs met immediately, nursing on demand).
A baby's development unfolds on a set maturational schedule (with individual timing varying somewhat). Later capacities build on earlier ones. So if there is inadequate food or attention during this rapid-growth period, the brain will build less-than-optimal systems (i.e., neurotransmitter systems receptor number and activity can be lowered by poor care, which affects how well your memory is set up to work later on -- not so well!). A poor foundation leads to poor mental and physical health later (which sometimes may not show up until adolescence or adulthood).
The brain typically grows to 60% adult size by 12 months and is co-constructed by experience. So you can see that the caregiver has a great effect on how well the brain grows.
In the first year of life, the neocortex begins to build up the area for reasoning, thinking, planning, and other executive functions -- systems that apparently finish themselves in the third decade of life. The emotion systems become established and connected by age two, affecting social capabilities later. So the first two years set up personality, intelligence and social success. (See Greenspan & Shanker, 2004; Schore, 2001.)
Thus, care in the first years of life is critical for optimal brain and body development, for intellectual, social and emotional intelligence.
photo shared by peaceful parenting mother, Jennifer Coias
What does baby want/need desperately in the first two years when the brain is growing so quickly?
Think: external womb.
Caregiver constant touch (holding, carrying, wearing) keeps DNA synthesis and growth hormone going. Separation from a caregiver's body shuts both down (Schanberg, 1995). (Have you noticed how distressed a baby gets when isolated? Separation hurts - literally.) Intelligence later in childhood is related to head size growth in the first year of life (Gale et al., 2006).
Caregiver responsiveness to needs. Babies don't have any capabilities for self-care at birth. They need caregivers to teach their bodies and brains to stay calm so they can grow well. When young babies nonverbally gesture discomfort, it means they feel pain and should be attended to immediately. Babies should not have to cry to have their needs met because crying releases cortisol, killing brain cells.
Avoid distress. Until around age 5, children need protection from stressful situations. Their brains are not yet capable of dealing with loud noises or sudden visual transformations. They need a caregiver's compassionate physical presence to get calm from sudden distress. Later on a child will naturally grow to comfort self when the caregiver is unavailable, based on this early sense of security and systems that were coached to calm themselves.
Avoid discomfort. When a baby starts to gesture discomfort indicating some kind of imbalance, the caregiver can provide touch (carrying/wearing, rocking) or the breast for non-nutritive suckling or breastmilk. Meeting a baby's needs quickly when a baby communicates a need builds the child's confidence in the self's ability to get needs met. This confidence stays with the child thereafter, leading to confident, securely attached, independent children later in life.
Avoid crying. When babies are left to cry, they build a more stress-reactive brain (for the longterm) that will have a harder time calming itself. Later on, depression, anxiety and aggression are more likely. They learn not to trust the world or people, thereby becoming more focused on themselves. In contrast, caregiver responsiveness to the needs of baby fosters a pleasant personality. In cultures where babies do not cry (because they are not separated from their caregiver and never left unfed or untouched), there are no 'terrible twos' (see additional).
Breastmilk. Provided mother is not severely malnourished, breastmilk provides all the nutrition needed to build a well-functioning brain and body. Neurotransmitters like serotonin are fostered by the alpha-lactalbumin, rich in tryptophan, in breastmilk. All immunoglobulins are provided by mother's milk, plus antibodies for any viruses and bacteria in the vicinity. Exclusive breastfeeding (i.e. nothing but mother's milk to eat or drink) for at least the first 6-12 months of baby's life, ensure these benefits will be unimpeded by the pathogens and imbalances that formula encourages (see additional).
Frequent, on cue breastmilk feeding. Breastmilk is mostly amino acids which are fundamental to building a good brain. Baby feeds frequently to flood the brain with these needed building blocks. If the baby is put on a parent-directed schedule, or an infant formula that makes babies sleep deeply (which is unnatural and unhealthy), opportunities to provide brain-building nutrients will be missed, not to mention the distress it will cause in the baby. This again leads to a stressed brain, increased cortisol, less optimal growth, less flexible self-comforting.
Babies become what they experience. The brain learns what is practiced, especially in early life. If early life is a distress-filled life, the brain learns to be a threat detector, using that as a filter for social life. The brain has difficulty relaxing to learn. If early life is an unstressed life, the brain is able to grow in all the ways it is designed to grow (smart, thoughtful, compassionate).
If we don't give babies what they need, should we be surprised that children's academic performance and social behavior is on the downswing?
photo shared by peaceful parenting father & Photography Monthly editor, Jeff Meyer
SOCIETAL LEVEL QUESTIONS
How does what babies need affect those who are not parents?
Babies need responsive caregivers, 24 hours, 7 days a week. Parents cannot do this alone. It means we need to restructure society, going back to ways that are supportive of babies.
How do we facilitate optimal child growth without putting it all on parents?
We should be thinking about, planning for, and implementing cultural changes to facilitate structural changes.
Family Wellbeing. Parents need to be able to provide for their families without working day and night. They need decent jobs that pay enough so that one job is enough for a family to live on. It has been noted that our ancestors controlled their desires, desiring very little. Our culture does the opposite, increasing desires for things that don't really make us happy but keep us distracted. (See Bishop's book, More.) Maybe the economic downturn is a chance to shift our priorities from acquiring things to getting pleasure from relationships (the focus of our ancestors and many other cultures around the world today).
Family Health. We need to focus on prevention and fostering good health, instead of interventions after things have already gone wrong. This means healthcare that starts babies right, with as little interference at birth as possible. The time around childbirth is a sensitive period for establishing longterm patterns of interaction, including bonding and secure attachment. There should be no genital cutting ('circumcision') in early life as it affects bonding, attachment, pain reception, and breastfeeding success. [Editor's note: U.S. style genital cutting also removes the vital prepuce organ, impacting babies immediately and long term as adults.] Our medical system should be careful and cautious about interfering with natural processes (i.e., breastfeeding, delayed cord clamping, skin-to-skin between baby and mother, etc.) during this period.
Family Time. Parents need time to be with their children in positive ways and both need time with supportive community members. Having community nurses who visit new mothers in their homes is a proven way to improve childrearing. Trust is fostered in early life through responsive care - to always have our needs met, even during times when mom needs a break. If most of us did not get the nearly constant support needed as babies and young children, with little distress, chances are we are not very trusting as adults. And indeed, trust levels in the United States have been decreasing over the last decades. We will have to figure out how to slow ourselves down enough to pay attention to our neighbors in positive ways and build the trust that comes from familiarity in supportive communities.
Caregiver Attention. Young children need responsive parents or else their brains, bodies, and sociality are undernourished. Parents who are well themselves, and calm, who are secretly attached with their child, and who have time for an emotional connection with their child are better able to be attentive -- which is just what children need. This does not mean intrusive, controlling, insensitive attention, but respectful, honoring attention that responds sensitively to a child's emotional cues.
Extended Families. We must facilitate keeping extended families together, allowing them to be in the same house if they so choose (zoning laws have made this illegal in some places). Then other family members can take on some of the household tasks for parents as well as assisting with childcare.
Workplaces. Babies can and should be at work with mom. (See Babies at Work Program,) This means that work schedules and work places must be flexible. This means that parents must be able to manage and make up for decreased night sleeping (i.e., afternoon siestas). Some jobs are just not appropriate for new moms and new dads (soldiering, for example) and so we must encourage workplaces to allow extended parental leaves in the first years of baby's life, as done in other advanced nations.
Politicians. In Switzerland, preschools are often built next to retirement communities so that the younger and older generations can easily intermingle. Such proposals are built on wisdom about what helps people of all ages thrive. Many U.S. politicians seem to have lost their intuitions and wisdom about these things. To remedy this lack of understanding, I propose that we make sure that politicians hold babies and play with young children regularly. High testosterone correlates with low empathy, and there's been quite a lot of both among politicians in the news. Holding babies lowers testosterone. The hope (to be tested) is that politicians will think of the babies and children when they write and pass laws and design budgets.
Public Spaces. Women's breasts were designed to nurse babies (with milk and comfort suckling) to optimal health. It would be helpful to let go of the extreme sexualization of breasts in the U.S., although it is suspected that many men who did not breastfeed, or receive enough support in early life, are those very same men obsessed with breasts today. In places where a normal duration of breastfeeding is common, men have very few obsessions with women's breasts. (See one discussion.)
Pleasure. We've had a couple of generations now that have learned to not take great pleasure in being with children, so it may take a few generations to get back to a healthy pleasure balance. But childrearing within community is very pleasurable (if parenting in a baby-friendly manner so that children grow to have pleasant personalities, as do the adults).
Happy babies make for happy communities. If we attend to what children need from before birth onward, they will be pleasant and happy. It is the denial of their needs that pushes them into being fussy and ornery and oppositional and unpleasant. However, we all have to pitch in.
But, you might say, doesn't the glowing baby, Loren, count as a happy baby? Doesn't his existence counter my hypothesis of decreasing happy babies in the United States? Nope. Loren is not from the U.S. -- he is from Switzerland, a place with many policies in place to support wellbeing in both families and babies.
I'm sure you have more ideas about how to make our societies friendlier to the needs of babies. Let's imagine together how we can improve the current situation.
photo shared by peaceful parenting mother, Sharon Frisby
The Decline of Children and the Moral Sense
Are you or your child on a (touch) starvation diet?
Are you treating your baby like a prisoner?
Breastmilk Wipes Out Formula
Peaceful Parenting: Following Your Instincts
What is Peaceful Parenting?
Why Love Matters
The Continuum Concept
The Baby Bond
The Science of Parenting
The Vital Touch
The Scientification of Love
Born For Love
The Biology of Love
Our Babies, Ourselves
Gentle Birth, Gentle Mothering
Catharine R. Gale, PhD, Finbar J. O'Callaghan, PhD, Maria Bredow, MBChB, Christopher N. Martyn, DPhil and the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children Study Team (October 4, 2006). "The Influence of Head Growth in Fetal Life, Infancy, and Childhood on Intelligence at the Ages of 4 and 8 Years". Pediatrics Vol. 118 No. 4 October 2006, pp. 1486-1492. http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/cgi/content/short/118/4/1486.
Greenspan, S.I., & Shanker, S.I. (2004). The first idea. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press.
Hewlett, B., & Lamb, M. (2005). Hunter-gatherer childhoods. New York: Aldine.
Schanberg, S. (1995). "The genetic basis for touch effects." In T. Field (Ed.), Touch and Early Experience (pp. 67-80). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
Schore, A. N. (2001). "Effects of a secure attachment relationship on right brain development, affect regulation, and infant mental health." Infant Mental Health Journal, 22(1-2), 7-66. doi:10.1002/1097-0355(200101/04)22:1<7::AID-IMHJ2>3.0.CO;2-N
Sunderland, M. (2006). The Science of Parenting. DK Adult.
Darcia Narvaez, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Notre Dame and Director of the Collaborative for Ethical Education. Her current research examines the effects of parenting on child and adult outcomes. Narvaez has developed several integrative theories: Adaptive Ethical Expertise, Integrative Ethical Education, Triune Ethics Theory. She spoke at the Whitehouse's conference on Character and Community, and is author/editor of three award winning books: Postconventional Moral Thinking; Moral Development, Self and Identity; and the Handbook of Moral and Character Education. Her (ed.) upcoming text, Human Nature, Early Experience, and the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness is set for 2012 publication. Visit Dr. Narvaez' website for additional books, papers, classes, websites and contact information.