Why Keep Babies Happy? A baby’s cry is a late signal of discomfort

By Dr. Darcia Narvaez


It’s quite common to hear babies cry in movies and television with adults mostly ignoring the baby’s unhappiness. I shake my head. Why are they ignoring baby’s signals? Ignorance? Cruelty? Numbness?

Don’t they know that babies are like fetuses (of other animals) until 18 months of age (Trevathan, 2011)? And so, babies need sensitive, responsive care to keep them in an optimal state while the brain is rapidly growing and setting up its systems and the child’s personality (in response to experience)? Don’t they know the research showing that sensitive care is linked to better and more growth (e.g., Moore et al., 2017) and to all sorts of short and long term outcomes—like mental and physical health (Lanius et al., 2010; Perry et al., 1995)?

A recent study shows that stress in the first two months of life may have a greater impact on central nervous system (CNS) functioning that lasts at least into adolescence (Hambrick et al., 2018). The researchers wanted to study relational poverty and trauma. In a sample of 3,523 children between the age of 6 to 13, ratings of relational health and adverse experiences were tabulated for previous developmental periods (perinatal: 0-2 months; infancy: 2-12 months; early childhood 13 months-4 years; childhood 4-11 years). Relational health was measured as "primary caregiver safety, primary caregiver attunement, consistency in primary caregiving, paternal (or partner) support, kinship support, and community support." 

Of all prior periods of life, experiences in the first two months of life had the strongest association with children's CNS functioning, though current relational health was the most predictive of current functioning. CNS functioning was measured as age-typical "cardiovascular regulation (heart rate), sleep, feeding/appetite, fine motor skills, affect regulation, relational skills, arousal, ability to modulate reactivity/inhibit impulsivity, and abstract/reflective thinking skills."

The potential long-term effects of early experience are not a surprise if you know that human infants are like fetuses of other animals until they are 18 months of age (Montagu, 1968; Trevathan, 2011) and are highly malleable from social experience in the early years of life (Schore, 2019).

Here is new evidence of the importance of keeping babies happy. A longitudinal study by John Coffey (2019) shows that happiness at 18 months predicts educational success at age 29 directly and also indirectly through IQ measures in childhood.

Here is the abstract in bullets:

  • “Parents want their children to be happy, educated, and successful, but are these goals related?
  • People assume that success leads to happiness, but research on adults supports a reverse conceptualization: Happy people are more successful. Is happiness during childhood also linked to later success? Across the lifespan positive affect is linked with expanded cognitive abilities, learning, and resource building that can be adaptive and useful such that it leads to more success.
  • Conversely, ongoing negative affect can reduce opportunities for growth and learning. Thus, happiness at any age may predict future success.
  • Yet, no research has examined if positive and negative affect during infancy predicts childhood cognitive abilities and adult academics success.
  • In a community sample, I hypothesized that higher infant positive affect (but not negative affect) would predict higher childhood cognitive abilities (i.e., IQ) and adult academic success (i.e., education attainment) in a 29-year study (n _ 130).
  • Positive affect, but not negative affect, during infancy (age 1.5), directly predicted higher childhood IQ (ages 6–8) and higher educational attainment (age 29), even after controlling for family socioeconomic status and infant intelligence.
  • Childhood IQ partially explained the link between positive affect during infancy and adult educational attainment.
  • This study advances understanding of how happiness during infancy (before formal education has begun) is linked to gold standard indicators of cognitive abilities and adult academic success.
  • Parents, educators, and policymakers may want to place a higher value on early affective experiences when considering educational success.”


But how do we keep babies happy?

First, don’t let them get distressed. This means: learn the signals of the baby.

A baby’s cry is a late signal of discomfort. Babies have only a limited number of signals—body gestures, facial gestures, fussy noises and crying. Respond as soon as possible.

A baby’s fussing means they are starting to feel panic or fear, basic innate emotions in our mammalian brains (Panksepp, 1998; later the rage system can be activated too). When left in distress routinely, a sense of danger can grow into a deep insecurity, anxiety knitted into the psyche with the stress response easily activated (Sandler, 1960). The child can end up with a feeling of badness and abandonment, leading to insecure attachment with that caregiver. Without the benefit of more supportive relationships, the child can turn into an anxious adult who will seek ways to avoid feeling those terrible feelings, cutting off the self from internal and external stimuli (losing the self and losing relationships) so that fantasy takes over (Schore, 2003). The primitive systems of rage and fear can only be calmed down with ritual actions, false narratives and one or more false selves (Laing, 1990).

Feeling abandoned and unloved, the individual moves forward with necessary self-protective distortions and falsities. In a recent paper of mine for the Oxford Handbook of Philosophy and Psychoanalysis, I wrote:

“Avoidance of a sense of non-being, of shame, and of annihilation shapes actions and reactions, with negative transferences to others predominating. Thus, self protectionist ethics reflect an enhancement of the survival systems through early conditioning while right-hemisphere lateralized self-regulatory and relational capacities are underdeveloped or shut down. Unable to stand negative feelings towards the self (e.g. guilt), the individual slides into bullying or being victimized as comfortable psychic locations. What becomes normalized is a role in a dominance hierarchy, either through aggressive action or through appeasement or withdrawal. The self-protective individual is not relaxed and open but braced against others.” (Narvaez, 2019, p. 652)

Second, do what traditional communities do around the world and your ancestors did not so long ago:

  • Respond to baby’s needs within a few seconds to keep them optimally aroused (Hewlett & Lamb, 2005)
  • Babies expect to be held and carried (their bodies know what helps them grow), so do so as much as you can.
  • Provide the evolved nest. Babies want to grow their best and the nest offers the support needed. As social mammals, nested care is what their bodies and brains evolved to expect. A recent study in my lab shows that provisioning components of the evolved nest to young children (affectionate touch and lack of corporal punishment, free play, family togetherness) promotes happiness and thriving in the samples from three countries we studied--USA, China and Switzerland (Narvaez, Woodbury et al., 2019).

References

Coffey, J. K. (2019). Cascades of Infant Happiness: Infant Positive Affect Predicts Childhood IQ and Adult Educational Attainment. Emotion. Advance online publicationhttp://dx.doi.org/10.1037/emo0000640

Hambrick, Erin & Brawner, Thomas & Perry, Bruce & Brandt, Kristie & Hofmeister, Christine & Collins, Jennifer. (2018). Beyond the ACE score: Examining relationships between timing of developmental adversity, relational health and developmental outcomes in children. Archives of Psychiatric Nursing. 10.1016/j.apnu.2018.11.001

Hewlett, B.S., & Lamb, M.E. (2005). Hunter-gatherer childhoods: Evolutionary, developmental and cultural perspectives. New Brunswick, NJ: Aldine.

Laing, R.D. (1959/1990). The divided self. London: Penguin.

Lanius, R. A., Vermetten, E., & Pain, C. (Eds.) (2010). The impact of early life trauma on health and disease: The hidden epidemic. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Montagu, A. (1968). Brains, genes, culture, immaturity, and gestation. In A. Montagu (Ed.) Culture: Man’s adaptive dimension (pp. 102-113). New York: Oxford University Press.

Moore, Sarah R., Lisa M. McEwen, Jill Quirt, Alex Morin, Sarah M. Mah, Ronald G. Barr, W. Thomas Boyce, Michael S. Kobor. Epigenetic correlates of neonatal contact in humans. Development and Psychopathology, 2017; 29 (05): 1517 DOI: 10.1017/S0954579417001213

Narvaez, D. (2019). Evolution, childhood and the moral self. In R. Gipps & M. Lacewing (Eds.), The Oxford handbook of philosophy and psychoanalysis (pp. 637-659). London: Oxford University Press. DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780198789703.013.39

Narvaez, D., Woodbury, R., Gleason, T., Kurth, A., Cheng, A., Wang, L., Deng, L., Gutzwiller-Helfenfinger, E., Christen, M., & NΓ€pflin, C. (2019). Evolved Development Niche Provision: Moral socialization, social maladaptation and social thriving in three countries. Sage Open, 9(2). https://doi.org/10.1177/2158244019840123

Panksepp, J. (1998). Affective neuroscience: The foundations of human and animal emotions. New York: Oxford University Press.

Perry, B. D., Pollard, R. A., Blakely, T. L., Baker, W. L., & Vigilante, D. (1995). Childhood trauma, the neurobiology of adaptation, and “use-dependent” development of the brain: How “states” become “traits.” Infant Mental Health Journal, 16, 271–291.

Sandler, J. (1960). The background of safety. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 41, 352-356.

Schore, A. N. (2003). Affect dysregulation & disorders of the self. New York, NY: Norton.

Schore, A.N. (2019). The development of the unconscious mind. New York: W.W. Norton.

Trevathan, W. R. (2011). Human birth: An evolutionary perspective, 2nd ed.. New York: Aldine de Gruyter.


Related Reading by Dr. Narvaez at Peaceful Parenting: 

An 'On Demand' Life and the Basic Needs of Babies

Where Are All the Happy Babies?

The Dangers of Crying It Out

10 Things Everyone Should Know About Babies

5 Things NOT to Do to Babies

12 Ways to Nurture Babies at Conception, Birth, and Beyond

Are you treating your child like a prisoner?

Are you or your child on a touch starvation diet?

Conspiracy Thinking: Understanding Attachment and Its Consequences

Psychology Today: Circumcision Series

Learn More from Narvaez:

The Evolved Nest Institute

Kindred Media

Neurobiology and the Development of Human Morality: Evolution, Culture, and Wisdom

πŸ’œ Peaceful Parenting Community

πŸ’™ Peaceful Parenting on Facebook

πŸ’— Peaceful Parenting on Telegram


An ‘On-Demand’ Life and the Basic Needs of Babies

By Mary Tarsha and Dr. Darcia Narvaez


On-demand services may have spoiled parenting! Yes, by their convenience. For example, we no longer have to plan our schedule around the airing of our favorite program or make efforts to record a particular show. With a few clicks we can escape into streaming thousands of movies (and other forms of entertainment) from our TV, computer, or mobile device. We can use Google to answer a question about almost anything. We can order ahead from a favorite restaurant and our order will be ready when we arrive. An Uber is just around the corner. We don’t have to wait, or slow down our pace. We can stay focused on our own needs and goals. Always thinking ahead.

How does this fast pace focused on getting the next thing done influence our relationships? If we are tilted forward towards checking off the next thing on our list, can we really be in the present moment? Why does it matter? A present-moment focus is linked to happiness (e.g., mindfulness). But it is also required for being a good friend and a good parent.

Being emotionally present is especially important with those who are still learning to be human—babies and young children. They operate at a slower pace and expect caregivers to be with them in the moment (notice how your young child will start to demand attention when you are on the phone—which is probably why we evolved to have a village of caregivers and playmates!)

When we get used to things on demand we start to think that everyone should act accordingly. We lose patience with people who move too slow and or take too long. We can start to think that babies should conform to our preferences on demand too. But they cannot. They follow an inner compass of growth and development. Practically speaking, tending to the needs of babies means meeting their needs in the here and now, not demanding that they conform to adult schedules. Their basic needs are many and include the components of what we call the evolved nest: on-request breastfeeding, extensive affectionate touch, self-directed play and quick responsiveness (see previous post here). When an infant receives care that satiates needs as they arise, with a present-moment focus from the parent or caregiver, the infant develops normally, along a healthy trajectory, into adulthood.

Why does early experience matter so much? Because as the infant’s needs are met, the neuronal architecture of the brain and neurobiological systems are supported as they are developing rapidly, enabling proper functioning. At a very basic level, babies are self-actualizing when their needs are met—they are getting support to follow the inner guidance system that Maslow found so important for self-actualization to occur. Maslow agreed with psychoanalytic theory that the thwarting of the self, of one’s normal path to self-actualization, occurs in early life from the betrayal in relationships. When we don’t provide the evolved nest, it is a betrayal to babies’ soul/spirit/being.

Meeting basic needs in the early years carries long-term benefits that protect the child throughout life, physiologically and psychologically. Adults who received nurturing and responsive care environments in their early years demonstrate greater resilience to stressful situations, better immune functioning, less anxiety and overall, fewer physical health problems (Shonkoff et al., 2012). There is a plethora of research from neuroscience, developmental psychology, molecular biology, chemistry, genomics and sociology validating the importance of early care experiences upon brain development, specifically the prefrontal cortex, amygdala, and hippocampus, critical parts of the brain that control learning, memory, and behavior (Suderman, 2012; Champagne & Meaney, 2007; Gunnar & Quevedo, 2007).

Recognizing the overwhelming, converging evidence from an array of disciplines, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) issued a report in 2012 addressing the importance of early care experience for adult health. The report encourages all pediatricians to be the “front-line guardians of child development” because “many adult diseases should be viewed as developmental disorders that begin early in life” (Shonkoff, 2012, p.2). The AAP is calling for a greater awareness of the importance of early care experiences, proclaiming that many adult diseases begin in early life and more emphasis should be given to providing healthy environments to infants and children.


Unmet Needs = Toxic Stress

So, what happens when an infant’s needs are not met? The Answer: potential toxic stress is created. Toxic stress and traumatic attachments in early life influence brain development, specifically the right hemisphere, resulting in:


  • An inability to regulate emotional states under stress, including regulating fear-terror states 
  • dysregulation of the “fight or flight” system (part of the Autonomic Nervous System) dysregulated “flight” systems results in PTSD and dysregulated “fight” systems potentially leads to aggression disorders 
  • dysregulation of the vagus nerve which connects with major body systems and governs social capacities (Porges, 2017) 
  • personality disorders in early adulthood (Schore, 2003).


In short, the individual is stunted or thwarted in reaching their full potential. Long-lasting effects include both personality and emotion regulation disorders. Deprivation of basic needs in the early years of life leads to an internal divisiveness; children become divided within themselves and divided against the world (Narvaez, 2016). It pushes the child off the trajectory for self-actualization.

There is evidence that suggests that deprivation of basic needs (neglect or undercare) may be more detrimental than physical abuse. Neglected children demonstrate more severe cognitive and academic deficits, social withdrawal, limited peer interactions and internalizing problems compared to children who were physically abused (Hildyard & Wolfe, 2002).

Meeting Basic Needs Buffers Against Toxic Stress

Supportive and responsive care has a profound role in mitigating the effects of adverse (stressful) experiences (The National Scientific Council of the Developing Child, 2011). A nurturing and responsive environment is a buffer against toxic stress, helping the infant return to baseline (non-stressed condition) and consequently, continue along an adequate developmental trajectory (for species-typical normal development, the full evolved nest would need to be provided). However, if supportive and responsive care is not provided in the midst of stressful events, toxic stress ensues, and severe traumatic attachments can develop.

A Practical Suggestion for Young Child Care

What is one practical way to increase the quality of infants’ early care experiences? Build extra time into the family’s schedule. Create buffers of time around scheduled events in the caregiving routine. For example, if you need to leave the house by a certain time, factor in an extra 15-20 minutes as a buffer. In this way, if the infant or child requests to nurse, needs a diaper change, needs extra play time, or more affectionate touch, these needs can be met in a non-stressed manner. Extra pockets of time allow the caregiver to meet the infant’s needs, safeguarding against an “on-demand” mentality but also, may diminish the caregiver’s stress. A parent or caregiver that is less stressed and anxious is able to be more responsive to the infant’s need, picking up on subtle cues from their baby. Less mental and emotional energy is dedicated to navigating the schedule (trying to get the infant/child out the door on time), freeing the caregiver to be nurturing, warm and responsive in the here and now, safeguarding against an “on-demand” mentality toward infants. Thus, built in buffers of time have the two-fold benefit of ameliorating caregiving stress and facilitating the meeting of the infant’s needs.

Early Investment in Baby has Long-Term Benefits

When infants and children are not treated with warm, responsive care, bad things happen. However, when they are given a healthy start with responsive, stable and nurturing relationships around them, infants flourish into happy and healthy adolescents and adults. Many pitfalls are avoided and the long-lasting consequences of learning disabilities, emotional disorders and physical health conditions are averted. Investing in infants provides a return of better health and happiness!

What if you didn’t meet your child’s needs in the early years? Even if your child is older, you can begin providing responsive and nurturing care now. See this post about promoting thriving in school-aged children. Physical and emotional health is one of the greatest gifts to any child. All is takes is some time, warmth and responsiveness to their needs.



Related Reading

More on what scholars say about early nurturing here.

How raising babies is different from raising children.


Related Reading by Dr. Narvaez at Peaceful Parenting: 

An 'On Demand' Life and the Basic Needs of Babies

Where Are All the Happy Babies?

The Dangers of Crying It Out

10 Things Everyone Should Know About Babies

Why Keep Babies Happy? A baby's cry is a late signal of discomfort

5 Things NOT to Do to Babies

12 Ways to Nurture Babies at Conception, Birth, and Beyond

Are you treating your child like a prisoner?

Are you or your child on a touch starvation diet?

Conspiracy Thinking: Understanding Attachment and Its Consequences

Psychology Today: Circumcision Series

Learn More from Narvaez:

The Evolved Nest Institute

Kindred Media

Neurobiology and the Development of Human Morality: Evolution, Culture, and Wisdom

πŸ’œ Peaceful Parenting Community

πŸ’™ Peaceful Parenting on Facebook

πŸ’— Peaceful Parenting on Telegram

References

Champagne, F. A., & Meaney, M. J. (2007). Transgenerational effects of social environment on variations in maternal care and behavioral response to novelty. Behavioral neuroscience, 121(6), 1353.

Gunnar, M. R., & Quevedo, K. M. (2007). Early care experiences and HPA axis regulation in children: a mechanism for later trauma vulnerability. Progress in brain research, 167, 137-149.

Hildyard, K. L., & Wolfe, D. A. (2002). Child neglect: developmental issues and outcomes. Child abuse & neglect, 26(6), 679-695.

Narvaez, D. (2016). Embodied morality: Protectionism, engagement and imagination. Springer.

National Scientific Council on the Developing Child. Excessive Stress Disrupts the Architecture of the Brain: Working Paper #3. Available at: https://developingchild.harvard.edu/resources/wp3/.

Schore, A. N. (2003). Early Relational Trauma, Disorganized Attachment, and the Development of a Predisposition to Violence. Healing Trauma: Attachment, Mind, Body and Brain (Norton Series on Interpersonal Neurobiology), 107.

Shonkoff, Jack P., Andrew S. Garner, Benjamin S. Siegel, Mary I. Dobbins, Marian F. Earls, Laura McGuinn, John Pascoe, David L. Wood, Committee on Psychosocial Aspects of Child and Family Health, and Committee on Early Childhood, Adoption, and Dependent Care. "The lifelong effects of early childhood adversity and toxic stress." Pediatrics 129, no. 1 (2012): e232-e246.

Suderman, M., McGowan, P. O., Sasaki, A., Huang, T. C., Hallett, M. T., Meaney, M. J., ... & Szyf, M. (2012). Conserved epigenetic sensitivity to early life experience in the rat and human hippocampus. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 109(Supplement 2), 17266-17272.


About the Authors

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 text, Human Nature, Early Experience, and the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness was a fantastic addition to a growing body of literature on a healthy, happy, babyhood. Visit Dr. Narvaez' website for additional books, papers, classes, websites and contact information.

Mary Tarsha is a graduate student in Developmental ​Psychology and Peace Studies at the Kroc Institute for International Peace at the University of Notre Dame

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