Parents want to do what is best for their children. It starts in pregnancy. Mother’s watch what they eat and drink and do everything they can to ensure safety during the nine months leading up to the birth. They will also often prepare a room for the baby full of bright colours, stimulating artwork, toys and music.
Parents often find the first few weeks of parenting challenging. All the things they have lovingly prepared for their baby’s arrival are in place, but the baby only seems interested in resting in the warm embrace of the parents and feeding. This is often the time that parents are advised to get their baby into a predictable feeding and sleeping routine. They are warned that it is the only hope of getting their lives back and that without it they will never sleep again or enjoy any sense of order in their lives.
With this sort of advice very popular at the moment, many parents are not aware just how normal and healthy it is for babies to feed often and wake frequently in the night. When babies wake in the night, parents are taught to see it as a problem that needs fixing, as opposed to a natural need that simply needs meeting. Parents are encouraged to leave their baby to cry in order to encourage independence and long periods of sleep. However, these same parents who have lovingly bought the latest in brain stimulating toys, music and DVDs, are unaware just how the brain develops in infancy.
Dr Miriam Stoppard, in an article in the Independent entitled ‘Should we leave babies to cry?’ explains that a baby is born expecting to have stress managed for her by her parents. The prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain that exerts control over emotions and is virtually non-existent at birth, so stress in infancy, caused by leaving a young baby to cry, is painful. If ignored, it can give rise to high levels of stress hormones that damage the formation of a healthy brain. Author Sue Gerhardt, a practising psychotherapist, explains in her book Why Love Matters that when a baby is crying, they cannot simply ‘tune out’ their stress hormones. They need their parents to switch them off for them. Dr Stoppard explains that the simple truth is that a baby doesn’t have the equipment – anatomical or physiological – to deal with distress, because the part of the brain that would help the baby cope doesn’t fully develop for another four to six months.
This information can help parents who are being told that their baby is ‘having them on’ or ‘just wanting attention’ or, even worse, that the baby ‘needs to cry’. The truth is that in order to encourage a healthy brain to grow, the best things parents can do is help stress levels remain low by holding, stroking, feeding, nuzzling and reassuring a crying baby. A baby’s whole system is moulded by how much early stress they have to contend with and how well a parent helps them deal with it, according to Dr Stoppard.
Developmental psychologist, Mary Ainsworth, showed that every time parents touch and caress their baby, their touch activates growth hormones which encourage healthy development. Three other psychiatrists, Lewis, Amini, and Lannon, wrote a book called A General Theory of Love and suggested that the bond of love, or lack of it, can change a baby’s brain forever. They say that when babies are left to cry for long periods, the levels of mood lifting chemicals like serotonin and dopamine are lowered and blueprinted and this alteration of brain chemistry becomes hard wired, leading to timid, clingy children, withdrawn teenagers and adults vulnerable to anxiety and depression.
However, access to good experiences early on in life produces brains with more neural connections. It makes sense that with more connections in the brain, there will be better brain performance and more flexibility to use particular areas of the brain. It is helpful for parents to realise that between six and twelve months, there is a massive growth spurt in these connections in the baby’s brain.
This information may help parents to realise that when they are comforting their eight month old and helping them to feel safe and happy instead of leaving them in a state of stress, a pleasure hormone called beta endorphin is released into the circulation and specifically into the prefrontal region of the brain. These natural opioids help the brain cells to grow by controlling glucose and insulin. They also make the baby feel good. At the same time, another hormone, dopamine, is released from the prefrontal cortex which also enhances the use of glucose, helping new brain cells to grow.
So parents who may have been feeling pressured and guilty about not leaving their baby to ‘learn the hard way’ can be encouraged that they are simply nurturing their baby’s emotional wellbeing and brain development. It is fun to decorate the nursery in beautiful colours, but it’s good to remember that no matter how colourful and stimulating a baby’s little floor gym is, there is nothing more stimulating to a baby’s brain than an expression of love and tenderness from a parent.