When you show your love to your baby by hugging, kissing, coddling and making her feel secure and being cared for, you are helping to develop her brain. You are also making her grow to be socially well-adjusted.
Yet there was a time when child care “experts” and grandparents would advise that the best way to treat your baby is to let her cry so she can learn to be tough, leave her alone so she can be independent, and not respond to her signals because it would spoil her.
Studies including that by Harlow in the 1950’s and the more recent one by Kim Bard of University of Portsmouth in England have proven these advices to be wrong. Their experiments with chimps have shown that those that are deprived of attachment turn out to be “nutty” and intellectually inferior to those who were given motherly love.
The human baby is the most socially influenced creature on earth. When your baby is born, her brain is the least “hard-wired”, the most flexible, and requires to be shaped by experience. Your baby’s earliest experiences with you, the parent, shape what is to become of her as an adult. It is as a baby that she learns about how to feel and handle her feelings – and this affects her later behavior and thinking capabilities.
For a baby, having a flexible brain is important because it needs to be “shaped” by inputs of other humans in order to survive in her particular culture. Shaping a brain that is needed to survive in the culture of Africa is different to that of China, for example.
A study done in the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, Mo using brain images reveals that a mother’s love physically affects the volume of her baby’s hippocampus. Children of nurturing mothers had hippocampal volumes 10 percent larger than those whose mothers are not nurturing. Hippocampus is the brain region important for learning, memory and stress responses.
Sue Gerhardt in her book Why Love Matters shows why loving and being responsive to your baby is important:
- Loving, touching and responding to your baby’s signals help your baby’s nervous system to mature without being overstressed. Your love makes a baby feel secure so she can be unhampered in developing her brain in other ways.
- You help give your baby a healthy immune system
- You contribute to your baby’s robust stress response.
- You are helping to build up your baby’s prefrontal cortex and her ability to hold information in mind, to reflect on feelings, to hold back impulses and be well-adjusted in her social relationships in the future. The orbitofrontal cortex develops almost entirely after the baby is born, and does not mature until toddlerhood.
- Lots of positive experiences as a baby, such as being smiled at and coddled produce brains with more neuronal connections, and this produces a smart brain.
Studies also show that responding to a baby’s needs (not letting a baby “cry it out”) has been shown to influence the development of conscience; positive touch affects stress reactivity, impulse control and empathy; free play in nature influences social capacities and aggression; and a set of supportive caregivers (beyond the mother alone) predicts IQ and ego resilience as well as empathy.
“Breast-feeding infants, responsiveness to crying, almost constant touch and having multiple adult caregivers are some of the nurturing ancestral parenting practices that are shown to positively impact the developing brain, which not only shapes personality, but also helps physical health and moral development,” says Darcia Narvaez, Notre Dame professor of psychology who specializes in moral development in children.
A study also showed that children whose mothers raise them sensitively in their first three years of life – that is, positively interacting with their children and making them feel secure – grow up to have more successful relationships and higher academic achievement compared to kids with mothers who did not care for them this way. This benefit even extends to the kids’ adulthood.
Moreover, another study shows that adults whose parents did not respond emotionally to them when they were children performed worse on an information-processing task when they are under stress or in emotionally negative situations. The study suggests that these adults probably have inefficient strategies for regulating their emotions, and this leads to errors in task performance.
Another study suggests that mothers who interact with their babies using language about thoughts and feelings raise kids who are skilled at understanding others.
A neglected or unloved baby can lead to mental problems as an adult:
- The absence of a mother or a caregiver who notices her feelings increases the level of the stress hormone cortisol. This over reactive stress response might lead to emotional insecurity and chronic depression. See other bad effects of stress on the kid’s brain.
- Neglecting your baby might also result in a low level of norepinephrine which can cause her to be unable to adapt, not learning from mistakes.
- When a baby has an unhappy early relationship, it may be hard for her to experience pleasure and reward in later life. This is due to having developed fewer dopamine and opiate receptors in the brain (Martin 1997; Lagercrantz and Herlenius 2001).
- When a baby does not get attention, she may learn to be helpless. This will lead to withdrawal and depression as an adult.
- Childhood neglect damages developing brains, so stunting them that neglect might be likened to physically violent abuse. Children who spent their first two years in the orphanage, the researchers observed high levels developmental problems, cognitive deficits, mental illness, and significant reductions in brain size. When the researchers measured the sheer amount of electrical activity generated by the brains of children who’d been isolated as toddlers, “it was like you’d had a rheostat, a dimmer, and dimmed down the amount of energy in these institutionalized children,” said Nathan Fox, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Maryland.
Here are the ways to show love to your baby:
- Handle her a lot, interact with her, establish eye contact and communicate with your eyes. Make her feel secure and that you are always there when she needs you.
- Be sensitive to your baby’s changing mood and states, and respond to these.
- Teach your baby to differentiate range of feelings like anger, annoyance and irritation by engaging in baby talk and mirroring her feelings so she can learn about what she is going through.
- Be patient with your baby when she is crying. Do not shout at her, let alone hurt her. Be calm and reassure her that everything is okay.
- Breastfeed. This is one activity where baby feels at peace and loved. This activity soothes the mother too.
- Lovingly play with your baby.
- If you have to put your kid in childcare, make sure that the caregiver really pays attention to the child. It is the kind of care that counts more than who gives the caring.