The first relationship we ever have—the way infants are cared for by parents—sets the stage for our future self. The trouble is, we don't take babyhood seriously enough, as explained in Sue Gerhardt's book, "Why Love Matters".
Of course, we all know that love matters. But in what ways does it matter that most people don’t know about?
When we think of love, most of us tend to think of romantic love. Babies don’t immediately spring to mind. But the first love relationship between baby and parent is at the heart of our lives and has a huge influence on our future selves. I have reviewed research over a wide scientific field and looked at the evidence for the effects of early care and its implications for later life. I discovered that the nervous system is very responsive to its early social conditions. Basically it is adapting like crazy and those early adaptations tend to have lasting consequences.
How does love shape the brain?
I’m interested in the key brain systems involved in managing emotions and relationships, and I found that these are strongly influenced by early social experience. For example, very early experience can affect the reactivity of one of the core structures of the emotional brain, the amygdala. The stress response or HPA axis is another key system that can become more or less reactive depending on life circumstances. After an early period of instability, it settles into a more stable set point that affects the ongoing way a child reacts to stress. Social experiences in toddlerhood can also strengthen or undermine connections and neural pathways in the higher prefrontal brain areas, which in turn play a big role in managing those core emotion structures.
What kinds of behaviors does it influence?
Loving, sensitive parents who quickly calm their distressed baby, or stimulate a restless one, are helping to establish optimum levels of biochemicals such as oxytocin and serotonin in the baby’s body, which result in the baby feeling safe, contented, and relaxed. This lays the groundwork for an effective soothing system, and a balanced stress response—the foundations of good self-regulation and ultimately the source of genuine independence. Consistent, responsive parenting also supports the development of the prefrontal cortex, which further enhances the toddler’s growing capacity to control his impulses, to pay attention, and ultimately to be more empathetic to others—in other words, to develop emotional and social skills.
What happens to those not fortunate enough to get loving care learly in their life?
All kinds of negative early experience—starting with having a stressed-out mother during pregnancy, and including harshness, shouting, hitting, leaving the baby to cry, humiliating or ignoring the child, and separation from the parent—generate stress hormones in the infant. Chronically high levels of the stress hormone cortisol during this period of dependent babyhood can have lasting effects on the rapidly developing nervous system. Everyone’s story is different and unique to them, but stressful and unhappy early love relationships do shape the brain. For example, if you grow up around anger or violence, your brain becomes more sensitive and reactive to threat; some children so exposed will grow up to behave in antisocial ways themselves. If you have faced early separation from loved ones, or have been ignored by a depressed mother, for example, your brain may be hyper-reactive to stress, which can predispose to depression in adulthood. Very unpredictable or frightening parenting early in life has been linked with adult personality disorders.
Can an early deficit of love ever be made up?
From my own personal experience as well as from professional experience as a psychotherapist working with unhappy adults, I know how difficult that can be. Changing your emotional habits and the way you see yourself is not easy to do. It is a slow process. The brain in adulthood is not developing at the same rapid rate as it is in infancy; it literally takes quite a long time for new neural pathways to be made and consolidated. On the other hand, as a parent/infant psychotherapist working with parents and their babies together, I have seen really fast change; unhappy or symptomatic babies can start to flourish as the relationship with the parent improves.
What led you to write this book?
This clinical experience of witnessing the transformation of listless babies into happy ones was a powerful motivator. I really wanted more people to become aware that the most effective time to make a difference to people’s lives is right at the start.
What is the most surprising thing you discovered in researching and writing this book?
I was surprised at how little scientists talked to each other across disciplines and how rarely they put their work in the context of the bigger picture. Of course scientists are naturally cautious creatures and quite properly always want more studies and more proof, but as I got more immersed in the research, it became clear just how compelling the evidence is that early development really matters.
Currently, there is important research emerging about the significance of a mother’s state of mind during pregnancy. In addition, there is fascinating new research on the role of inflammatory markers, which expands our understanding of the roots of physical as well as mental health.
What is the most important point you want to get across?
It is difficult for our culture to take babyhood seriously. We are so focused on cognitive learning and achieving and earning that we neglect the importance of emotional skills. Emotional skills are rooted in the earliest relationships. I want more people to realise that the way we look after our babies is really important work.
Who would most benefit by reading this book?
Everyone who wants to understand more about themselves and the people around them—a pretty wide group! It is particularly relevant for a whole range of professionals who work closely with children or adults with mental health issues, also journalists and policy makers who have influence over areas that affect early child-rearing, as well as new parents wanting to know more about their baby’s development.
What is the most profound thing you’ve learned about yourself in writing this book?
The more I understand, the better I feel! It is one way of regaining a sense of control over my life. But it also makes me feel more tolerant of others and their difficulties. Writing this book has also helped me overcome my natural reticence; it has fuelled a real campaigning drive to get babyhood on the map.
If you had one piece of advice, what would it be and who would it be for?
Parents—and I do mean mothers and fathers—enjoy being with your babies; babyhood is short. Give your babies time and attention and please don’t put them in group daycare until they are past babyhood. Their emotional well-being is priceless and you can lay some great foundations for their future lives.
What would you like to see happen as a result of your book?
I would like to see policy makers routinely consider how they can support early parenting and infant mental health, recognising it makes economic sense to prevent ill health and recognising that more widespread emotional well-being has huge benefits for society.
About THE AUTHOR SPEAKS: Selected authors, in their own words, reveal the story behind the story. Authors are featured thanks to promotional placement by their publishing houses.
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Why Love Matters