Have you seen a “depressed” baby? Withdrawn and quiet, uninterested in socializing or exploring? Such behavior might be convenient for stressed parents, but it is a bad sign for baby. Full blown depression may not be diagnosed until toddlerhood, but it can begin in babyhood.
Modern parenting culture provides many reasons for babies to get depressed.
Babies treated these ways spend a great deal of time distressed, which undermines their development, and shifts them into trajectories for mental and physical health disorders. For specific physiological damage of extensive crying, see here.
Here we discuss specific social experiences that are critical for establishing a lifetime of good mental health. These form part of companionship care, which follows the evolved nest, and optimizes normal development.*
We can call them 3 Rs for babies: Recognition, Resonance, and Respect.
We all want to be recognized, to be treated like an individual. Babies do too.
What does recognition in relationships look like?
Relationships of recognition look a particular way. They “affirm, validate, acknowledge, know, accept, understand, empathize, take in, tolerate, appreciate, see, identify with, find familiar…love…” the other person. These are practices of what Jessica Benjamin calls mutual recognition that are commonly noted in mother-infant interaction: “emotional attunement, mutual influence, affective mutuality, sharing state of mind” (Benjamin, 1988, pp. 15-16).
Understandings of the social world are shaped by early experience, specifically, by the mothering (nurturing responsive care) we receive from mothers, fathers and others. A vibrant, true self develops within a vibrant, mutual relationship with primary caregivers. This kind of responsiveness to the child brings out positive outcomes for the child, including greater self-control, cooperation, empathy, and conscience (e.g., Kochanska, 2002).
Recognition is a “constantly renewed commitment” that we create through dialogue with others. So it's not only a concern for parents with children but each of us with our spouses, siblings, peers and colleagues. Recognition “moves us toward mutual liberation from the tendency to seek power and control through negation of the other, out of fear of otherness.” (Shaw, 2014, p. 6) Instead, we learn tolerance and compassion for those who struggle with life like we do.
Recognition means respecting the dignity of the child as a separate “subject,” not a product or object to be used for one’s own ends. Having a nonresponsive caregiver in early life is like having a novice homebuilder build a house: The framing may be crooked and the joists off kilter, affecting the strength and quality of the rest of the house (the life trajectory of the child). Inexperienced, distracted, or ailing caregivers display less recognition and may not be motivated to figure out or provide what the child needs.
When recognition is not experienced by the young child, it does great damage that can often last a lifetime. Lack of recognition leads to a wounded social self: “Chronic failures of recognition thwart the child’s achievement of the capacity for intersubjective relatedness” (Benjamin, 1988, p. 16). Lots of mental illness is attributed to lack of recognition by caregivers in early life (see Benjamin; Shaw; Winnicott).
Parents who did not receive the 3 Rs themselves in early life will have gaps in the sense of self (unless they undergo transformation through therapy or other experience) and be needy themselves. The needy parent often expects the baby to gratify her and meet her needs, and is unable to give fully to the relationship. Such parents pass on their neediness to their kids by their inability to recognize them.
Perhaps this is why community child raising is something that evolved with human evolution (“cooperative breeding,” Hrdy, 2009). Community child raising typically ensures that someone is recognizing that child and responding kindly to their needs, helping build a strong and confident child.
I hope that you have at least one friend with whom you feel like you are under mutual sun lamps--that feeling of face-to-face (literally) beaming-- like magnets are in your foreheads. This is limbic resonance. As social mammals, we orient to this kind of resonance: “a symphony of mutual exchange and internal adaptation whereby two mammals become attuned to each other’s inner states” (Lewis et al., 2000, p. 63).
As human beings, each of us needs to resonate with the minds of others; our bodies require it. Without emotional resonance with others, we are lonely, and can even go mad, as occurs with prisoners put into solitary confinement (Gawande, 2009). In fact, “the mammalian nervous system depends for its neurophysiological stability on a system of interactive coordination: which means a need to synchronize with physically-near attachment figures (Lewis et al., 2000, p. 84).
How does this work for babies? What kind of resonance do loving parents provide? Resonance with young babies is a quiet presence with them, some combination of emotional calmness, emotional matching, eye contact, and mutual interactions. For older babies and children, it means attending to the child with a nonjudgmental, nonevaluative orientation. It means resonating with the energy or life force of the child, whether in active play or quiet body cuddles.
Early-life experience sets up our long term capacities for presence and resonance with others. Psychologist Colwyn Trevarthen emphasizes two “concerns” available from birth, to be “free in our hopes and enterprises” and to be accepted positively by “those who experience our acting” (Trevarthen, 2001, p. 58). To be free and to be accepted--autonomy and belonging. These take place through the pleasure we experience in social relations—the intersubjectivity of person-to-person reciprocity, brain-to-brain limbic resonance, and interpersonal empathy. These allow a type of relational communion of selves being with one another in the present moment. It is a healing, refreshing experience--at any age.
Being with the baby from the first awareness of the baby's existence in the womb to baby's presence after birth may be vital for the development of compassionate morality. Moment by moment, the baby is building their ideas and general understanding of the social world. Caregiver reactions and counterreactions lead to schemas for the social world, built by what is experienced and by what is promoted by caregivers.
Imagine bringing home a prized plant for your garden. Would you stomp on it? When babies’ needs are ignored, it is like stomping on them. They stop growing in the normal human way.
Babies expect what we all expect, R-E-S-P-E-C-T. For a baby, a growing person, respect means meeting their needs promptly and kindly--giving in to the “omnipotence” of baby (Winnicott, 1957). After all, compared to other animals, they should be in the womb another 18 months (which is when they start to look like a newborn in other species)! The external womb, which lasts 18 months, should be calm and soothing while numerous physiological systems set up their parameters.
Some parents want to punish babies for their needs by ignoring them, even spanking them for crying. But a baby's crying is a signal of discomfort and pain. They cannot point or tell you what is wrong, so they communicate in the only ways they can. But crying is a late signal. Instead of waiting for a cry, parents need to learn the subtle signals of discomfort: wiggling, frowns, arms flailing--and then move in to comfort babies BEFORE crying begins. Parents can do this when they learn to recognize their baby's signals. Moving in quickly helps rapidly developing systems, including personality, gel around calmness, rather than anxiety and distress.
What is the normal human way of developing--what I call species-typical development? The path leads to a cooperative, self-regulated community member. It may seem counterintuitive to give in to baby’s needs for them to learn cooperation but recall that the baby is still like a fetus till about 18 months of age (and after that they are like newborns and still need their needs met without punishment). So, meeting their biological and social needs is vital.
Companionship Care provides the 3 Rs
Companionship relationships in early life provide recognition, resonance, and respect do much more than build the child’s understanding of social relations. They ground expectations and capacities for the social relationships to come. But they also co-construct the baby’s neurobiological and psychological structures, like the stress response and other critical systems whose shaping occurs after birth. Deep-seated neurobiological and psychological structures are very hard to change after early life’s sensitive periods. I guess we can say that this is what therapists are for.
*Companionship care emerges from providing species-normal developmental care. Recall that humans have a nest for their young. The evolved nest supports optimal normal development. It is the baseline I use for determining what fosters optimal human health, wellbeing and compassionate morality. The nest in the first years of life includes at least the following: soothing perinatal experiences, infant-initiated breastfeeding for several years, nearly constant touch, responsiveness to needs so the young child does not get distressed, playful companionship, multiple adult caregivers, and positive social support. Any move away from these characteristics is species-Atypical and a risk factor for fostering a dysregulated, self-centered human being. More about the evolved nest HERE. More blog posts about evolved nest care HERE.
PART 3: Baby Care: 3 Rs for Raising a Happy Child
Benjamin, J. (1988). Bonds of love. New York, NY: Pantheon.
Gawande, A. (2009). Hellhole: The United States holds tens of thousands of inmates in long-term solitary confinement. Is this torture? The New Yorker, March 30, 36-45.
Hrdy, S. (2009). Mothers and others: The evolutionary origins of mutual understanding. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press.
Kochanska, G. (2002). Mutually responsive orientation between mothers and their young children: A context for the early development of conscience. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 11, 191-195. doi:10.1111/1467-8721.00198
Lewis, T., Amini, F., & Lannon, R. (2000). A General Theory of love. New York: Vintage.
Narvaez, D. (2014). Neurobiology and the Development of Human Morality: Evolution, Culture and Wisdom. New York, NY: W.W. Norton.
Stern, D. (2010). Forms of vitality: Exploring dynamic experience in psychology, the arts, psychotherapy, and development. New York: Oxford University Press.
Trevarthen, C. (2001). Intrinsic motives for companionship in understanding: Their origin, development and significance for infant mental health. Infant Mental Health Journal, 22(1-2), 95-131.
Trevarthen, C. (2005). Stepping away from the mirror: Pride and shame in adventures of companionship—Reflections on the nature and emotional needs of infant intersubjectivity. In C.S. Carter, L. Ahnert, K.E. Grossmann, S.B., Hrdy, M.E. Lamb, S.W. Porges, & N. Sachser (Eds.), Attachment and bonding: A new synthesis (pp. 55-84). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Winnicott, D.W. (1957). Mother and Child. A Primer of First Relationships. New York: Basic Books.