- Warm, responsive parenting is a strong predictor of positive child outcomes.
- Babies should not be ignored, left alone to cry, or punished.
- Babies are meant to be held and should feel welcome in a parent’s arms.
Note: “Babies” refers to age 0-2 or so.
When I had a puppy, he hated to be ignored or left alone. At those times he would chew up the furniture. Babies hate these things too, but they can’t damage the furniture to let us know. Instead, their development gets undermined and we and society have to live with the anxious and depressed results.
What should we NOT do to babies?
1. Ignore them (don’t)
Under natural birth conditions, newborns are ready to communicate with mother, father and others. Colwyn Trevarthen has videos showing newborn communication with a parent. Of course, they cannot talk but they can grunt and move their arms (the left arm is typically self-referential and the right arm focused on the partner). Some mothers communicate with the baby in the womb through singing, reading, talking, or even thumping. In indigenous cultures, the mother is responsible for shaping the spirit of the child with communications like these to the baby before and after birth, even creating a unique song for that child (e.g., Turnbull, 1983).
Grazyna Kochanska’s (2002) program of research shows that it is a “mutually-responsive orientation” that leads over time to the most positive outcomes, like conscience, prosocial behavior, and friendship skills. Mutually-responsive means the parent and child both influence each other, building a relationship cooperatively. Trevarthen (1979, 1999, 2001) suggests that this type of companionship care provides an optimal environment for emotional and intellectual development. The parent and child together develop their own ongoing creative stories and games that continue to change over time.
Why is a companionship relationship particularly important for babies? The first three years of life is a time when tacit (non-conscious) understanding of how the social world works is developed and it gets wired into how the brain works (Schore, 1994, 1996). With responsive care, the brain’s systems learn to work well and thereby keep the person healthy and socially engaged. What is learned during early life will be applied ever after to relationships (unless changed with therapy or other significant brain-changing experiences).
Babies who are born early or experience non-soothing perinatal experiences may need to be gently wooed by caregivers into a back-and-forth communicative relationship. This means caregivers have to be especially calming and sensitive to the baby’s signals—teasing her into relating, but only when she is ready. Skin-to-skin touch, singing and whispering comforting words may be helpful for the very withdrawn.
2. Let them cry (don’t)
Imagine being in pain and asking for help and being ignored. How does that make you feel about yourself (bad) and about your family (angry)? It’s so much worse for a baby; he has rapidly growing brain systems that are learning their dance patterns for social living and for physiological functioning.
If babies regularly get distressed, their bodies are being trained to be anxious and distrustful of themselves and of others. Most of what they learn from undercare is tacit knowledge that may not be noticeable until later when they are inflexible, self-centered and easily stressed out. Know anyone like that?
When young babies cry they are not having tantrums or being little emperors. They have needs and communicate them the only way that they can.
But if you wait for a cry before alleviating discomfort, you are waiting too long.
Young babies have a hard time stopping crying so you don’t want to let them start. To keep babies from crying, caregivers must pay attention to the nonverbal signals babies give (restlessness, frown, grimace, flailing arms) and nip discomfort in the bud. This is what wise grandmothers do.
Young babies need to breastfeed frequently, as human breastmilk is thin but filled with the body’s building blocks. Babies also need to move a lot, which helps them grow. So if you know the baby just had a good feed, then keep him calm with patting, bouncing, rocking. They expect the caregiver to be emotionally present with skin-to-skin contact, so talk, sing, be.
In the first four months of life, babies are likely to be more fussy (but that doesn’t mean they must cry). This is also the time period that seems to set the level of responsiveness between baby and caregiver that lasts for years after (according to our and Ruth Feldman’s research; Feldman, Greenbaum & Yirmiya, 1999). Caregivers should be especially attentive to when a young baby starts to fuss by noticing facial expression and gestures and offer preventative comfort that relaxes them again. Preventing crying in the first place is the goal (and ancient wisdom).
A mother visited my class with a baby a few months old. We passed the baby around until he began to grimace. Then the mother took him, stood up and held him in her arm, stomach down and rocked and bounced him back and forth. He looked very content and remained quiet for the rest of the period.
Now, I should say that if a caregiver is feeling so frustrated that she is ready to throw the baby against the wall, in that case, it is best to leave the room and let the baby cry. (See Period of Purple Cry for guidelines; and see these cautions.) But of course, it is best not to let such a regular crying pattern get established in the first days and weeks of life.
3. Leave them alone (don’t)
Babies are built to be physically connected to caregivers. They do not understand why they are alone.
Imagine being suddenly left alone in a strange land where you cannot move or take care of yourself. It would be terrifying, even if you understood what was going on. Why do this to a child?
Children are mammals who rely on the companionship of adults to care for their needs until they can do it themselves. Although people talk as if you can force babies to learn independence, this is an imaginary outcome. If you isolate babies, the opposite happens—they become whiney and needy or quiet and torn up inside, in both cases preoccupied with themselves.
One of the hallmarks of people who don’t help others when they are in a situation of need is personal distress (Batson, 2011). Personal distress makes empathy and compassionate action very unlikely. Making babies stress reactive from undercare may be a good way to build an easily distressed personality and create a society of self-concerned folks.
4. Not hold them whenever possible (please hold them)
Babies are meant to be held. This should start immediately. First impressions of you and the world are fundamental. Can they relax into being? Learning a deep relaxation and sense of peace is what they will carry forward into life. If they don’t have a regular experience of relaxing into loving arms, they may never learn to relax and let go. Such a letting go is vital for health (Kabat-Zinn, 1991).
When babies are physically apart from caregivers (not “in arms”), pain responses are activated, influencing the presence of various hormones and neuropeptides right when systems are being established (Ladd, Owens & Nemeroff, 1996; Panksepp, 2003; Sanchez et al., 2001). Separation dysregulates multiple systems over the long term. For example, the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA), a part of the stress response system becomes dysregulated and hyperactive (Caldji, Tannenbaum, Sharma, et al., 1998; Levine, 1994; Plotsky & Meaney, 1993). Even a 3-hour daily separation (in infant mice—and human babies are much more needy and social) caused enough early life stress to induce epigenetic effects that heightened stress reactivity and caused deficits in memory function in adulthood (Murgatroyd & Spengler, 2009). Moreover, limited touch in early life leads to an underdevelopment of serotonin receptors, endogenous opioids and oxytocin—chemicals that are related to happiness (Kalin, 1993; Meinischmidt & Heim, 2007).
So don’t take untouched babies lightly.
Babies should feel welcome in adult arms apart from the times they themselves feel the urge to explore (though a fearful toddler may sometimes need encouragement to explore). When babies want to explore, it should be allowed as much as possible.
Here is an interesting anecdote. When an American was visiting an African village, she saw a young child reaching for the fire and automatically slapped his hand away. An African elder scolded her for doing so, saying, ‘if you do that you will have to watch him carefully for the rest of his life.’ That is, children need to learn about their own world without being overguarded or they will never learn to behave safely on their own.
Numbers 1-4 are punishing. Babies are not meant to be without adult caring companionship at any time and don’t grow as well without it. But there is one more specifically about intentional punishment of babies.
5. Punish them (don’t)
Some parents spank or hit their babies (almost 1/3 of 12-month-olds in the USA are spanked, according to recent research)! This is very bad news. Corporal punishment might be an immediate release of frustration for the caregiver but, like most aggressive acts, it can have long-term negative effects.
Recall that babies are learning what life is about from the way they are treated and what they practice. Punishment has several obvious damaging effects:
(a) The baby may have less trust in a caregiver’s love and care, as the caregiver is not safe to relax around;
(b) The baby may have less trust in himself—caregivers have taught him that his urges are unimportant and even bad to have—talk about how to undermine self-development;
(c) If caregivers punish babies for wanting to explore, they may undermine motivation for learning (affecting school achievement later);
(d) The baby may learn that it’s best to suppress her interests around the caregiver, influencing communication with the caregiver;
(e) A recent study of audio recordings of families shows not only that parents are very impatient but that misbehavior increases after spanking.
(f) Physiologically, punishment will activate the stress response, which is not advisable in early life when thresholds and parameters for functioning are being set.
If you want to optimize a baby’s brain, health, and well-being for the long term, don’t do these five things.
Warm, responsive parenting is one of the best predictors of positive child outcomes (e.g., getting along with others, doing well in school). Responsive caregiving means attending to the individuality of the child in a particular situation. So caregivers have to be emotionally present, not distracted by their own worries, phones or work.
“But I’m a tired, frustrated parent”
Clearly babies take a lot of care to get them off to a good start. That’s why the adage “it takes a village to raise a child” is often mentioned. Yes, it takes more than one person (usually mom) or even two people (usually mom and dad) to meet one baby’s needs. So if you are a frustrated, tired parent, get help with caregiving. Here are just a few examples from experience but parents, please add suggestions:
(a) Arrange gatherings with other families, exchange babysitting, share meal making and clean up.
(b) Lower expectations for your personal goals. I remember hearing a mother say after several months of struggle that she learned to surrender to the needs of the baby. Taking care of baby’s needs is an investment you won’t regret.
(c) If you can, have one parent or adult family member not work outside the home so she or he can focus on childcare (which should decrease stress). Apparently, stay-at-home mothering has been increasing. This is a good idea as long as parents don’t isolate themselves with their children.
(d) Parenting is not meant to be a solo act. Parents should structure their lives around support systems. And everyone should all give parents help whenever possible.
Babies follow built-in needs (see Ten Things Everyone Should Know About Babies). Deny them at the peril of making a less healthy, happy, and agreeable child.
NOTE on BASIC ASSUMPTIONS: When I write about parenting, I assume the importance of the evolved developmental niche (EDN) for raising human infants (which initially arose over 30 million years ago with the emergence of the social mammals and has been slightly altered among human groups based on anthropological research).
The EDN is the baseline I use for determining what fosters optimal human health, wellbeing and compassionate morality. The niche includes at least the following: infant-initiated breastfeeding for several years, nearly constant touch early, responsiveness to needs so the young child does not get distressed, playful companionship with multi-aged playmates, multiple adult caregivers, positive social support, and soothing perinatal experiences.
All these characteristics are linked to health in mammalian and human studies (for reviews, see Narvaez, Panksepp, Schore & Gleason, 2013; Narvaez, Valentino, Fuentes, McKenna & Gray, 2014; Narvaez, 2014) Thus, shifts away from the EDN baseline are risky. My comments and posts stem from these basic assumptions.
Batson, C.D. (2011). Altruism in humans. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Caldji, C., Tannenbaum, B. Sharma, S., Francis, D, Plotsky, P.M., & Meaney, M.J. (1998). Maternal care during infancy regulates the development of neural systems mediating the expression of fearfulness in the rat. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, 95(9), 5335-5340.
Feldman, R., Greenbaum, C.W., & Yirmiya, N. (1999). Mother–infant affect synchrony as an antecedent of the emergence of self-control. Developmental Psychology, 35(1), 223-231.
Hrdy, S. (2009). Mothers and others: The evolutionary origins of mutual understanding. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press.
Kabat-Zinn, J. (1991). Full catastrophe living: Using the wisdom of your body and mind to face stress, pain, and illness. New York: Delta.
Kalin, N. H. (1993). The neurobiology of fear. Scientific American, 268, 94–101.
Kochanska, G. (2002b). Mutually responsive orientation between mothers and their young children: A context for the early development of conscience. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 11(6), 191-195. doi:10.1111/1467-8721.00198
Ladd, C. O., Owens, M. J., & Nemeroff, C. B. (1996). Persistent changes in corticotropin-releasing factor neuronal systems induced by maternal deprivation. Endocrinology, 137, 1212–1218.
Levine, S. (1994). The ontogeny of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis: The influence of maternal factors. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 746, 275-288.
Liedloff, J. (1986). The Continuum concept. Cambridge, MA: Perseus Books.
Meinlschmidt, G., & Heim, C. (2007). Sensitivity to intranasal oxytocin in adult men with early prenatal separations. Biological Psychiatry, 61(9), 1109-1111.
Murgatroyd, C., Spengler D (2011). Epigenetics of early child development. Frontiers in Psychiatry, 16 (2), 1-15.
Murgatroyd, C., Spengler D (2011). Epigenetics of early child development. Frontiers in Psychiatry, 16 (2), 1-15.
Plotsky, P. M., & Meaney, M. J. (1993). Early, postnatal experience alters hypothalamic corticotrophin-releasing factor (CRF) mRNA, median eminence CRF content and stress-induced release in adult rats. Molecular Brain Research, 18, 195–200.
Sanchez, M.M., Ladd, C.O., & Plotsky, P.M. (2001). Early adverse experience as a developmental risk factor for later psychopathology. Development and Psychopathology, 13(3), 419-449.
Schore, A. N. (1994). Affect regulation and the origin of the self. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
Schore, A.N. (1996). The experience-dependent maturation of a regulatory system in the orbital prefrontal cortex and the origin of developmental psychopathology. Developmental Psychopathology, 8, 59–87.
Trevarthen, C. (1979). Communication cooperation in early infancy: A description of primary intersubjectivity. In M. Bullowa (Ed.), Before speech: The beginning of human communication (pp. 321–347). London, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Trevarthen, C. (1999). Musicality and the intrinsic motive pulse: Evidence from human psychobiology and infant communication. Musicae Scientiae, Special Issue, 157–213.
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.
Turnbull, C.M. (1983). The human cycle. New York: Simon and Schuster.