Avoid Extremes of Baby Care

The sweet spot for child care is between intrusive or emotionally neglectful.

Posted Nov 15, 2020

Aristotle philosophized that virtuous or good behavior follows the “golden mean,” the middle position between the extremes, between excess and deficiency. For example, courage is the middle point between recklessness and cowardice. Generosity is midpoint between stinginess and extravagance. Temperance in eating is the middle point between gluttony and self-starvation.

New research is showing us that we perhaps should apply this “golden mean” approach to caring for babies.

What are the extremes in baby care? Emotional neglect and intrusiveness.

Emotional neglect generally means adults ignore, minimize, or belittle a child’s emotions. Andrea Brandt, in a PT post, explains: “When parents treat children’s emotions as unimportant, not valid, excessive, or of lesser importance than other issues, they neglect the child emotionally.”

What does emotional neglect mean for babies?

Emotional neglect is the opposite of being responsive to the needs of the baby. Essentially it means ignoring baby’s pleas for attention. And babies need a lot! Babies’ needs are holistic and run the gamut: warmth, safety, sleep, belonging and love, play, nutrition. In our ancestral contexts, these are all provided simultaneously. Just because adults separate these things into categories, doesn’t mean they don’t all go together (Narvaez, 2018). For example, breast milk can be described as a basic need that alleviates hunger. Interestingly, breast milk does more than “feed” a baby nutrients for digestion. Breast milk has hormones for growing brain cells and antibodies to keep infectious agents at bay (Hanson, 1988). So a baby signaling ‘a need to feed’ is signaling a need for more than food, likely suckling with skin-to-skin contact, which calms the baby and grows the skull and jaw properly. A basic need for touch includes lots of different kinds: in-arms carrying (and movement), affectionate holding, soothing, and reassurance.

Thus, we should understand that babies are unique. They are highly immature at birth, even full-term birth, resembling fetuses of other animals for the first 18 months. Such extreme immaturity means they need tender care while their brains double and triple in volume, growing brain cell connections and dispositions in response to nurturing care. Postnatal life in those early months should resemble a “womb with a view,” an exterogestation (Montagu, 1986) so that needs are met quickly and adequately. Providing the evolved nest fulfills their basic needs, especially important in the first three years of life.

So we have been addressing the golden mean, which is also described in my prior posts on mother love, good enough mothering, and empathic baby care. These posts describe the effects of emotional neglect and what health-promoting care of a baby, the golden mean, looks like.

The other end of the spectrum is caregiver intrusiveness.

Intrusiveness is defined as a caregiver imposing her agenda on the baby through adult-led activities. In October 2020 at the International Society for Developmental Psychobiology, Humphreys & Gotlib (2020) reported on their study where they collected lab-based observations between 111 mothers and their 6-month-old babies. The researchers measured intrusiveness, described in that situation as: “offering a barrage of physical or verbal interactions, not allowing the child to influence the pace or focus of play, engaging in excessive physical touch.” Scores were obtained from videorecording the dyads interacting during the Still-Face Procedure (where mother initially plays with the child who is in a carrier or chair, then turns her head to the side and brings it back face-to-face with a “still face,” that is, she is unresponsive to the child, then again she turns her head to the side and brings it back face-to-face and acts normally). Then they measured hippocampal brain volume in the babies, a stress-sensitive area of the brain influenced by caregiving. They found that intrusive mothering was associated with smaller volume in the right, but not left, hippocampus, even after controlling for other stress exposure. There were no differences between boys and girls.

Recall that the right hemisphere is scheduled to grow more rapidly in the first three years of life (e.g., Schore, 2013). Humphreys and Gotlib’s (2020) findings suggest that right hemisphere development may be undermined by the intrusive type of unresponsive care.

Instead of the extremes of nonresponsiveness, a mutually-responsive orientation (e.g., Kochanska, 2002) hits the sweet spot. Caregivers are flexibly responsive to the needs of the baby in the moment, attentive to needs of a fetus-like creature, foregoing their own agendas and instead following the baby’s inner compass and patterns of needs.

Related posts:


Hanson, L.A. (Ed.) (1988). Biology of human milk. New York: Raven Press.

Humphreys, K & Gotlib, I. (2020, October 21-23). Maternal Intrusiveness and Infant Hippocampal Volume. International Society for Developmental Psychobiology 2020 Virtual Conference (https://isdp.org/current).

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.

Montagu, A. (1986). Touching: The human significance of the skin. New York: Harper & Row.

Narvaez, D. (Ed.)  (2018). Basic needs, wellbeing and morality: Fulfilling human potential. New York: Palgrave-MacMillan.

Schore, A.N. (2013). Bowlby's "Environment of evolutionary adaptedness": Recent studies on the interpersonal neurobiology of attachment and emotional development. In D. Narvaez, J. Panksepp, A. Schore & T. Gleason (Eds.), Evolution, early experience and human development: From research to practice and policy (pp. 31-67). New York: Oxford.