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Welcoming Social Environments for Babies

Body-to-body coregulation is fundamental for health and sociality.

Key points

  • Babies grow in healthy ways with positive support.
  • Mothers and babies can become disconnected if they don’t coregulate regularly.
  • Interventions for visceral coregulation can restore a cooperative relationship.

We humans evolved big social brains that develop mostly after birth. Because newborns have only 25% or less of adult brain volume, they need a supportive environment to maintain a growth-encouraging biochemistry during the first years of life, when their brain more than triples in size. Frequent breastfeeding provides a wash of appropriate hormones, immunoglobulins, and other elements that build healthy brains and bodies.

But minimizing distress is also important, as extensive stress mobilizes cortisol, which at high levels destroys brain connections and signals danger, undermining growth generally. Stress during gestation and/or early life is particularly detrimental to mammals, shaping antisociality instead (Sandi & Heller, 2015).

To grow their fullest capacities, young children expect the deep social immersion in a welcoming community from the beginning of life, including conception. Babies evolved to be bathed in loving attention by a village of caregivers (Hrdy, 2009), for joy, for face-to-face body-to-body immersion in social experience. Such experiences nourish us, help us grow and stay healthy.

The evolved nest provides a welcoming, sustaining, affectionate climate for a child (Tarsha & Narvaez, 2019). Within the nest, children form secure, responsive relationships with adults and peers; extensive opportunities for free movement, self-directed play. and learning; integration into the local landscape and bonding with and contribution to the neighborhood; multiple and multi-aged mentors who encourage the interests and gifts of the child; immersion in the natural world to build ecological know-how, ecological attachment and respectful relations with the other than human; routine healing practices such as restorative justice practices and ceremonies to honor the cycles of life; and regular joyous group activities, such as song games, dancing. and dramatic invention.

What is it about the evolved nest that makes it ideal for raising a healthy, cooperative, happy child? Recall that human infants resemble fetuses until about 18 months of age, so all aspects of brain and body development are still under construction and highly malleable from experience.

The viscera, which includes the vagus nerve and immune system, are part of what is being “trained up,” or conditioned, by early experience. In fact, the dynamic bodies of mother and child are set to interlock at naturalistic birth when body reward systems are primed to engage deeply with one another (Buckley, 2015).

Clinician Martha Welch (Welch & Ludwig, 2017) identified one of the ongoing aspects of conditioning that occurs through responsive, affectionate care between mother and infant. It is a subcortical visceral/autonomic co=conditioning, which is a key physiological aspect of bonding and mutual coregulation upon which a child’s emotional connection and health depend.

Under species-normal conditions, the child and mother are mutually attracted from the beginning and form emotional connections at the visceral level. Repeated episodes of shared sensory contact lead to robust visceral/autonomic conditioning. In species-normal settings, the child is frequently coregulating with mother and other responsive, physically and emotionally connected caregivers.

In species-atypical settings, as in modern societies, the child is separated from primary caregivers for hours at a time. This leads to routine dysregulation, with little opportunity to restore coregulation, creating toxic stress. The mother and child can become repelled by, instead of attracted to, one another. and the child can become noncompliant.

Welch notes that things can go awry when mother and infant are separated too much. Such dysregulation in the dyad can lead to illness in one or both. It is especially visible in dyads with premature infants:

“Abnormal conditions, such as the repeated emotional and/or physical separation between mother and prematurely born infant, remove opportunity for optimal coregulatory conditioning and can lead instead to adverse co-conditioning. In such cases, dysregulation of autonomic state in mother, infant, or both, can trigger an autonomic reflexive withdrawal response upon close contact” (Welch, 2016).

Welch developed a technique, Family Nurture Intervention (FNI), that helps disconnected dyads reconnect through a co-conditioning process in which repeated calming restores a positive visceral/autonomic coregulation. The dyad begins with dysregulation and distress. They are cued to mutually share the distress with physical touch and with the mother expressing her emotional feelings. The mother cries and the child responds with soothing behaviors toward the mother while increasing self-regulation. Mutual upset begins to calm down. Multiple senses are involved from vision to touch to hearing to smell. Increased mutual calm allows shared eye contact, singing or quiet talk, or dozing. The process can take four to six sessions for results.

The findings are important for ethics and moral development. Converging evidence suggests that empathic concern, central to compassionate morality, occurs bottom up, from neurobiological resonance with the other that leads to feeling for or caring about the other. Observed in 8-month-old children, this is not dependent on self-reflection, mentalizing, or age, as is true for cognitive empathy and prosocial behavior, both of which typically increase across development (Davidov et al., 2013).

References

Buckley, S.J. (2015). Hormonal physiology of childbearing: Evidence and implications for women, babies, and maternity care. Washington, D.C.: Childbirth Connection Programs, National Partnership for Women & Families.

Davidov, M., Zahn-Waxler, C., Roth-Hanania, R., & Knafo, A. (2013). Concern for others in the first year of life: Theory, evidence, and avenues for research. Child Development Perspectives, 7(2), 126-131.

Hrdy, S. (2009). Mothers and others: The evolutionary origins of mutual understanding. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press.

Sandi, C., Haller, J. (2015). Stress and the social brain: behavioural effects and neurobiological mechanisms. Nature Reviews Neuroscience,16(5), 290-304. doi: 10.1038/nrn3918. PMID: 25891510.

Tarsha, M., & Narvaez, D. (2019). The Evolved Nest: A partnership system that fosters child wellbeing. International Journal of Partnership Studies, 6(3). Open access: doi.org/10.24926/ijps.v6i3.2244

Welch, M.G. (2016). Calming cycle theory: the role of visceral/autonomic learning in early mother and infant/child behaviour and development. Acta Pædiatrica, 105, 1266–1274.

Welch, M.G., & Ludwig, R.J. (2017). Calming Cycle Theory and the co-regulation of oxytocin. Psychodynamic Psychiatry, 45(4), 519–541.

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