At birth we have around 100 billion brain cells, largely unconnected. Synapses are produced at a rate of 1.8 million per second between 2 months and two years. How we interact with our baby therefore has a huge impact on the way in which their brain develops and whether they experience the world from a calm secure place or whether they have a heightened stress response.
“The architecture of the brain is created by an ongoing process which begins before birth, continues into adulthood establishes either a sturdy or fragile foundation for all of the health, learning and behaviour that follows. The interaction of genes and experience literally shapes the circuitry of the developing brain and is critically influenced by the mutual responsiveness of adult child relationships particularly in the early childhood years” Gabor Mate
Human babies are born helpless, reliant on adult care givers for food, warmth and safety. The development of information processing and the ability to interact with the world around them is a gradual process.
Learn you baby’s cues
Some babies may be born more reactive and sensitive to stimulation that others, Dr. Sue Gerhardt.
It is important that we learn to attune with our baby in order to be able to read their communication with us so that we can soothe them quickly and effectively and develop a strong attachment bond. We are most able to create this bond when we are in a calm and open state, receptive to our baby’s cues. Even the most difficult and irritable babies do fine with responsive parents who adapt to their needs, Sue Gerhardt.
Occupational Therapist Emilly Hills suggests thinking about creating an optimal environment for your new born in relation to the five senses in her course “Sensory Babies”. This can help to soften the transition from womb to outside world:
- babies can find deep touch reassuring such as wrapping them in a blanket, they are used to being squashed inside a womb.
- Both parents having skin on skin contact with the infant immediately after birth is an important part of the bonding process. Hormones associated with attachment behaviours are increased by skin-to-skin contact.
- Being carried, according to Psychology Today babies are hard wired to prefer being carried “infant calming response to carrying is a coordinated set of central, motor, and cardiac regulations that is an evolutionarily preserved aspect of mother-infant interactions”.
- Your baby may not open their eyes much during the first couple of weeks and will prefer soft light. They will soon grow to love and recognise the sight of their main care givers. Babies can not see very far to begin with, a distance similar to that from breast to mother’s face.
- Muted sounds, the tone of the mothers voice are soothing. There is evidence that babies often respond well to the high sing-song voice which people use to speak to them sometimes known as parentese.
- Babies enjoy the sweet taste of breast milk at birth as it is similar to that of amniotic fluid which they begin to ingest this during the final trimester of pregnancy and therefore has a familiarity to it.
- The smell of the baby’s main caregivers also has a calming effect.
Caring for your baby in this way releases oxytocin, the hormone released when you are in love. As a mum you get to be in on the party! Early parenting can be blissful for you as breastfeeding and skin on skin contact also increase your oxytocin levels. This helps to reduce the likelihood of postnatal depression. Breast feeding releases hormones that relieve stress and stabilize baby’s temperature, breathing rate, heart rate, and blood sugar.
Feedback from the environment determines how the baby develops: if we help them to feel safe by being present and available for them they are more likely to develop oxytocin receptive brains. If your baby’s needs are responded to less quickly, especially if they are left alone to cry, their brains will become flooded with the stress hormone cortisol.
If this happens frequently they will develop a stronger stress response and become more prone to anxiety throughout childhood and even into adulthood if effective interventions are not made. It also affects the production of the feel good hormone serotonin therefore those prone to stress and anxiety are also more susceptible to low moods. The brain is very plastic and as I have experienced first hand, hard work and a good therapist can allow us to make the shift from depression to joy.
With our children we have the opportunity to provide the right conditions for them to become calm, confident adults. A key part of this is creating a secure attachment bond, letting your child know that you are consistently available for them to meet their needs and to be a source of comfort. Over time this will give them the message that the world is a safe place and that others are trust worthy, laying the foundations for healthy adult relationships.