So what’s all this fuss about your baby’s brain?
I’m not talking about ‘babybrain’ or ‘mumnesia’, as I’ve recently heard it called, where we might find we’re standing in the shower with our pyjamas on, or pop the kettle neatly back in the fridge after making a cup of tea….
No, I’m talking instead about our baby’s brain and how it develops. Neuroscience, in other words.
It seems that it’s mostly nurture, and not so much nature, that will determine how our children relate to themselves, others and the world around them. The behaviours and repeating patterns that we use to form relationships as adults are delicately and intricately woven into our brains and our bodies in our earliest months of life. It’s a sobering thought that by 3 years of age, the way we will be able to love and socialise as adults is already determined. The way that we’ll cope with stress and pressure is pretty much hardwired into us too. Our future emotional wellbeing is almost entirely in the hands of our very early caregivers. This period is known as the ‘critical 1001 days’ – the time from conception until 2 years of age.
The thing is that when a baby is born, all of their brain-cells (neurons) are in place, but there aren’t any connections in between them. It’s like a new house where the fuse-board and all the plugs and sockets are in place, but there’s no wiring to connect them together. In the case of a baby’s brain, it’s the parents who are responsible for wiring up all the connections. The parts that we are wiring up in the first 6 months are all the connections between the baby’s thinking brain and emotional brain, helping him to manage stress. All the wires that will assist him, in the distant future, to know that he doesn’t really need to worry too much about his exams, or to be frightened of the dark, or to panic when things don’t go to plan, or to feel as though the world has ended if there’s a bust-up between friends. There’s even evidence emerging that appears to show that depression, anxiety, addiction and even borderline personality disorders are largely to do with what happens during those 1001 critical days, because the way that we manage stress is actually at the very heart of our mental health.
Scary stuff eh?
It’s pretty terrifying to know that the effect we’re having on our baby at a time when we’re sleep deprived, exhausted, baby-brained and completely out of our comfort zone, is the very time that will make the most difference to our baby’s future mental health.
But please don’t despair. Although this is important, serious stuff that we’re talking about, you really don’t have to be a brain surgeon, or a qualified electrician, to get it ‘right’. In fact being a brain surgeon would be very tricky considering that ’Mumnesia’ we were talking about (which, incidentally, is a sign that your brain is flooded with the love hormone, oxytocin, which is exactly what’s required at this stage). Honestly and reassuringly, the only thing that you really, really need to remember and ‘get right’ is to love, love and love your baby…. and then love him some more.
A baby’s entry into the world can be scary and over-stimulating, having been catapulted from a warm, dark, quiet place, full of low whooshing noises and murmuring voices, the nourishment of his mother’s blood feeding him 24/7 on tap, the soothing embrace of a cocooning uterus holding him tightly in his every waking and sleeping hour… into a world where he feels hunger and has to make that known, feels cold, or scared, or tired, or irritable and has to let someone know…. there is stress in many, many of his waking moments. It’s all so unfamiliar and scary.
So remembering to just be there…. love him, soothe, him, feed him, cuddle him, feed him again, change him, hold him close, feed him again, tuck him up next to you, soothe him, feed him again…. is really all that you need to do. It’s all about being responsive to his needs, whether that be hunger, pain, loneliness, discomfort or tiredness. Babies just aren’t able to regulate their own emotions and they need you to do that for them. It’s ok to keep doing this, whenever he tells you that he needs it, for at least the first six months and beyond, depending on your baby’s individual temperament and needs. Just be as responsive as you can be. Tune in to what he’s telling you. Learn to recognise his signals and cues – the pitch of his cry, his facial expression, whether his body is tense or relaxed, whether he’s sucking his fingers or rooting…. and then respond accordingly. Sometimes nothing seems to help because sometimes he won’t even know what’s wrong! That can be really stressful for you, so think of strategies you can use for yourself, to keep calm…. maybe a walk, some skin to skin contact. Or ask a friend for some company and support.
I often get asked about babies forming bad habits. Surely babies can get ‘spoilt’, demanding and manipulative? Won’t I be ‘making a rod for my own back’ if I don’t teach him to self-soothe? Well, the evidence shows us that babies really can’t even begin to form habits until they’re well over six months and they can’t deliberately wind us up. Their brain simply isn’t mature enough. There really is no such thing as a naughty baby.
The neuroscientific research is making everything so much clearer: babies who are responded to quickly with comfort and love, again and again and again, will have lower stress levels, lower levels of cortisol (the stress hormone: sustained high levels of cortisol can be harmful to brain development) and will be able to build a healthy brain, feeling loved and developing a strong bond with you. And the benefits of positive early relationships (with Mum, Dad, Grannie or anyone close and consistent) are also very clear – babies who feel loved usually grow up to be adults who expect to be loved, know that they’re loveable and can love back. Our early experiences (even though we can’t remember them) form the characteristic ways that we relate to other people and cope with our emotions. And once established, these characteristics are hard to break.
So just remember, every time you respond to your baby with love you’re not spoiling him. You’re actually a neuro-scientist. You’re building your baby’s brain.