I’VE READ MANY BABY BOOKS OVER the years (and indeed, have even written a few), and I am delighted to say that this one is different.
It does discuss most things that new parents need to know, but it’s coming from a different perspective. This book isn’t just to help you through the process of looking after your baby; it also tries to put the information into a longer time frame.
What you do with your baby in the first months and years rings down through the decades into their adulthood. If, when they get there, they can open themselves to give and receive love, and at the same time stay strong and independent, then we have succeeded.
That task, upon which all human happiness is based, is elusive. It starts with an inner core of security put there by parents and carers and is consolidated by layers of lovingness, consideration, compassion and empathy nurtured by repeated experience and example.
It’s easy to push your children into being like you but better. It’s harder and takes more discipline and restraint to make your children the best version of themselves.
This book lays out the nuts and bolts of the first two years of your child’s life. What your baby learns now about love, relationships and their value in the world will last them a lifetime.
It’s really not that hard – but it might be different from what you have in mind when you leave the hospital with your new baby. The other aspect of this book (like my previous book Baby on Board) is that it looks at the science behind how we should care for babies. Overwhelmingly we find that it supports what parents’ instincts tell them to do anyway.
The book starts with the lead-up to entering the labour ward, and continues to the birth itself and the big arrival; then it moves onward to the postnatal ward where all the little worries surface about your newcomer and the changes that seem to happen hour by hour. There is a ‘quick guide’ to carry you through these first few days, answering all the little and big questions that crop up.
A lot of the questions in this period are about breastfeeding, so there is also an easy-to-read, but comprehensive, section on this.
There is general baby information – the things that all new parents need to know, just so they won’t treat their baby like a fragile object that can break if they don’t do it exactly right.
Perhaps the core of the book lies in the subsequent chapters. These are about how, and under what influences, our babies wire up their brains in their first months. About how the parenting decisions we make in the early years of our babies’ lives mould and shape their perceptions about life, love and their world.
Over the years I have seen so many mothers lose themselves in their parenting, both to their own and their baby’s detriment. It is easy to do and the wider community encourages it. It doesn’t have to be that way. We’ll describe how that might be avoided.
Then, for when the baby gets a little older, there’s a section on getting babies to sleep, or sleep longer – the overriding concern of parents worldwide – and a lot on the crying infant. There have been entire forests felled to provide paper upon which to write about this subject: numerous scientific papers, thousands of books and magazine articles, and oodles of myth, magic and just plain weirdness. I present a distillation of this information filtered through biology, common sense and my experience.
I’m also concerned about feeding and food for infants and kids. Something went wrong with our eating habits and what we fed our children a generation ago and it’s time to address this before obesity and diabetes become the new normal.
Over the years a few mothers have asked me for suggestions about how they should play with their infants of various ages. Good question! I had such fun researching and writing a section for them.
There is also a toddler section for all of those parents who find that stage ‘a bit of a challenge’, which is the majority of us. It’s just a matter of understanding what is going on in their minds so you can mould their behaviour, and avoid the pitfalls. Then you can both enjoy life together!
Chapter 4: Baby brain 101
After months of anxious anticipation, you finally have your baby in your arms. Your mind floods with relief that both you and your baby are safe.
This feeling may last for all of ten minutes. Then the realisation dawns that you are now completely responsible for this little being, who seems to embody only helplessness, directionlessness and vulnerability.
Until now, when confronted with such a puzzle most people would dig out the manual, ask an expert or, nowadays, google it. There’s a problem with that in this situation. Dealing with your particular baby is not necessarily a process helped by others’ experiences. It is likely that all the information you obtain, and all the experts you consult, will get you no closer to the real answers you think you need.
To understand why that is, we must go back in time to the origin of humans on this planet. It is a counterintuitive fact that we, the smartest placental mammal on the planet, are born the most helpless and immature. Our babies are born completely dependent, with very little ability to survive without their parents or adult carers. Even chimpanzees, when newly born, can at least hold on firmly to their mother’s coat by their arms and also toddle about, but human babies cannot. Sure, human babies have a grasp reflex – try tickling a baby’s palm and the little hand will grasp your finger – but the grip is unreliable and weak, and toddling is a year away. From the start the chimpanzee baby can run rings around our baby, and climb and jump on him too. It will be 18 months before our baby can do similar things.
The reason for this hopeless inefficiency was brutal necessity. When our pre-hominid ancestors climbed down from the trees to live on the ground, they decided it was a good idea to stand upright and walk on two legs. This gave them a better view of the surrounding countryside and freed up their forearms for more useful tasks than supporting the body. But this decision came with a cost. To take the weight of the body on two legs, not four, changed the anatomy of the pelvis. It became stronger and the wing-like bones at the back flared to contain the internal organs, and, more significantly, the birth canal was narrowed.
Early on, these changes had little impact as their babies’ brains remained small, and being born, even through the convoluted narrow birth canal, was easy. But as the species evolved into Homo sapiens a major dilemma emerged. The modern human’s claim to fame was a big brain and intelligence to match. But how do you deliver a big-brained baby through a narrow birth canal?
Evolution’s answer was to have the babies earlier in pregnancy – when they are still small enough to fit.
There may be another reason why our babies are born so ‘premature’. Quite apart from the pelvic size issue was the issue of energy capacity. Biologists have worked out that our babies cannot stay inside their mothers any longer than they do now, even if the pelvic outlet was bigger. Our babies are born when the mother’s capacity to metabolise energy, and supply it to the baby for growth, has hit a limit. This amount of energy is a function of body weight. At term, the baby is of a size that his rate of growth will be compromised if he stays inside and continues to depend on the placenta for growth any longer. It is more efficient for him to deliver and start using his gut to absorb food for growth!
So the human baby emerges in a state described by biologists as an ‘extero-gestate foetus’ – a foetus on the outside. In contrast, many four-legged animals can have up to 80 per cent of their brain formed by the time they are born; that is, they are really just miniature adults at birth. After a few months with their parents they can disappear into the landscape and lead an independent life.
In comparison the human baby has only 25 per cent of his brain formed at birth. Brain scanning studies have shown that this amount represents all of the brain cells – all one hundred billion of them. What the baby’s brain lacks and what makes up the other 75 per cent of the potential brain mass is the connections between the brain cells.
THE BRAIN CONNECTIONS
Brain connections, the wiring if you like, are laid down as rapidly as possible in the months and years following the baby’s escape from the birth canal. As a consequence, the baby’s brain weight actually doubles in the year after he is born. Billions of connections are made, each single brain cell being capable of making up to 10,000 connections to adjacent and other more distant cells. It is these myriad connections and how they are configured that represent the ‘code’ that programs the brain’s incredible computerlike functioning. With this amount of complexity the human brain develops into a supercomputer of unimaginable processing capacity and power.
Such immense potential, starting with such helpless immaturity! How and where the connections go within the brain is largely a function of our genetics – that’s our potential. But how we actually end up connecting certain critical parts of our brains is, we now know, greatly determined by our environment. And the relevant environment is our upbringing: it’s how we are managed by our carers. This is one of the reasons why humankind is so efficient at adapting to all the varied ecological niches on the planet.
High up in the topmost branches of the evolutionary tree, humans are born very immature and helpless, and we have a very long period of childhood when we slowly develop and learn. During this time we are completely dependent on our parents and carers for everything – food, warmth, protection and education.
Much further down the evolutionary tree, insects, by contrast, are born with a full set of instinctive behaviours. They have nothing to learn, and soon after birth can start functioning efficiently in an adult capacity. That is because everything they do is driven by inborn, instinctive programming. This works just fine as long as all their behaviours and actions are well adapted for their environment and, just as important, the environment doesn’t change. If it changes, they die like flies – as the saying goes – for that reason.
Humans, however, are born with the bare minimum of instinctive behaviour. This extends to such activities as finding the nipple, suckling, cuddling, calling for help if a threat is perceived, and others. The presence of our parents and carers, but especially our mother, starts the learning process that shows us the world and allows us to adapt to it. It is our very immaturity and lack of instinctive behaviour that gives us the ability to learn so much and adapt so well to our environment.
The first thing a baby has to learn, and it ideally comes from her mother, is how safe, secure and loved she is. This is in the form of food, warmth and the close presence of a loving protector. This is rooted in our basic biology and will never change.
In the following pages I will describe how this process works and emphasise how vitally important it is. The process of mothering infants, and the infants’ response to that process, has been perfected over at least 60 million years, when mammals were evolving on this planet. Over that time the basic mechanism has remained pretty much exactly the same, unchanging because it works really well.
The ability of our brains to develop in an adaptive way depending on our environment is what neurobiologists call ‘brain plasticity’ and humans have it in spades. Once we have developed our basic security and self-image, during the rest of our childhood (up to about the age of 25 years) our tribe or society can continue to mould us to be appropriate members, and this varies depending on which ecological niche we occupy. So coastal fishing people living in large tribes connect their brains up in one way, and jungle dwellers living in tiny groups connect their brains in a subtly different way.
But this is the icing on the cake. It is the first year or two of the baby’s life that determines her future happiness and determines how secure and safe she feels for the rest of her life. It tells her how valuable she is to her parents and her society and, most importantly, tells her what love is, and how to give it and feel worthy enough to fully receive it.
To say that love makes the world go round is trite yet entirely true on many levels. But even on the most superficial level the scientific evidence is very clear. After a good food supply and shelter, the one thing that reliably allows people to experience happiness and contentment with their lives is having fulfilling relationships with other people and the experience of mutual love. All the striving we see in our world, mostly for money or power, is merely a substitute for the emptiness and insecurity felt by those who, during the first couple of years of their life, did not acquire this fundamental programming. They then spend a lifetime searching for something to replace it and fill their void.
WHAT THIS MEANS TO YOU – AND YOUR BABY
This has enormous implications regarding babies’ development. It means the parents, and especially the mother, of a baby have the power to enhance (or impair) the baby’s outcome by the way they manage her during her early upbringing. With this information they can make informed decisions regarding how to interact with her, deal with her behaviour and manage her day-to-day living. In this way, by giving her a protected, enriching and supportive environment, they can help their baby achieve not only her genetic potential, but also go through life with a calm, loving and happy worldview.
WIRING YOUR BABY’S BRAIN
A good analogy for our brain is an incredibly complex computer. Nothing created by Silicon Valley comes anywhere close to the computing power of the human brain. However, when babies are born, the computer is unfinished. Not only are many of the circuit boards not connected, but the code that runs the computer is largely unwritten. The baby’s brain is all potential, not much processing.
As the baby gazes out on the world, she sees clearly, but has little idea what she’s looking at. Similarly with her other senses, she can hear, smell, feel and touch, but only a few of these senses mean very much. She is born with enough computing power to cry when she’s hungry or when she is tired, and snuggle in when she is cuddled, but her understanding of the world is very rudimentary.
The structure of the brain
Our primate brain is constructed in three main layers.
The most primitive, the ‘reptilian’ brain, lies at the base of our brain and runs our basic functioning and physiology, our blood pressure, breathing drive, muscle movement and bodily sensation. On an evolutionary scale it is the most ancient part of our brain and any animal with a backbone has something similar.
The next layer is called the limbic system or midbrain. This part is also called the ‘emotional’ or ‘mammalian’ brain. It evolved, particularly in mammals, to protect us from harm. It is involved also in memory, motivation, and monitoring and maintenance of stability in our body. It is our subconscious. It scans constantly for threat and is the origin of our feelings, many of them deep and powerful, such as fear, rage, separation anxiety (to keep us safe), love, kindness and joy (to reward us). This part of our brain is perpetually vigilant, always aware, monitoring our body and our environment. If it perceives something new, especially something that could be threatening, it reacts instantly and powerfully in order to protect us. It does this through the ‘stress response’.
The top layer, and most evolved and advanced part of our brain, is the neocortex or ‘new brain’. This was added most recently in our evolution and is mostly our frontal lobes. It was the development of this part that separated us from lower animals. It is the imaginative, thinking and intellectual part. It can also remember and use experiences both to reassure us and also allow us to plan ahead to avoid danger and keep ourselves secure.
And here’s the crunch. Brain scanning studies (summarised by Allan Schore) have shown that newborn babies have underdeveloped limbic systems, and this and other lower brain parts have no connection at all with the neocortex. So newborn babies have no ‘thinking’ brain online at all. Their brains have neither the physical connections between the lower and higher levels nor the cognitive code to understand the world. Essentially the babies are functioning at a very unsophisticated level, at best at the midbrain level – the level of love and joy mixed with fear and separation anxiety. How like a baby!
As soon as the baby is born and escapes the birth canal, she starts to make connections and hence write the code to program her brain, both within the limbic system and out to the neocortex. How well, or in what configuration, she makes the connections is determined by her interaction with the people in her environment, especially her mother. Second to food, this interaction is vitally important to help the baby’s brain grow and develop.
The right side of the brain
Interestingly, nearly all of these connections made in the first year or so are on the right side of the brain, from the right side of the limbic system to the right cerebral hemisphere up in the neocortex. The right side of the brain is considered the more intuitive, imaginative and holistic side of our brain: it is said to be the more ‘female’ side. The left or ‘male’ side is more concerned with logical processes such as language acquisition, mathematical calculations and forward planning. This left hemisphere’s maximum time of connectivity will be a year or so later when the baby starts acquiring language at a fast rate.
It is not only the baby’s brain that is making these right-sided coding connections. After having a baby, the mother’s brain also develops a growth spurt of connections to prepare the brain for the more demanding environment of motherhood. So despite the temporary lapse that comes with the feeding and the fatigue, the so-called baby brain that mothers have is actually a more complex and efficient organ, with many more brain connections than before!
The driving force that enhances the connections in these early months and years is the interaction between the mother and baby. Their talking, gazing, singing, cuddling and playing together forms the wonderful and dynamic process of attachment. Attachment is not just emotional interaction, a sentimental process of falling in love, but the very engine of brain development in the baby, as well as a booster of the mother’s ability to care. (And withstand the relentless fatigue!) In the absence of this emotional link, vital connections within the brain are not made and the baby runs the risk of going through life without a full repertoire of emotional responses and feelings.
As a process it is very much a two-way street, with the mother and baby’s interaction stimulating a response in the other. As these responses go between them, so each one amplifies and loops back to the other, intensifying the response and deepening the relationship. It is these back and forth interactions that cause the burgeoning brain growth and development in them both, but especially the baby. The mechanism of brain development is this day-by-day, minute-by-minute interplay between the participants. They use their eyes and faces, hands and bodies, laughs and tears to induce joy and love in each other, tempered and strengthened by a self-sustaining stability and confidence in each other. Over the months and years this intense relationship of playfulness, joy and love deepens and expands, driven by the rewards each derives from the other.
We’ve all seen the process. The baby is a few months old and sits propped up in a little chair in the corner of the room. He spies his mother on the other side of the room and starts to make cooing noises to attract her. She stops what she’s doing, looks over to him and approaches him, replying to his coos with her own. He gazes into her eyes and his face breaks into an enormous gummy smile, and his mother’s whole face and body soften as she gazes and smiles back at him.
The baby waves his arms and pulls a face. Mother imitates him. The baby is so pleased by her response that he starts kicking his legs and saying ‘nah, nah’. Mother grasps his thighs and says ‘nah, nah’ back. The baby is delighted and chuckles and laughs. Mother laughs too. Back and forth, back and forth the interaction goes, increasing in intensity with each interchange. Suddenly the baby frowns and looks away. He switches off, looks away to the window. He calms himself while he digests what has just happened. His mother also looks away and wanders back to what she was doing before. The baby rests and gazes at his hands in his lap. Slowly he relaxes, and now he’s ready for another game.
He glances at his mother, waves his arms – and it starts all over again . . .
Excerpted from Your Cherished Baby by Dr Howard Chilton. Copyright © 2014 by Dr Howard Chilton.
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