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Where Are The Happy Babies?

Have we forgotten what babies need from (all of) us?

I was so glad to meet a happy, confident, socially engaged baby this week. Baby Loren was a stark contrast to most babies that I encounter these days. Most tend to look distracted, unhappy, dazed and pretty uninterested in others. And their eyes don’t glow or communicate understanding like Loren’s did.

Why are so few babies “glowing” anymore?

Although babies obviously represent the future of your family, my family, our society and the human race, fewer and fewer people in the United States seem to understand what babies need. Charles Blow has been documenting the declining support and well-being of children, like in an August 2011 issue of The New York Times, where he documents how many children in each state have food insecurity.

Food is clearly a basic need for a thriving baby. But there are things beyond such staying-alive needs that human babies require to thrive. Here is some basic information about babies and some of their needs.

Human babies, unlike any other creature, have only 25 percent of the brain developed at birth (assuming 40–42 weeks’ gestation at birth—i.e., full term). Most of what is available at birth are basic survival mechanisms that kick into gear when the child feels imbalanced or threatened (e.g., panic at separation from the caregiver).

Unlike most other animals that are mobile at birth, humans emerge from the womb many months earlier because of head size. Social mammals like humans have lots of growing to do after birth, too, and our ancestral parenting practices provide good early care that fosters optimal social and intellectual brain development. What’s good care? Good care in the first year or more includes an “external womb” kind of care (such as being carried close to the body constantly, having their needs met immediately, nursing on demand).

A baby’s development unfolds on a set maturational schedule (with individual timing varying somewhat). Later capacities build on earlier ones. So if there is inadequate food or attention during this rapid-growth period, the brain will build less-than-optimal systems. For example, poor care can lower the number and activity of neurotransmitter systems receptors, which will affect how well their memory is set up to work later on. A poor foundation leads to poor mental and physical health, which sometimes may not show up until adolescence or adulthood.

The brain typically grows to 60 percent of adult size by age 1, and is co-constructed by experience. So you can see that the caregiver has a great effect on how well the brain grows.

In the first year of life, the neocortex begins to build up the area for reasoning, thinking, planning, and other executive functions—systems that apparently finish themselves in the third decade of life. The emotion systems get established and connected by age 2, which affects social capabilities later. So the first two years set up personality, intelligence and social success.

Thus, caregiver care in the first years of life is critical for optimal brain and body development, and for intellectual, social and emotional intelligence. What does the baby want and need in the first two years when the brain is growing so quickly? Think: external womb.

Caregiver constant touch (holding, carrying) keeps DNA synthesis and growth hormones going. Separation from a caregiver’s body shuts both down. (Have you noticed how distressed a baby gets when isolated? Separation hurts.) Intelligence later in childhood is related to head growth in the first year of life.

Caregiver responsiveness. Babies don’t have any capabilities for self-care at birth. They need caregivers to teach their bodies and brains to stay calm so they can grow well. When young babies nonverbally gesture discomfort, it means they feel pain and should be attended to right away. Babies should not have to cry to get their needs met, because crying releases cortisol, killing brain cells.

Avoid distress. Until around age 5, children need protection from stressful situations. Their brains are not yet capable of dealing with loud noises or sudden visual transformations. They need the caregiver’s compassionate physical presence to get calm from sudden distress. Later on, children will learn to comfort themselves when their caregiver is unavailable, based on this early sense of security which coached their systems to calm themselves.

Avoid discomfort. When a baby starts to indicate discomfort about some kind of imbalance, the caregiver can provide touch (carrying, rocking) or the breast for breastmilk or non-nutritive suckling. Meeting a baby’s needs as soon as she communicates them builds the child’s confidence in her ability to get her needs met. This confidence will stay with the child thereafter.

Avoid crying. When babies are left to cry, they build a more stress-reactive brain that, in the long term, will have a harder time calming itself. Later on, depression and aggression are more likely. They learn not to trust the world or people, thereby becoming more focused on themselves. In contrast, caregiver responsiveness to the needs of the baby fosters a pleasant personality. In cultures where babies do not cry (because they are not separated from a caregiver, left unfed or untouched), there are no “terrible twos.”

Breastmilk. Provided the mother is not malnourished, breastmilk provides all the nutrition needed to build a well-functioning brain and body. Neurotransmitters like serotonin are fostered by alpha-lactalbumin, rich in tryptophan, in breastmilk. All immunoglobulins are provided by mother’s milk plus antibodies for any viruses and bacteria in the vicinity. Exclusive breastfeeding for six months, if not longer, ensures these benefits will be unimpeded by the pathogens and imbalances that formula encourages.

Frequent, on-demand breastmilk feeding. Breastmilk is mostly amino acids which are fundamental to building a good brain. The baby feeds frequently to flood the brain with these needed building blocks. If the baby is put on an adult-centered schedule or an infant formula that makes babies sleep deeply (which is unnatural), opportunities to provide brain-building nutrients will be missed, not to mention the distress it will cause in the baby. This again leads to a stressed brain, less optimal growth, less flexible self-comforting.

Babies become what they experience. The brain learns what is practiced, especially in early life. If early life is a distress-filled life, the brain learns to be a threat detector, using that as a filter for social life. The brain has difficulty relaxing to learn. If early life is unstressed, the brain is able to grow in all the ways it is designed to grow (smart, thoughtful, and compassionate).

If we don’t give babies what they need, should we be surprised that children’s academic performance is on the downswing?

Societal Issues

How does what babies need affect those who are not parents?

Babies need responsive caregivers, 24 hours a day. Parents cannot do this alone. It means we need to restructure society, going back to ways that are more supportive of babies. How do we facilitate optimal child growth without putting it all on parents? We should be thinking about and planning changes to facilitate structural changes.

Family well-being. Parents need to be able to provide for their families without working day and night. They need decent jobs that pay enough so that one job is enough for a family to live on. It has been noted that our ancestors controlled their appetites, desiring very little. Our culture does the opposite, increasing desires for things that don’t really make us happy, but keep us distracted. Maybe the economic downturn is a chance to shift our priorities from acquiring things to getting pleasure from relationships (the focus of our ancestors).

Family health. We need to focus on prevention and fostering good health, instead of interventions after things have gone wrong. This means healthcare that starts babies right, with as little interference at birth as possible. The time around childbirth is a sensitive period for establishing long-term patterns of interaction, including bonding. There should be no circumcision in early life, as it affects bonding. Our medical system should be careful and cautious about interfering with natural processes, such as breastfeeding, during this period.

Family time. Parents need time to be with their children in positive ways, and both need time with supportive community members. It’s been proven that when community nurses visit new moms, childrearing improves. Trust is fostered in early life through responsive care. If we did not get the nearly constant support we needed, with little distress, chances are we are not very trusting. And indeed, trust levels in the U.S. have been decreasing over the past decades. We will have to figure out how to slow ourselves down enough to pay attention to our neighbors in positive ways, and build the trust that comes from familiarity.

Caregiver attention. Young children need responsive parents, or else their brains, bodies and sociality are undernourished. Parents who are well themselves and calm, who are bonded to the child, and who have time for an emotional connection with the child are better able to be attentive—which is just what kids need. I don’t mean intrusive, controlling, insensitive attention, but respectful, honoring attention that responds sensitively to the child’s emotional cues.

Extended families. We must facilitate keeping extended families together, allowing them to be in the same house if they so choose (zoning laws have made this illegal in some places). Then other family members can take on some of the household tasks for the parents, as well as childcare.

Workplaces. Babies can, and should, be at work with mom. This means that work schedules and workplaces must be flexible. Parents must be able to manage and make up for decreased night sleeping (e.g., afternoon siestas). Some jobs, like soldiering, are just not appropriate for new moms and new dads, and so we must encourage workplaces to allow extended parental leaves in the first year(s) of a baby’s life, as done in other advanced nations.

Politicians. In Switzerland, preschools are often built next to retirement communities so that the younger and older generations can intermingle. Such proposals are built on wisdom about what helps people of all ages thrive. Many U.S. politicians seem to have lost their intuitions and wisdom about these things. To remedy this lack of understanding, I propose that we make sure that politicians hold babies and play with young children regularly. High testosterone correlates with low empathy, and there’s been quite a lot of both among politicians in the news. Holding babies lowers testosterone. The hope (to be tested) is that politicians will think of the babies and children when they write and pass laws and design budgets.

Public spaces. Women’s breasts were designed to nurse babies (with milk and non-nutritive suckling) to optimal health. It would be helpful to let go of the extreme sexualization of breasts in the U.S., although I suspect that the men that did not get breastfed or get enough support in early life are those who are obsessed with breasts. In places where extensive breastfeeding is considered normal, men have fewer obsessions with women’s breasts.

Pleasure. We’ve got a couple of generations that have learned not to get great pleasure from children, so it may take a few generations to get back to it. But childrearing in a community is very pleasurable (if you do it well, so that the children have pleasant personalities like the adults). Happy babies make for happy communities. If we attend to what children need from before birth, they will be pleasant and happy. It’s denial of their needs that gets them to be ornery and oppositional and unpleasant in public. But we all have to pitch in.

You might ask: Doesn’t the glowing baby, Loren, count as a happy baby? Doesn’t his existence counter my hypothesis of decreasing happy babies in the U.S.? Nope. Loren is not from the U.S. He is from Switzerland, a place with many policies that support well-being in families and babies.

I’m sure you have more ideas about how to make our societies friendlier to the needs of babies. Let’s imagine together how we can improve the current situation.