Baby basics: Does how you parent hinder your child's brain development?

Published: Tuesday, Jan. 15 2013 4:10 p.m. MST

SALT LAKE CITY — Parents may be damaging healthy brain and social development with child-rearing practices that are more parent-centered than baby-focused, according to interdisciplinarian research that’s sparking new debate about what to do for Baby.

Advocates of a back-to-basics approach say that nurturing activities like breast-feeding, cuddling and soothing a baby instead of letting him or her “cry it out” are all helpful activities for brain development.

But many parents don’t do those things, according to Darcia Narvaez, professor of psychology at Notre Dame, who specializes in moral development in children and how early experiences influence brain development. Also a blogger for Psychology Today, she helped organize a recent symposium that looked at research on infant-rearing and what kind of impact different parenting methods have.

The multidisciplinary group of researchers said the United States has gone downhill in key care characteristics, from holding babies less to reduced breast-feeding, broken extended families and play that is structured and controlled, limiting creativity and spontaneity. They see a connection between those facts and challenges children increasingly face.

“Life outcomes for American youth are worsening, especially in comparison to 50 years ago,” said Narvaez, who listed what she calls “ill-advised practices and beliefs” that have become commonplace — from choosing formula over breast-feeding to scheduling the timing of a baby’s birth, “isolating” infants in their own rooms and encouraging them to cry it out at night instead of comforting them.

Oldies but goodies

Early hunter-gatherer societies got it right, Narvaez told the Deseret News. A crying baby was cuddled and soothed. She was kept close. The results have been linked to healthy emotional outcomes in adulthood.

Feeding infants breast milk, responding when they cry, near-constant touch and having multiple adult caregivers are among nurturing ancestral parenting practices that promote a baby’s brain development, helping shape personality, physical health and moral development, she said.

The symposium presented studies that showed responding to a baby’s needs rather than letting him “cry it out” helped a baby grow into a person with a conscience. Positive physical touch affects reaction to stress, impulse control and empathy. And unstructured play outside boosts social abilities and tamps down aggression. Those experts also credit having a cadre of supportive caregivers, instead of mom alone, with boosting IQ, ego resilience and development of empathy.

“All of these practices have an impact on at least one outcome,” said Narvaez. “It’s sort of like vitamins. Vitamin B is good for this and vitamin A is good for something else. Breast-feeding is good for the immune system, for intelligence, for a host of other things. Touch is good for distress, for being responsive....”

Noted the researchers in a release summarizing their review: “Whether a corollary to these modern practices or the result of other forces, research shows an epidemic of anxiety and depression among all age groups, including young children; rising rates of aggressive behavior and delinquency in young children; and decreasing empathy, the backbone of compassionate, moral behavior, among college students.”

But wait

It’s often said babies don’t come with a manual. It’s also true that findings on the topic of how to care for babies contradict each other. In a romp through parenting sites on the Internet, it’s easy to find new parents and sometimes experienced ones lamenting that lack of consistency.

What does one do with competing scientific findings?

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