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?

A study from Temple University last month, for instance, suggests letting babies cry themselves back to sleep is best to teach them to sleep through the night.

“By six months of age, most babies sleep through the night, awakening their mothers only about once per week. However, not all children follow this pattern of development,” said researcher Marsha Weinraub, professor of psychology at Temple. The study was published in Developmental Psychology.

That research looked at babies ages 6-36 months, measuring sleep/wake patterns, and found two groups — sleepers and transitional sleepers. By six months, two-thirds of babies sleep through or wake rarely in the night. But a third wake up most nights, a number that drops to two nights a week by 15 months and one night a week by 24 months.

That study’s “takeaway” is the importance of letting babies learn to get themselves back to sleep. “When mothers tune in to these night time awakenings and/or if a baby is in the habit of falling asleep during breast-feeding, then he or she may not be learning to self-soothe, something that is critical for regular sleep, Weinraub said.

“The best advice is to put infants to bed at a regular time each night, allow them to fall asleep on their own and resist the urge to respond right away to awakenings,” Weinraub said.

Still stressed

Or is it? When Wendy Middlemiss, an associate professor at the University of North Texas, looked at the question of helping a baby or letting him cry it out, she found that babies did, indeed, stop crying after a while. But measuring their cortisol levels, which indicates stress, showed they weren’t soothed; they’d just given up the notion that crying would bring help. Parents assumed the babies were no longer in distress; their own cortisol levels dropped.

Middlemiss said adults guide infants through regulating distressing emotions and that’s a pattern that prepares them when they’re older children to regulate their emotional responses, including calming themselves. Applying behavioral techniques too early in an infant’s development undermines the learning of emotional regulation, leading to more challenges with effective functioning of the stress response system.

She explained that a baby’s sleep pattern is just settling in the first six months and sleep training isn’t appropriate. After that, “beginning to help infants settle into a routine, not necessarily working on infants’ not crying, but just developing more of a pattern, is physiologically appropriate.”

Several methods settle a baby at night without upsetting him, she said. A parent can wake a baby and feed him or care for his needs, then let him fall back to sleep, increasing the time between the scheduled walks little by little. Some research suggests staying with babies when they fall to sleep, so they don’t cry themselves to sleep, doesn’t increase night wakings, so it can encourage sleep without tears, too.

Narvaez challenges some research assumptions. “The assumption by cry-it-out advocates is babies should sleep through the night. Where do they get that idea? That is not what babies do. The basic premise is flawed.”

Making connections

A full-term baby has most of her neurons but needs to build the connections between them. Stress is not good for the process, research shows. It can even impact development of personality. One well-circulated study that included Narvaez found too much stress can damage a baby’s brain.

Interaction with babies matters, the researchers noted. When a baby is hauled around in a carrier but basically left alone — in a restaurant, at the mall, at home — optimal development is undermined. “They need touch” is how Narvaez put it.

Mice studies show that when baby and parent don’t interact, growth hormones and DNA synthesis stop. There are physical, intellectual and social impacts.

Narvaez sees a generation of college students who are less confident, for one thing. “I think along the way we’ve undermined their autonomy, their self-control, their independence. .... They need certain things at certain times that help optimize intelligence — emotional and intellectual.”

The symposium experts said it’s not too late to change the trajectory.

“The right brain, which governs much of our self-regulation, creativity and empathy, can grow throughout life,” Narvaez said. “The right brain grows through full-body experience like rough-and-tumble play, dancing or freelance artistic creation. So at any point, a parent can take up a creative activity with a child and they can grow together.”

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