Brain behaviour - Hold that baby

Infants' brains are more susceptible to environmental influences than you may have imagined. Sue Gerhardt looks at how babyhood experiences shape their future
10th October 2008, 1:00am
Sue Gerhardt


Brain behaviour - Hold that baby

Adam is a liability: the small boy who crashes recklessly into other children and often pinches, hits or bites them. Becky is a teenager who persistently brings letters to her favourite teacher describing how "shit" her life is, how she hates her stepfather, no one likes her, and she's thinking about killing herself because it's all so pointless.

These children are at the extremes of emotional dysfunction, but they share the same problem: they can't cope with their feelings and can't relate well to other people. Neither child can concentrate, so their learning is compromised and their teachers feel pretty hopeless about them. Sounds familiar?

What may be less familiar is the notion that their problems are rooted in babyhood. To those of you not acquainted with the burgeoning literature linking neuroscience with developmental psychology, this might seem a bit far-fetched. But there is a growing body of scientific research on humans that confirms what experiments on animals have long shown - that the baby's brain, which develops incredibly rapidly in the first two years, almost doubling in size, is at its most susceptible to environmental influence. The experiences that a baby has, whether in the family home or in a nursery setting, are in effect programming its brain.

Babyhood is the time when all sorts of systems are getting set up, but in particular the biochemical and neural pathways that organise the child's social and emotional responses. During the first two years of life, in particular, the pre-frontal cortex is connecting up and maturing, developing the beginnings of control over the more impulsive, sub- cortical, "limbic system". However, this is not an automatic process. It depends on the way a baby is cared for.

What does a baby need for its brain to develop well? Not a beautifully appointed nursery with Mozart playing in the background, that's for sure. Instead, babies need the same things we all need - attention, affection, and safety - but a lot more of them. As physiologically dependent little creatures, they can't manage their own bodily needs or reduce their own stress hormones; they rely on their parents to do it for them.

Parents instinctively want to soothe their baby's over-arousal. This can be done through a calming tone of voice, or through feeding, but most importantly through holding and rocking.

It's hard to underestimate the value of being lovingly held in early development; touch is one of the main ways of reducing anxiety as well as promoting the development of a healthy stress response and immune system. Equally, parents can regulate their offspring by perking up a lacklustre baby with a bit of playful stimulation. A similar process goes on in the classroom, as a teacher calms down a manic or disruptive mood, or stimulates a dozy and unresponsive class.

But teachers are often struggling to manage children whose brains have not been well built. Two aspects of their brain development, in particular, are vital to later learning.

First, the way that the stress response is programmed early on is crucial. If a child has had to cope with too much stress - such as aggressive behaviour in the home - then they may become desensitised to stress; these are often the children who are more at risk of later anti-social behaviour. Alternatively, the stress response can become hypersensitive - a common scenario for a baby who has had to cope with living with a depressed mother over a period of time.

These babies often don't get enough help and support with managing their states. As they grow up, they can become the children who are easily overwhelmed by relatively minor events. In either case, the child develops defensive strategies to manage stress - either by withdrawing, like Becky, or by attacking other children, like Adam. Their difficulties in self- regulation under pressure can make it hard for them to relate well to other children.

This whole question of self-regulation is turning out to be a key issue for teachers. Clancy Blair, an associate professor of human development at Pennsylvania State University, has undertaken studies (in three to five- year-olds) that show how self-regulation is also predictive of academic outcomes.

But it turns out that the most crucial regulatory capacity of all is the ability to inhibit behaviour and delay gratification. Professor Blair found that the children who can resist the urge to blurt out the answer or shove the annoying child next to them at the table, and who can follow rules and take turns, are the ones who have better academic outcomes across the board. In other words, their regulatory abilities underpin their capacity to think.

So cognition turns out to be inseparable from emotional development. It's the early attachment relationship that underpins these vital capacities to relate well to others and to learn.

Insecurely attached children who haven't learnt to manage stress effectively, or get a measure of self-control, are handicapped in social and educational terms. Their brain development lags behind more secure children. This leaves teachers with the unenviable task of becoming children's emotional coaches by default, and doing what they can, largely through their own example, to develop these missing capacities

Sue Gerhardt is a psychoanalytic psychotherapist and author of Why Love Matters


Blair, C., et al (2002) School readiness: Integrating cognition and emotion in a neurobiological conceptualisation of children's functioning at school entry, American Psychologist, 57:2, 111-127

Blair, C., et al (2007) Relating effortful control, executive function and false belief understanding to emerging math and literacy ability in kindergarten, Child Development, 78:2, 647-63

Gerhardt, S. Why Love Matters: How affection shapes a baby's brain (Routledge, 2004).

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