By Berna Iskandar
At some point along this path that I chose, as an educator about respectful parenting issues, I realized that to take good care of our children, rather than learn, we need to unlearn, to return to what instinct dictates, to resume practices that respond to the design of the sophisticated primates that we are, and to rescue intelligent customs because they’re the ones that have guaranteed, over thousands of years, our survival as a species. Although we’ve lost sight of the fact, we’re descended from human ancestors who carried their babies in arms all the time or hanging in slings, slept with them, breastfed them for years, raised them with skin-to-skin contact, with a lot of attachment, and without letting them cry. They did all of this because, otherwise, we would not have survived as a species.
At some point, we began to change our habits and distance ourselves from our instincts, without imagining the impact on our brains and the emotional baggage that would be created. Today, neuroscience clearly explains this and reveals to us that the way we care for our babies determines brain development, the capacity for emotional responsiveness and learning, and the possibility of suffering from mental illness or violent, antisocial or criminal behavior in the future. If I were asked to summarize the conclusions of these studies in just one sentence, I would say that for a healthy brain, there’s nothing better than lavishing a human baby with infinite doses of love, time in arms, cuddles and the mother’s breast.
To understand this statement, it’s necessary to explain why we are the only animal species whose brain is not fully developed at birth. Let’s make a long story short: as our pre-human ancestors began to evolve into what we are today, they went from moving around on all fours to standing up and walking on two legs, which resulted in a narrowing of the pelvis. Meanwhile, the development of intelligence necessitated a larger brain and skull. With both evolutionary changes (narrower pelvis and larger head), in order to be able to emerge from the womb, humans became the only species born without a completely developed brain.
Sue Gerhardt, British researcher and author of Why Love Matters, explains that during the first three years of human life, many important systems are developed within the brain, especially those responsible for managing emotional response and learning. Different biochemical pathways of higher brain functions begin to develop during the crucial period after birth. Human beings are not born with them but instead they are formed depending on the care, emotional support and affection that babies receive (or not).
What’s more, we all know that a baby gets stressed easily. For example, simply being separated from the mother’s body causes the baby to feel as though his life is in danger. These feelings bring about a release of cortisol (the well-known stress hormone) that a baby is not equipped to handle. Cortisol sabotages the proper development of a child’s growing brain, causing atrophy and distortions that later manifest themselves as problems with learning, impulse control and violence. For this reason, Gerhardt asserts, quite rightly, that the best way to prevent mental illness, crime and violence is by engaging with babies in an appropriate manner.
You’ll all understand then that cuddling is not spoiling but rather quite the opposite. Attachment parenting, which amounts to always carrying your baby in arms, generously providing permanent comfort, breastfeeding on demand, and soothing your baby with constant maternal contact, promotes healthy brain development. And so, let’s not wait any longer to follow the infinitely wise voice of our instincts.
Berna Iskandar is a communications specialist and Venezuelan mother. She produces and hosts a radio program where she reflects on issues related to parenting, fatherhood and motherhood. In 2013, she won the blogger contest “Speak up for the Littlest Ones” organized by First Steps.