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My Aha Moment parenting this week came while I was reading some brain research. Neuroscientists have found that the critical period for the development of certain parts of the brain coincides precisely with the critical period for attachment development—during the first three years of life.

Dr. Allan Schore, from the Department of Psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine, has done a lot of research on the orbito-frontal cortex. If you’ve lost track of yours, it’s located above the eyes in the forehead area between the left and right hemispheres. The orbito-frontal cortex plays a central role in the development of empathy, emotional memory, infant attachment and emotional regulation. Schore believes that the process of parent-infant attunement has a direct impact on the development of the orbito-frontal cortex. The neurons located in this area are particularly sensitive to the emotional expressions of the human face.  When a parent holds her baby and gazes lovingly at him, it stimulates the neurons in this area to develop.  These neurons form the foundation of the child’s later moods, relationships, self esteem, and ability to control himself.

My Aha moment was realizing that the majority of babies in the United States are in daycare during much of this developmental period.  Are their brains developing optimally?  I doubt it.  How many daycare workers are holding babies and gazing lovingly at them?  They simply don’t have time. As Penelope Leach says, those infant smiles are so slow in coming with babies.  You smile at a two month old, and it takes her awhile to make contact with her facial muscles and smile back at you.  That dance is part of what develops the neurons in the orbito-frontal cortex.  But by the time the baby smiles, the daycare worker has moved on. Even while feeding, babies are often propped with bottles rather than held.  I’m not criticizing the daycare workers.  They are ill-paid and usually have little education in child development.  Why should they be expected to love all those babies the way parents would?  In fact, how could they?  But even if they have the inclination, they certainly don’t have the time.

All of which means that the epidemic of children unable to regulate their emotions and behavior – and often growing into adults who are medicated – may be related to the prevalence of infant daycare in our society. Even when kids come out ok, how much better off could they have been if they’d had more of those loving gazes?

This is the kind of subtle effect that it’s hard to trace, that may not show up in studies of kids in daycare.   So all this worrying parents do about playing classical music for their babies to make them smarter, and getting them to read early?  And here we may be compromising their brain development – and their later happiness and life adjustment - in much more fundamental ways.

My other Aha moment was how many times I’ve heard the view that something that happens before a child can talk won’t affect them, because they won’t remember it.  And here we’re finding that some of the most important brain development takes place mostly before kids can talk! I’ve had parents say to me that babies don’t need their parents when they’re little – that anyone could be holding them or feeding them.  They point out that babies often don’t seem to know the difference during their first six months.  Well, babies may not show that they know the difference, but their brain development, and their life adjustment, turns out to be shaped by those early interactions.  Seems to me our society needs a little Aha Moment about this!  READ POST

Saturday, May 02, 2009 | Permalink