Human brains have many common characteristics with those of other animals. What differentiates us from every other species is the frontal lobe of the cerebral cortex, particularly the pre-frontal section, also known as the social brain. This part is in charge of emotional control, awareness of other people’s emotions, and empathy. This area is not innate or automatic like most of the brain, and we aren’t born with anything hard-wired in it. This part is conscious and malleable, most of it shaped by early experiences. Right after birth, a baby doesn’t have many neural connections (synapses), most of them are created during the first year. This is when the brain has the most neural synapses. After the first year, a process called pruning begins, where only the circuits that are used the most stay, and the others are lost.
Biochemical pathways are mostly established during infancy, the two most important ones being the stress response and the soothing system. A baby feels stress in situations where they feel unsafe, for example being separated from their caregiver or being physically hurt. What happens when a baby is stressed is that cortisol, a hormone, is released in the brain. In adults, cortisol generates a short burst of energy that allows them to cope with any inherent danger or any other type of stress. Infants need an adult or caregiver to calm them down because they are unable to protect themselves from danger or stress. For this reason, they are easily stressed and lack the ability to mitigate their own stress response. If adults fail to respond, babies may develop an unusual response to cortisol; making it harder for them to recover easily from stressful situations and have good emotion management skills when they become adults. Experiences in early stages of life have the power to change brain chemistry.
The idea is that when it comes to infants, you get what you give. In order to have a calm, empathetic, and emotionally intelligent child, you must portray those qualities. That is why love matters, spending quality time with your little one and building a solid bond are crucial for their development. In order to help your baby thrive later in life, you must help them manage their behavior, pay attention to their feelings, and attend them when they need it.
For more information on this topic you can read the book Why Love Matters by Sue Gerhardt. If you’re short in time, click here to read a great article that summarizes it.