Every parent has heard how early experiences define a child’s future, but most people underestimate the importance of love and stability during infancy. A great deal of the brain’s biochemistry and structure is determined during a baby’s first months. Also, most problems found in childhood and adolescence like aggression, hyperactivity, depression, and poor school performance are subsequent to early experiences; current research has proven this to be the case.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 works automatically 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), and 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. Babies feel stress in situations where they feel unsafe, for example being separated from their caregiver or being physically hurt. When a baby is stressed, 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.
Too much cortisol affects your baby’s brain structure. Children who were chronically stressed as infants have a reduced pre-frontal area -they literally have smaller brains. This causes changes in their personality when they grow older. This is why you should ignore people who tell you to let your baby cry because you might spoil him. There is no such thing as a spoiled baby! Before 6 months you can consider your baby spoil-proof. By attending to his every need, you’re creating a solid foundation of trust that could last forever!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 him manage his behavior, pay attention to his feelings, and attend him when he needs 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.