Feel Safe: Show love and comfort #6
It is pretty common to hear people talking about family/relationship drama with babies or young children involved, “It was lucky it happened when the baby was so young” or “Oh he was just a baby, he doesn’t know what happened’ Well, folks, I got some good news and some bad news. Which one do you want first? Never mind, I will pick for you…
SURPRISE! The baby knows-ish. How did the child development specialist figure this out? Little kids on a psychologist couch, “Tell me about your mother’? Funny, but no. What they did do was to look at how the infant brain develops and observe how children act as they get older. By older, in this case, I am talking about the years leading up to kindergarten.
How it sort- of works
I want you to imagine a funnel, you heard that correctly, a basic kitchen funnel. If we hold the funnel upright the big open part is on top and a narrow tube is at the bottom. This is the basic shape of your brain. Typically, we pour fluid in the wide, open hole on the top of the funnel and it travels down and out the narrow tube at the bottom. Right now, I want you to imagine the flow in reverse. The fluid will start at the narrow bottom part and move upward into the bigger top part. Now close your eyes for a second and get that picture in your head: FUNNEL. But first promise me you will open your eyes and keep reading!
Back to the brain (Again, apologies in advance to all super smart neuro-behavioral-psycho-scientist people) and into the funnel.
STEP ONE: It all starts at the bottom of the funnel. The first part of the brain starts at the spinal cord. This is called the medulla. The medulla must be working for a baby to stay alive! It is the part in charge of beating hearts, pumping lungs, blood sugar- the big stuff. This area is designed for getting the body up and running.
STEP TWO: Just above the medulla, stacked on top is the part of the brain called the pons. The pons is all about reflexes and primitive responses. It’s job is to make sure the baby can survive. When we talk about rooting and grasping reflexes we are talking about pons based responses. If the baby’s cheek gets touched, the baby turns towards where it was touched. That reflex is to help the baby eat. When the infant clasps her little hand around your finger and grabs on, that reflex part of eating as well. Even basic vision is part of this too. Infant vision is best up to about 16 inches away from the baby. Ta-dah! This is the typical distance between a breastfeeding baby and mother’s face. (awwww…they thought of everything!) There are other primitive reflexes which are designed to get the baby moving and to keep it safe. Now here is an important fact: the pons brain does not use language to communicate. It only knows responses. Things are either good or things are bad. The pons part of the brain is made to fix the following: THIS IS BAD! FEAR! DANGER! SAVE ME! In fact, (bonus nerd points) the infant “vital cry” at this stage is so specific to survival that world-wide caregivers feel driven to respond (as evidenced by brain imaging which shows the area of the brain lights up!) And this my good friend is how attachment is started!!! Boom! Drop the mic!!!
If the infant’s ‘vital cries’ is met in a timely, appropriate and consistent way the infant feels safe, cared for, comforted…the pons says (without words) “Ahhhhh life is good, I am cared for, I like it here, I belong! I am loved!” This safe and secure feeling translates to attachment and bonding with primary caregiver.
If the infant ‘vital cries’ are not met, this non-verbal part of the brain goes into ‘FIGHT OR FLIGHT”. Fight or flight causes the brain chemical release of well-known stress hormones like cortisol, epinephrine and adrenaline. These brain chemicals are made so humans can respond to danger as fast as possible. Since the baby cannot strap on his own diaper, grab a bottle and march out to the kitchen and TCOB, the stress hormones continue to get poured out, the stress alarm keeps getting pressed, more hormones get poured out…and now we have a tiny human being who has a pons that believes “No one cares for me, I am alone, I am not safe, this place is bad, I don’t belong”. How sad right?
Time to picture the funnel again. Step one and two happen in the ‘tube like portion’ of the funnel. Right now, we are at the junction between the tube and the ever-widening cup portion. This is where the basic needs and response start to hook up the part of the brain that thinks.
STEP THREE: The midbrain. The midbrain sort of stretches from basic response to basic thought. It is like an adaptor plug that makes a two-pronged plug work in a three-pronged outlet. It connects to make pathways hook up to the more advanced technology that has language. The responses learned in the pons now becomes hard wired thoughts which will impact this infant well into adulthood! Serious! Whatever is experienced becomes the truth. Even more alarming is that once that pathway is set, it is really- really -really- really -really- hard to change. The stress chemicals? They literally change the way the brain gets set up-it works differently than a secure and attached brain! So that even if the baby’s needs start to get met, the brain will continue to respond like it is still threatened.
All this to say: The moral of the story is:
YOU CAN NOT SPOIL YOUR BABY DURING THE FIRST SIX MONTHS OF HIS LIFE! THE BABY NEEDS ALL OF YOUR LOVE, COMFORT AND UNDERSTANDING EVERYDAY!!!
The Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University recently published a summary of the past ten years studying the growth and development from before birth to young children. One of the main things observed was that even if an infant lives with things like neglect (BTW the most common form of child abuse) and poverty there are ways to cut down on the negative impact. “…Supportive caregivers, strengthening stable and responsive relationships in the earliest years of life can literally block excessive activation of stress hormones and protect children from potentially damaging effects” (from Best Practices to Breakthrough Impacts pg 11). This could be inside the home or outside the home. This could be a parent or a relative this could be the babysitter or the day care worker but the infant-child needs at least one attentive, responsive and caring adult! Maybe that’s you?
United Way’s Birth 2 Five Seven Simple Actions # 3: Be Social
Be social. Encourage play with other children.
Okay, we just made it through an election and good or bad, it is over. The whole election business brought up all kinds of issues about society, employment, jobs and personal rights. A lot of us felt powerless to make any real change for the good no matter what we did.
Well right now, we are taking a stand! A stand to do good for our families and our country! And we are going to do this by (drum roll please) PLAYING!!!
It has been said that play is the work of children. It has even been labeled a “right of children to play” by the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights! Play is an important part of a child’s growth and healthy brain development. Play supports the growth of basic social skills like learning how to act, learning what to do in different social situations and how other people may feel. Play helps bodies and brains grow up to be healthy and strong. (Remember our last conversation? The more positive experiences a child has the more connections a brain makes. The more brain connections there are, the better the brain works!).
The War On Play:
I believe we are in a constant battle for time and resources. We are working full time, swing shifts, taking care of aging parents. We might feel it is not safe for our kids to play outside, we may not trust neighbors or those people at the park. We may be trying to run a household with three little kids under 5 with the expectation that what kids needed to learn in Kindergarten is now expected to be known by 3 years of age.
We want to spend time with our children but they sort of become accessories in our lives: We carry them around with us everywhere, we get them where they need to go, find things for them to do and we keep them busy so we can get things done and our kids can become faster, better, stronger! We respond to heavily marketed messages that good parents need to provide learning games for all ages so we provide hand held devices, phones apps, cars with game systems, tablets, pads… Time is not stopping and we don’t have time for play! But the truth is, our kids need to experience safe, child-driven, unstructured, age level interactions with people and objects (otherwise known as playing with family, friends and toys).
So what is play anyway? Play is actually pretty hard to define (but you know it when you see it!) and there are many different kinds of play. The kind of play I am talking about is child-driven- free-exploratory play with no ulterior motive except to experience. This kind of play requires free time and other kids. This type of play is not made to take time away from structured activities and the other wonderful enhancement programs we provide for our children. This type of play needs to be given back to our children for better balanced and less stressful lives.
Benefits Of Play:
The American Academy of Pediatrics wrote a clinical report called “The Importance of Play in Promoting Healthy Child Development and Maintaining Strong Parent-Child Bonds”. In it, they list a wide variety of benefits when kids play with other kids and caring adults. Here are the highlights:
• Play allows children to use their creatively. This develops their imaginations, big and little muscle movements, cognitive and emotional strength which means they can be better problem solvers. This could mean less arguing, fighting and meltdowns-I said could.
• Play is important for healthy brain development. It is through play that children at a very early age engage and interact in the world around them. Think Peek-a-Boo.
• Play allows children to create and explore a world they can master, conquering their fears while practicing adult roles. For example, I am a momma who is not afraid of the monster under the bed and can chase it away!
• Play helps children develop new skills that lead to building confidence and the emotional flexibility they will need to face future challenges. Like looking for and keeping a job, or doing something no one else in their world has done before like go to college.
• Undirected play allows children to learn how to work in groups, to share, to negotiate, to work through problems and learn to stand up for themselves. Kind of makes you think some of your co-workers could have used more play as kids!
• Child driven play allows children to practice decision making skills, move at their own pace, discover their own areas of interest and ultimately engage fully in the passions they wish to pursue. It may start as a superhero or princess but they can fine tune it later…..
• Child driven play in groups is helpful in development creativity, leadership and group skills
• Play builds active healthy bodies. It has been suggested that encouraging unstructured play increase physical activity levels in children which could in turn lower obesity rates! Grandma was right “Go outside and play!”
I admit, I take this play business seriously, but we are talking about the future people! Literally, children are future people! (Come on, admit it that was a nice little word play!)
United Way’s Birth 2 Five Seven Simple Actions # 2: Pay Attention!
These days, there is a lot of research going on in the area of on baby brain development and Nerd-moms like me tend to get pretty excited about it! I want to read about it and talk about it with anyone within a few feet of me. With that said, I will try to contain my enthusiasm and attempt to briefly hit some highlights of the amazing developing brain. As a side note, I would like to apologize up front to all the researchers who put countless hours and detail into their life’s work to have them summed up like this, by me.
A baby’s brain is a lot like building a house. (There are a lot of houses being built in the Tri-cities, so hopefully creating an image won’t be too hard).
One of the first steps in building a house is having a foundation. The brain is the foundation for a baby. This foundation is built based on what we get from our parents and what we experience. Sadly, there is not much we can do about the genes we inherit but there is a ton of stuff we can do to create positive experiences.
The science people at Harvard (yes, only the best for our children) talk about developing brains in a use it or lose it kind of way. When something is positive and repeated over time, a baby’s brain makes a strong connection. The stronger the connections are, the easier it can connect all the different areas of the brain. When all the areas of the brain are connected, they can start to move faster. This means movement, vision, hearing, behavioral control, emotions, and memory are all able to be attached to each other. When it comes to brain connections, the more the better. Let’s go back to the building a house analogy: These connections are the wooden frame of the house. The frame is the structure for which the rest of the house is built.
The good news is we don’t have to buy or pay anyone to help build our baby’s brain connections. There are no flashcards to keep track of, no sticker charts, it will not run out of batteries, and you don’t need a tech degree to operate it. The even better news is you don’t have to add anything to your already full day. In fact, you are already doing it and you don’t even know it. The only thing you need to do is…Pay Attention!
Serve And Return:
Babies do a lot more communicating then crying. In fact they are continually trying to get you to socialize with them. Researchers call that a ‘serve’. Every gurgle, babble, smile, coo is designed to get you involved in that baby’s world. They need this positive interaction with us just as much as proper nutrition, adequate sleep, and clean diapers! When we respond to the baby, this is called a ‘return’. The baby serves and we return. Responding in an attentive and affectionate way, rewards the baby by them knowing this is a safe and loving place AND this is how more and better connections in the brain get made.
Here are some simple ways to Pay Attention in a meaningful way to your baby:
• Use that sing-song happy voice. It’s called Parent-ees and research shows that it is a big boost to make brain connections. Sing-talk to them about everything; sights, sounds, smells, tastes, touches. Remember you are fascinating to your child!
• Pick up a baby after she wakes up from sleeping or a nap. Greet them with a big smile and exaggerated facial expressions. Sing a good morning song, welcome that baby while becoming awake.
• Talk to him in his car seat when running errands throughout the day,. Talk about where you are going and what you are going to do. If you catch his eye in a mirror smile back and say hello.
• Use diaper changes to pay attention to your infant. You can tickle a belly, recite itsy bitsy spider while running your fingers up the tummy to the top of her head, talk about sights and smells (“Who made a stinky poopy? You did!!!”)
• Gaze into those beautiful baby eyes and smile when giving a bottle or breast feeding the baby. Sure, it is a little harder to eat when you crack a smile, but it is so worth it! Hum a soothing tune.
• When cooking or cleaning, have your infant sit in a highchair and start talking, provide the baby with lids, spoons, containers for baby to reach for, bang, and put in their mouth. Use a dish towel to play peek-a-boo. Chat away to them about everything you are doing. When your baby makes sounds back, acknowledge like you would in a typical conversation with a friend, “Oh is that right?” “Tell me more.”
What happens if the baby keeps serving and we don’t return? Let’s leave it to the researchers to find out exactly what happens- don’t try this at home! The “Still Face” experiment videotaped babies and dads spending some one-on-one time together talking, making faces and noises, playing basic games, positive interaction stuff, it was beautiful. Then the researchers had the dads look away for a little while and when they turned around they were not to interact but to keep an emotionless blank stare. (I know, right?!) At first, the babies were all about picking up where they left off: doing all the stuff that was a big hit a moment ago. The dad’s did not react or respond. After about 30 seconds, the babies start to realize something is different, they stop the fun attempts and try to figure out what to do to get back to that place of love! Within 3 minutes, this previously happy joy- seeking soul shows distress, cries, and even tries to get away. The baby tries a number of tricks to get Dad to pay attention to them, but finally gives up trying to ‘serve’. The baby gives up-after only 3 minutes! As grown-ups, we can use words like helpless and hopeless but to babies the sad message they get is that no one cares.
Here is the bad-sad news, when babies ‘serve’ and don’t get ‘returned’ those brain connections that were building actually stop building. The baby begins to ‘serve’ less and the brain growth connections slow down and ultimately, the brain ‘prunes’ or cuts that connection. The more connections that are cut, the less contact and the slower the connection is with other parts of the brain. Gaining skills socially, emotionally, physically, and academically becomes harder and slower than other kids their age.
Now, I feel fairly confident anyone still reading this article is about helping their baby the best they can, but I want to point out a few of the distractions (what I call Everyday SERVE SUCKERS) in our modern day and age:
• Cell phones: talking, texting, Blue Tooth
• Anything with a screen, social media platforms
• Non-stop access to entertainment like a TV series
• Over-crowded schedules
• Personal-family crisis, chronic illness, financial crisis
• Little to no parent/caregiver support
• Alcohol and drug use
But here’s awesome news: Brains like to re-grow! They like to be faster and stronger! They are wired to make lots and lots of connections on a regular basis! They want positive interaction and new experiences- your baby’s brain is hungry for living!!! Pay Attention to those starter home babies and help them turn into Parade of Homes quality adults.