In my years of working with abused and neglected children, I have come to understand how important parenting is. There is no purpose greater than the art of raising an emotionally healthy child.
I wish I had been a little more educated in child development. I had a degree in education before I had kids, but none of that informed me as to how important the first years of life are. By age two the brain has done the majority of its growing. (Don’t worry; it remains “plastic” throughout the lifespan.)
The greatest period of brain development is prenatal. Most of us learned that we needed to take extra vitamins so that the developing baby would get enough nutrients. In the 70’s and 80’s my doctor told me to have a glass of wine every night. I’m so glad I didn’t do that! That’s like mixing formula with alcohol; not a good idea.
Pediatricians also recommended that we let our babies cry in the night, so they would learn how to soothe themselves. Dr. Spock recommended for us to stop picking up babies because they would get spoiled. Hospitals also told their staff to stop picking up babies because of the danger of spreading germs. Brain research now tells us that there is a reason that a baby stops crying after 20 minutes. It’s a safety feature in the brain that shuts the whole system down when there are prolonged levels of stress chemicals (cortisol). Too much cortisol destroys brain cells.
Research also tells us that touching babies in intensive care helps the babies heal and grow faster. In fact, touching causes higher levels of dopamine which provides a natural high.
Letting a baby cry for long periods of time sends this message to the baby, “No one listens to me; no one will meet my needs.” This is the foundation of trust. Without trust, there is damage to the parent-child relationship. Children who go without trust and without one primary relationship are crippled in their ability to give and receive care, to use language to meet their needs, and to regulate their emotions. We see many of these untrusting children in our foster care system and in the international orphanage care systems.
If you are adopting or fostering, you may have to give the gift of those first 3 years of development to an older child. It’s not easy, but the pay-off is immense. So turn off the computer and the TV and go hold your babies. Hug them, rock them, massage them, sing to them, feed them while looking into their eyes, and play silly games with their toes. Making dinner and washing clothes is just not that important in the life of a child.