What Babies Need and Want
FROM the time of his birth, the newborn needs tender care, including gentle strokes and skin-to-skin contact. Some physicians believe that the first 12 hours after birth are crucial. They say that what mother and child require and want most right after the delivery is “not sleep or food, but to stroke and snuggle and to look at and listen to each other.”
Instinctively, parents reach out, cuddle, stroke, and snuggle their baby. The baby, in turn, becomes securely attached to his parents and responds to their attention. The power of this bond is so strong that parents will make sacrifices to care for the infant without letup.
On the other hand, without a loving parental bond, an infant may literally wilt and die. Therefore, some doctors believe it is important that a baby be given to his mother immediately after the delivery. They suggest that at least 30 to 60 minutes of early contact between parent and infant should be provided.
Despite the emphasis some put on bonding, early contact may be difficult, if not impossible, in some hospitals. Often, newborns are separated from the mother because of the danger of transmission of infection to the child. Some evidence indicates, though, that the rate of fatal infections may actually drop when newborns stay with the mothers. So more and more hospitals are open to early extended contact between the mother and the newborn.
Concern About Bonding
Some mothers do not become emotionally attached to their baby the first time they see him. So they wonder, ‘Will I have trouble bonding?’ Admittedly, not all mothers fall in love with their baby at first sight. Yet, there is no need to be anxious.
Even when maternal affection for the baby is delayed, it can develop fully later. “There’s no one birth circumstance that makes or breaks your relationship with your child,” observes an experienced mother. Still, if you are expecting a baby and have concerns, it may be wise to have a discussion with your obstetrician in advance. Be clear about your wishes on when and how long you want to interact with your newborn.
“Talk to Me!”
There seem to be certain windows of time during which infants are especially sensitive to specific stimuli. Those windows close after a while. For instance, the young brain masters a language with ease, even more than one. But the most receptive period for learning language seems to begin to close at about the age of five.
After a child reaches 12 to 14 years of age, learning a language can be a formidable challenge. According to pediatric neurologist Peter Huttenlocher, that is when “the density and number of synapses in the language areas of the brain decrease.” Clearly, the first few years of life are a critical time for acquiring language ability!
How do infants accomplish the feat of learning to speak, which is so important for the rest of their cognitive development? Primarily through verbal interactions with the parents. Infants especially respond to human stimuli. “A baby . . . imitates its mother’s voice,” observes Barry Arons of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Interestingly, however, babies do not imitate all sounds. As Arons observes, the baby “does not insert the cradle squeaks that have occurred simultaneously with the mother’s speech.”
Parents of varied cultural backgrounds speak to their babies using the same rhythmic speaking style that some call “Parentese.” As the parent speaks in a loving way, the heart rate of the infant increases. This is believed to assist in hastening the connection between words and the objects they denote. Without saying a word, the infant is calling out: “Talk to me!”
“Look at Me!”
It has been established that during the first year or so, the infant forms an emotional attachment to an adult caregiver, generally his mother. When securely bonded, the baby relates better to others than do babies who do not enjoy the security of the parental bond. Such bonding with his mother, it is believed, needs to be in place by the time the child is three.
What may happen if an infant is neglected during this critical period when his mind is highly susceptible to outside influence? Martha Farrell Erickson, who tracked 267 mothers and their children for over 20 years, expresses this opinion: “Neglect just slowly and persistently eats away at the child’s spirit until [the child] has little will to connect with others or explore the world.”
In an effort to illustrate his view regarding the serious consequences of emotional neglect, Dr. Bruce Perry of Texas Children’s Hospital says: “If you asked me to take a 6-month-old and choose between breaking every bone in its body or emotionally ignoring it for two months, I’d say the baby would be better off if you broke every bone in its body.” Why? In Perry’s view, “bones can heal, but if an infant misses out on two months of crucial brain stimulation, you will have a forever disorganized brain.” Not all agree that such damage is irreparable. Still, scientific studies do indicate that an emotionally enriching environment is vital for the young mind.
“In short,” says the book Infants, “[babies] are prepared to love and be loved.” When an infant cries, often he is begging his parents: “Look at me!” It is important for the parents to respond in a caring way. Through such interactions, the baby becomes aware that he is able to make his needs known to others. He is learning to form social relationships with others.
‘Won’t I Spoil the Baby?’
‘If I respond to every cry of the baby, won’t I spoil him?’ you might ask. Perhaps. Opinions vary widely on this question. As each child is unique, parents generally have to determine which approach works best. However, some recent research indicates that when the newborn infant is hungry, uncomfortable, or upset, his stress-response systems release stress hormones. He expresses his distress by crying. It is said that when the parent responds and fills the baby’s needs, the adult starts to create in the baby’s brain the networks of cells that help him to learn to soothe himself. Also, according to Dr. Megan Gunnar, a baby who has received responsive care produces less of the stress hormone cortisol. And even when he does become upset, he turns off the stress reaction sooner.
“In fact,” says Erickson, “babies who have been responded to quickly and consistently, especially during the first 6-8 months of life, actually cry less than babies who have been left to cry.” It is also important to diversify how you respond. If you respond the same way on each occasion, such as by feeding him or holding him, he can indeed become spoiled. At times, just acknowledging his cry with your voice may suffice. Or moving close to the baby and talking gently in his ear may be effective. On the other hand, touching his back or stomach with your hand may do the trick.
“It’s a baby’s job to cry.” So goes the saying in the Orient. For the baby, crying is the major way to communicate what he wants. How would you feel if you were ignored every time you asked for something? So, then, how would your baby, who is helpless without a caregiver, feel if he was slighted every time he yearned for attention? Who, though, should respond to his cry?
Who Cares for the Baby?
A recent census in the United States revealed that 54 percent of children from birth through third grade regularly receive some form of child care from persons other than their parents. Many families may need two incomes to make ends meet. And many mothers take maternity leave, if possible, to care for their newborn for a few weeks or months. But who is going to care for the baby after that?
Of course, there are no hard-and-fast rules to govern such decisions. However, it is good to remember that the child is still vulnerable during this crucial period of his life. Both parents together need to give the matter serious consideration. When deciding what to do, they must consider the options carefully.
“It’s becoming increasingly clear that allowing even the best of child care programs to raise our offspring doesn’t substitute for the time that children need from their mothers and fathers,” says Dr. Joseph Zanga, of the American Academy of Pediatrics. Some experts have raised concerns that infants at day-care facilities do not get to interact with the caregiver as much as they need to.
Some working mothers, being aware of their child’s vital needs, have decided that they would stay home rather than let other people take over the emotional nurturing of their children. One woman stated: “I have been blessed with a contentment I honestly believe no other job could give me.” Of course, economic pressures do not allow all mothers to make such choices. Many parents have no option but to make use of day-care facilities, so they put extra effort into giving their child attention and affection when they are together. Similarly, many working single parents have few options in this regard and make outstanding efforts in raising their children
Parenting can be a joyful work, full of excitement. Still, it is a challenging, demanding job. How can you succeed?