Emotional Attunement: Good Food for Babies’ Brains

Warm, caring, attentive human connection is as essential to babies’ developing brains as food and sleep are to their physical growth.

An emerging area of science is demonstrating something that most parents know instinctively, and that attachment theorists have known for a long time: When an infant’s mother is calm–even in the face of daily disasters such as the baby’s hunger, exhaustion, or discomfort–the child absorbs and acquires a capacity for calm self-soothing. When his mother is distressed or agitated, the baby absorbs and learns that.

‘Attachment neurobiology,’ ‘biological synchronicity,’ ‘limbic resonance,’ and ‘mommy mind-meld’ are some of the names being given to emerging findings that show the deep connections that are formed at the brain level between infants and their adult nurturers. All of these terms, including ‘mommy mind-meld,’ refer to an infant’s experience primarily with her mother, but also with any other adult with whom she has a strong, nurturing connection, including a father, grandparent, or other close, caring, and consistent person in her life.

In a recent blog, Mary Axness discusses the science behind this phenomenon. She cites the research of neurobiology pioneer Allan Schore, who describes the mother as ‘downloading emotion programs into the infant’s right brain,’ and the child as using the mother’s right hemisphere as a template for the imprinting and hard wiring of circuits in his own right hemisphere, giving the child a template for mediating his emotional experiences.

Axness also discusses problems with all of the electronic engagement-replacements available today—television, videos, Baby Einstein, iPhones, iPads, and other computerized programs designed for babies. These may appear to give a sense of engagement, but excessive use of these media devices is actually associated with delayed language development. In 2009, the American Academy of Pediatrics went on record against using electronic media with children younger than the age of two, stating that they ‘probably interfere with the crucial wiring being laid down in their brains during early development.’ In the ensuing media debate on the topic, an AAP spokesperson declared that ‘parents hoping to raise baby Einsteins by using infant educational videos are actually creating baby Homer Simpsons.’

Understanding the power of infants’ connections to their parents as ‘mind-melds’, where babies are downloading certain aspects of their caregivers’ brains—is a great argument for parents and other caregivers to take very good care of their own mental health. In addition to all the basics for good physical and emotional health (good nutrition, regular exercise, as good a sleep regime as possible), caregivers might consider integrating yoga, journal-keeping, mindfulness, meditation, or other reflective, mind-calming practices into their lives.

Another practice to consider is conscious attunement to sources of gratitude. The fields of positive psychology and psychoneuroimmunology demonstrate the ways that the choice to feel appreciation for what one has in one’s life (and to combat feelings of entitlement and resentment) changes the level of oxytocin available, thereby changing one’s attitudes, perceptions, and behaviours. A parent who attunes regularly to her sources of gratitude provides a clearer, more positive mind for her baby to meld with, thus giving her baby a better start on creating a good life for himself.

For more information:

My inspiration for this blog: Mommy Mind Meld blog by Marcy Axness: http://mothering.com/all-things-mothering/mothering/nourish-infant-brain-development-with-the-mommy-mind-meld

A great background resource for people interested in the science behind these ideas:  Schore, A. N. Attachment and the Regulation of the Right Brain. Attachment and Human Development 2, no. 1 (2000): 23-47.

For more on the effects of media use on infants’ development, see http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1651-2227.2008.01027.x/full  for an article by Dimitri Christakis, called The Effects of Infant Media Usage: What Do We Know and What Should We Learn? Acta Paediactrica 98 (2009): 8-16. Christakis’ conclusions: ‘No studies to date have demonstrated benefits associated with early infant TV viewing. The preponderance of existing evidence suggests the potential for harm. Parents should exercise due caution in exposing infants to excessive media.’

For more on the power of gratitude to change our minds, see Laura Markham: http://www.ahaparenting.com/_blog/Parenting_Blog/post/How_to_Change_Your_Happiness_Set_Point_with_Gratitude/

For more on similar topics:

Raising Smarter Kids blog: www.raisingsmarterkids.net

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