Did you know that human babies are the most vulnerable, contact dependent, slowest developing social mammal on the planet?
Compared to other mammals, the human brain is tiny at birth; a mere 25% of its ultimate adult size. Animals born into hostile environments tend to have larger infant brains to help them survive. Zebras, for example, need to be able to run with the herd just hours after birth – their relatively mature brains help them run and respond appropriately when a lion appears.
But, mother nature always has a survival strategy in place. So, what is the survival strategy for human babies with such tiny brains? Easy. Mums and Dads. Without their parents, they couldn’t survive and so much of their behaviour is designed to keep us close most, if not all the time, in order to protect them.
In his book Touching, The Human Significance of the Skin, Dr. Ashley Montagu emphasizes the significance of the mother-baby relationship, describing it as being “naturally designed to become even more intensive and inter-operative after birth” than during pregnancy. He describes babies as being “extero-gestates”, completing their development in a “fourth trimester” in the outside world.
So, what does this mean for parents?
Dr. Darcia Narvaez, Professor of Psychology at Notre Dame University suggests it “means you want to keep that baby calm while the brain systems are finishing because they only have 25% of the adult brain-size developed, and a lot of systems haven’t set their thresholds and parameters yet. They’re expecting good care – like in an external womb or nest. We call it the evolved developmental niche or nest.” Dr. Darcia Narvaez discussed the nine components of the evolved nest with me at the upcoming Raised Good Online Summit – if you’d like to listen to our conversation, register here for FREE.
So, as parents we need to give babies enormous amounts of love, touch and attention to allow them to thrive, not just survive, both day and night. And we should feel good about it – it’s what we’re instinctively driven to do and it’s what babies are seeking from us. Despite what our society may say it’s biologically impossible to spoil a baby with love.
How does nighttime parenting influence brain development?
The first three years of life represents the most rapid period of brain development in our children’s lifetime. In the first thousand days of life, a staggering one million neural connections are made each second. These connections determine what kind of brain your baby grows; a brain that is balanced, stable, and resilient to stress, or a brain that is unbalanced, over reactive and struggles to cope with stress.
While genetics provides a blueprint for brain development, it’s a child’s environment and their experiences that carry out the construction, forming the essential wiring of the brain.
Repeated use of particular pathways strengthens individual connections.
Neural connections in the brain (known as synapses) are vital in developing emotional regulation abilities. This is why it’s critical that we provide our children with experiences that contribute to healthy brain development. For example, a baby who experiences excessive stress is more likely to develop a larger brainstem – the part of the brain responsible for the fight, flight, freeze response. These children are more likely to become adults who are overly reactive to stress. Why? Because their early experiences suggest that they need to be on high alert. Their brain has learned to believe that their environment is unsafe and so they need to be hypervigilant.
On the flip side, a child who experiences nurturing and responsive care is able to take survival for granted and devote their energy to growing a larger prefrontal cortex – the part of the brain responsible for emotional regulation. These children are more likely to become adults who are calm and emotionally stable. Why? Because their early experiences of interdependence and responsive care suggest that their world is safe and that they can rely on those around them.
This is the type of care humans are biologically wired to expect and this is the type of care that is most conducive to good mental health.
Nighttime parenting is about so much more than sleep
Developmental psychologist Erik Erikson proposed that healthy psychological outcomes are dependent on the quality of caregiving. When the balance of care is empathic, babies and toddlers grow into children who naturally trust the world. And trusting children feel confident about venturing out and exploring independently. This is how true independence develops. Dr. Vanessa Lapointe, Registered Psychologist, says that “it is out of the gift of deep dependence that true independence emerges”.
In the early 1900’s parents were influenced heavily by “men of science” who didn’t understand how true independence develops. They believed that babies needed to be put on strict feeding and sleeping schedules, that crying developed a baby’s lungs and that babies should never inconvenience the adult. This kind of thinking continues to influence our society’s nighttime parenting choices. The sleep training industry promotes the false belief that babies can and should sleep through the night, that babies should be able to put themselves back to sleep and that parents need to teach their babies how to self soothe. Nothing could be further from the truth.
It is out of the gift of deep dependence that true independence emerges.
The truth is that babies don’t need to be taught how to sleep any more than they need to be taught how to walk. They don’t need to be put on a feeding schedule, nor do they need to be separated from us to learn how to be independent.
Babies are born knowing exactly what they need. They need comfort, connection, and contact. They need us.
And we’re born into parenthood, with the instinct to hold our babies close. To respond to them. To keep them safe. To comfort them. By trusting our instincts, not only are we keeping them safe and secure but we’re also promoting healthy brain development.
We’re wiring their brains to know that they are worthy of being seen, heard, and loved. We’re wiring their brains to know that when they have a need, we will listen. We’re wiring their brains to know that when they have a problem, they can rely on those they love to help them. We’re helping to wire their brains to remain calm in the face of stressful situations as they grow older.
So, nighttime parenting is about so much more than sleep. It is half of your parenting journey. It is half of your relationship with your child. When the sun goes down, remember that the work you are doing in the wee small hours of the morning are monumentally worthwhile. You are sowing the seeds of good mental health for your baby as they grow into adulthood. And you are not alone, your brothers and sisters in the night are out there doing the exact same thing you are, nurturing, holding, nursing, hugging, rocking and singing their babies back to sleep.