Mind Matters — Developing Brain

May is here. Can Mother’s Day be far behind? Infants and mothers have been in the foreground for me lately. Recently, Dan Gottlieb, the family psychologist whose radio show, Voices in the Family, airs on WHYY, had as a guest, Vicki Glembocki, author of The Second Nine Months. Their dialog presented the side of the coin of mothering in which the once professional working woman finds herself as an at home new mother feeling isolated and bereft. Without the grandparents around the corner, and the aunts down the street, being a new mother of a young infant can be overwhelming and lonely.

That said, I move on to present the other side of the coin, and that is of the importance of the mother-infant bond (and that with the father and other caring caretakers) so crucial to a child’s development.

What may have been intuitive before is now being elucidated by neuroscience with a rapid vengeance. More and more studies of early human development and neurobiology point to how the brain depends on human interaction to survive and grow. Lack of caregiver nurturance can create a maladaptive brain; good caregiver nurturance can create the milieu for solid physical and psychological health. There is a direct link between our early interpersonal experiences and biological/neurological growth. Louis Cozolino in The Neuroscience of Human Relationships, notes, fortunately, that because the brain is so reliant on relationship and human interaction, early maladaptive brain patterns can be repaired in later healthy relationships. Being with others shapes our brains—one way or another!

So what is most important for the infant? Early on, mutual gaze between mother (father, caretaker) and infant is most critical. As mother and infant bond, both brains are being shaped in the interaction.

If a secure and loving attachment is fostered between mother and infant, then the baby’s brain sets down the neural pathways for later coping skills and abilities to handle stressors.

This knowledge of how early brain development relies on healthy relationships with primary caregivers, especially mothers, has its corollary: How crucial it is for mothers and other caretakers to seek what psychological help they may need to alleviate their own stressors that might prevent healthy, secure attachment with their infants.

Turns out, maybe parenting really is both the hardest job in the world—and the most important. And to do it justice, our brains need to change too.