Designed for Relationship

Infants' Brain Structures and Chemistry Respond to Nurture and Stress

A Marriage and Family Therapist grapples with the implications of these discoveries.

About the Author

Nancy Williams, MA, MFT, CCE, IBCLC, is the Executive Director of the Pregnancy Support Services of Lompoc and Buellton, CA. She is an instructor in the Psychology Department at Chapman University and is a consultant for CareNet. She speaks around the country at professional and family conferences relating to perinatal issues. Nancy is also a Marriage and Family Therapist in private practice and enjoys travelling overseas to do volunteer counseling. Nancy and her husband have three children and 3 grandchildren.

by Nancy Williams, MA, MFT, CCE, IBCLC

Once upon a time, the study of infants was relegated to observation and interpretation. This fostered very subjective theory with little hard evidence to support or deny it. 

Important New Research

All of this has changed in the last two decades with the advent of new technologies, such as PET scans, Functional MRIs and new ways to measure and assess the chemical functioning of individuals.  How amazing that we can actually “peek in” to a fetal or infant brain and watch it grow and function right before our eyes!  The new information is critically important for parents and for professionals who work with or teach parents. 

To ignore current research may be perilous-- to babies and their lives as adults; to the parents who stand to either gain or lose much as a result of parenting style, and to our society as a whole.  Our society seems to be slipping into deeper and deeper relational turmoil.  Perhaps some of this turmoil can be traced to parenting styles that have become increasingly disconnected and control-oriented.

A Warning - This Information Can Be Sensitive

Warning: some of this information may be disturbing.  As I came to understand some of the mistakes I’d made with my own children and in my teaching, many negative emotions stirred within me: confusion, disappointment, pain, anger, frustration, and sadness.  I’ve come to believe that these feelings make it difficult to receive new information that is threatening in the most meaningful parts of us—our parental role, our own childhood experiences, and our ministry.

This doesn’t stop with the individual. As a culture, we have unthinkingly adopted expectations about our babies and children that may be mistaken.

Romans tells us that God reveals himself to us through the creation. The more I learn about the human body and its amazing function, the more I am in awe about who God is and how incredibly he has designed us. The design has purpose; it isn’t random. We get into trouble every time we try to ignore it or think that we’ve got a better plan.

Neurons & Synapses: Ready and Waiting

We now know that a baby has virtually all his or her neurons (brain cells) in place by eighteen weeks gestation, all 180 billion of them. But that is not the whole story by any means. The baby will need to develop a rich synaptic network over the next three-plus years. Synapses are the important connections that send messages between neurons through chemicals known as neurotransmitters. Without synapses, the neurons would be much like cell phones with no service. The number of synapses doubles between eighteen and twenty-eight weeks of pregnancy, again by birth at around forty weeks of pregnancy, and yet again by the time the baby is eight months old.  Sadly, this incredible rate of development will be short-circuited without the proper environment.

What, exactly, is the proper environment? Most people know it is important to protect the child from harm; to avoid toxins such as nicotine, alcohol, and other drugs; to seek good healthcare, and so forth. But what of psychological/emotional/spiritual danger?

Stress Hormones Rewire Synapses

Of course, the environment after birth needs to continue to protect the child from harm and toxins. One often unrecognized toxin results from stress. As little as ten minutes of crying alone causes baby’s blood oxygenation to decrease, blood pressure to rise, stress hormones to release, and even tiny brain bleeds to occur. When this occurs regularly, it actually rewires the baby’s brain to become anxious, depressed, and/or to experience other unhealthy states. Cortisol, one of the stress hormones, actually washes over the baby’s brain as a toxic coating, influencing dysfunctional development of synapses. The notion that crying is good for babies or even that it is not harmful has been unequivocally proven wrong.

A Mother's Body: Protecting Baby Before and After Birth

We also know that the mother’s body continues to provide the necessary environment, even long after the birth is accomplished. Breastfeeding is often considered simply a “lifestyle choice.” Instead it is what God intended as the experience for a child in the early years. It is also God’s provision for a lifetime of health. We must recognize that any other “choice,” even when necessary because of difficult circumstances, will be inferior, because we can’t improve on God’s plan.

It is not within the scope of this article to discuss the crucial nature and exquisite design of both the milk and the mother-baby relationship inherent in breastfeeding. Suffice it to say that there are many detrimental consequences to both mother and baby when breastfeeding can’t or doesn’t occur. People are sometimes known to lament that while it would be great to promote breastfeeding, it just isn’t practical with the lifestyle/career/family size or other demands that life creates. Perhaps this demands a second look.

Another critical environmental component is that of attachment and bonding.  Attachment is so important that many therapists refer to it as the “foundation for mental health.” Lack of a secure attachment in the first three years cannot be easily corrected later, and it can be partly responsible part for all kinds of problems, from depression and bi-polar disorder to unhealthy choices in mates, inability to parent, even to poor sexual choices and abortion decisions, and difficulty experiencing intimacy with God.

Fostering Relational Ability

Babies are born hard-wired for relationship and searching for an object of attachment. In order for attachment and bonding to proceed normally, the mother and baby need a great deal of eye-to-eye and skin-to-skin contact. They need to be near one with with attention focused on one another. By definition, healthy attachment and bonding cannot occur if the mother and the baby are not together. Just as God is Immanuel, meaning “the God who is with us," so a mother offers the first loving relationship to her baby by her continuous presence. A close attachment also helps the mother to be more secure in her new role and reduces the risk of abuse and abandonment.

One of the things that sets human beings apart from animals is that we are designed first and foremost for relationship. We reflect the image of God—the God who is first and foremost relational. Therefore, relational ability must be fostered from the beginning. The constant presence and touch of the mother as she carries, strokes, and comforts form a critical component that helps the baby to learn how to regulate his or her own emotions. This ability is the cornerstone of thoughtful decisions and the ability to experience emotional intimacy later.

Current Research on How Self-Regulation is Learned

The Ezzos’ material addresses the issue of self-regulation, but in a way that is absolutely contradictory to current research. The research shows that this skill is learned by the parent(s) soothing the baby and lowering his or her biophysical reactions to stress such as higher blood pressure and cortisol release. At the same time, the parent is modeling how to do that. The Ezzos suggest that if you just put a baby down and let him scream, he will learn to soothe himself. But how? The current information tells us that he will merely give up, withdraw, and move towards a state of chronic anxiety and/or depression. This may look like “success” on the outside, while inside he is suffering emotionally.

Many of our cultural attitudes about pregnancy, birth, and parenting have roots in radical, secular feminism. Feminism looks at the desires of the woman and then tries to fit everything else into that framework. This is the foundation thought that allows abortion.  A biblical approach to anything relational would ask first, “What is best for the other person?” and then try to fit one’s own needs around that. This approach is even more important when caring for someone who is utterly dependent on me, such as a fetus or infant.

Unfortunately, the North American church has unwittingly swallowed humanist frameworks hook, line, and sinker. This is more evident in the area of mothering than in any other. The most “me-centered” advice and curricula I have been exposed to have come from “Christian” teaching and books. The Ezzo books aren’t alone in this criticism, but they certainly stand out. Perhaps we need to rethink biblical principles vs. culture and make some course corrections.

We now have a large body of research about the first years after birth. It is remarkable that this new information, while culturally and politically incorrect, is a perfect fit with the God of love and grace that we know. It is up to us to apply this knowledge from both the Bible and creation to our parenting decisions.


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