By Bonnie Davis
Did you know that up until 1986, surgeries were routinely performed on babies without anaesthetic? The most common were intestinal and heart surgeries requiring the most invasive surgical techniques in existence. It was thought that babies were barely conscious and didn’t really feel anything, so it didn’t matter what happened to them early on. This may seem barbaric to us now, but that kind of thinking persists, even though science tells us that babies feel pain just as we do, are conscious of what is going on around them, and are exquisitely aware.
A newborn’s first experiences are imprinted in their minds in a profound way; memory of their early experiences gets recorded implicitly. This means that while we don’t ‘remember’ per say what happened to us before the age of two, these experiences influence our unfolding personality, how we react to things in our world, and our gut responses to things as we grow – our early experiences become a part of us. Experiences such as when and where we feel unsafe or threatened in some way are recorded in a part of the brain called the amygdala and are used to help us avoid similar experiences as we get older. Although we don’t ‘remember’ the initial incidents of feeling unsafe, our brains have recorded them and this imprint becomes a part of how we react to situations as children and, later, adults.
Why this is important when talking about a newborn baby is because his or her early experiences literally get built into their bodies and shape their brains and nervous systems for life. Science now tells us that a baby’s brain is highly impressionable and is being shaped by every experience that it has. Knowing this, there are ways to support our babies from the start that can really help them with this imprinting process. When we can slow down, babies can integrate what is happening to them; when we can attune to their inner experience, they feel seen and met by us.
One of the most important things to remember about babies is that we need to go slow with them,because their nervous system is operating at a speed that is 10-15 times slower than ours. What does going slow mean? It means that we slow down our movements, our language, and we talk to babies and prepare them for what is about to happen, much like we do with older children. So, for example, when we take the baby away from the mother for the first time after birth, we let the baby know there is a change coming, we tell them what is about to happen, and we go really slow. We keep in mind that this is the very first time the baby has left the mother’s body; it is a profound moment. When we slow down and talk to our babies about what is about to happen, we give their nervous system time to adapt to the change. This is really good practice to get into with babies because everything that happens to them in a day is beyond their control.
How else can we support our babies? Babies learn about themselves by how we treat them. They grow optimally when they are nurtured, responded to in a timely manner, and attuned to. Attunement is the parent’s ability to ‘tune in’ and have sensitivity to what the baby is feeling and expressing. For example, you can take note that your baby is over-stimulated because you’ve had a busy morning out, and they are showing signs of fussiness. “We’ve been so busy this morning and we need some down time; let’s go sit in the corner where it’s quiet and nurse.” You can also notice that your baby seems angry over a toy. “Oh, you’re angry that I took that away from you. I’m sorry, here’s something fun!” When we are able to have this kind of ongoing communication and attunement, our babies receive the message that we see them, hear them, and that they are being met by us. This helps them to grow a sense of self, that how they feel matters to us, and this helps them build a sense of worthiness and belonging.
This suggestion to slow down and attune to our babies is not some folk remedy – it is supported by the most current scientific research and clinical practice. Paediatric neuroscientist Dr. Bruce Perry’s research demonstrates that the earliest most fundamental experiences that shape the brain are these sensitive interactions between mother and baby and that this forms a kind of template that moulds future responses to human contact.
To find out more about newborns and their brain development, check the birthcontinuum website events page. We offer education and coaching to parents on infant development, sleep issues, and toddler behavioural concerns. This fall, birthcontinuum will be offering several 8-week series of classes for parent/baby, and parent/tot focused on enhancing emotional/social development through singing, dancing and playing.
Bonnie Davis, RCST & attachment specialist,has been working with Vancouver families since 2002. She is a registered craniosacral therapist, experienced birth and postpartum doula and perinatal educator in Vancouver. She offers workshops, counselling services and education for new parents. She brings her experience with babies and a passion for supporting families to create strong attachments in the primal period.