After decades of philosophical and scientific arguments over whether “nature” or “nurture” most influence human development and behavior, we now know the answer – it’s both! Scientists have turned their attention to understanding how the environment influences genetic expression. We now know that early experiences can serve to essentially turn certain genes “on” or “off,” which in turn shapes your baby’s developing brain.
Why does this matter to you as a parent? Because it’s important to understand that the quality of your baby’s earliest experiences – her daily interactions with you when you play, read, diaper, feed - actually shape the developing architecture of your baby’s brain. That brain architecture is the foundation for your child’s future as a student, a friend, and as a productive member of society (Learn more here: https://developingchild.harvard.edu/science).
What types of parent-baby interactions promote optimal brain development?
Attuned: Think about the social interactions you as an adult enjoy most. Chances are, you feel best when your conversational partner seems to really “get” you. Your non-verbal cues are read accurately and responded to sensitively. Your ideal partner uses body language, facial expressions and eye contact to show an active interest in your experience. These cues demonstrate that your partner cares about what matters most to you in the moment. We all enjoy these types of attuned interactions (and get upset when we experience mis-attunement). Research shows that babies’ brains need these engaging, face-to-face interactions to thrive.
Predictable: The predictable back-and-forth rhythm of conversations and playful interactions teaches babies the rules of social interaction and creates a template for future language development. It is never too early to have conversations with your baby. When you imitate your baby’s earliest sounds (“oohs” and “aahs,” then “buhs” and “das”) you may see her imitate you in return. Together you are practicing the rhythm of a conversation, much like, “Hi, how are you?” “I’m fine, how are you?” “Good, thanks.” You can also teach your baby this conversational format through play – he rolls the ball; I roll it back. I cover my eyes; baby makes a sound or movement in anticipation; I make a sound to signal my return and open my eyes wide; we both smile (and likely repeat the sequence – babies looooove repetition). You are teaching the back-and-forth rhythm, the give-and-take that characterizes social interactions and promotes optimal brain development.
Soothing: When your baby is in distress, you respond by helping him calm down his body’s stress response and get back to baseline. Over time, he will internalize the soothing you provide, and learn to self-soothe. Each time you soothe him and help him get back to a well-regulated state, you are teaching his brain to shift out of the startle of “fight or flight” reaction and regain access to the part of our brain we use to think. The brains of babies who are chronically stressed and without adult help may become so focused on detecting threat that it can be hard to pay attention and learn. It is our job to help our babies feel safe and protected, so that they can spend more time strengthening the “thinking part” of their brain that they use to learn and solve problems. When you help your baby work through stressful moments, you are helping his brain develop in a way that supports school-readiness skills!
Please note: no parent is always attuned, has baby “conversations” 24/7, or perfectly responds to her baby’s distress. We are not aiming for perfection; that’s not in anyone’s best interest. We are aiming for pretty good most of the time – it is enough to be “good enough.” When we’re exhausted and stressed out ourselves, it may be difficult to interact with our babies in an attuned, predictable and soothing way. You need to take good care of yourself so that you are equipped to give your baby the head start he deserves.