If you have ever found yourself in an argument about whether smacking a child or leaving them to cry is unacceptable and been faced with “It never did me any harm”, you will enjoy the scientific rationale in this book.
Sunderland explains that at birth a baby’s brain is unfinished, there are many loose circuits still to be connected and a child’s brain development will be affected by positive and negative parent-child interactions. The negative changes that occur in the brain of a baby left to cry can have long term effects on personality and self-fulfillment as an adult. Similarly a child who is regularly smacked will have different brain connections to a child who isn’t smacked.
Some accepted ways of being with children can leave them vulnerable to suffering from anxiety, depression, or rage in later life.
Your child’s brain
The three interconnected parts of the brain are decribed, one part is the higher human rational brain but the other two parts (mammalian and reptilian) can override our higher brain and we can then behave like any animal under attack. As parents we can help children to manage their primitive brain reactions effectively. Without our help, insufficient emotional responsiveness from parents will lead to adults who can’t show empathy or concern and who have similar brain activity to a toddler when fully grown.
Crying it out; does it cause any harm?
Sunderland doesn’t mince words on this topic. Harmful chemical changes occur in the brain of a baby left to cry. Stress in infancy is now being linked to stress in later life ie anxiety and depressive disorders, or addictions to using alcohol or drugs. Other ailments that can be caused include asthma, heart disease, eating disorders, digestive disorders, poor sleep, high blood pressure, headaches, tension, fatigue and irritable bowel syndrome. The more responsive we are when a baby cries the greater regulation of her body arousal systems and the minimizing of long-term affects.
Separation and bedtimes
Separation is described as a physical pain to a baby or child. By clinging to mummy your little one is trying to calm himself and he needs mum to help him as he can’t do it on his own due to immaturity. Sunderland talks about the damaging effects of enforced separation on a child and confirms that “clingy” behaviour is normal developmentally and by meeting this need, by soothing your child, you are investing in their future health. Co-sleeping (practiced safely) is recommended to regulate a baby’s body system. Bonding continues at night and skin-to-skin contact gives thermal synchrony.
What is normal behaviour
It is normal for children to jump on beds or run around shops as their brains haven’t developed their own controlling mechanisms while a child who says “no” is showing signs of being able to stand up for herself. Sunderland goes on to explain how violent behaviour as an adult is linked to the violence experienced as a child. Correcting behaviour with anger, criticism and commands can lead to oversensitive rage systems in your child’s lower brain. Disciplining your child in ways that uphold her dignity is a great gift in terms of her future mental health and her social and emotional intelligence.
Many other fascinating facts in the book include the link between smoking in pregnancy and depression as an adult, the link between stress in pregnancy and sexuality and the long-term effects of bullying. Interestingly there is little reference to breastfeeding or the benefits of breastmilk to the developing brain which seems to leave a large missing chapter to the book. However a powerful message is conveyed, all with the backing of science and will hopefully empower parents to do the very best for their small children.
Everyone should read this book!