Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Cuddle your baby to help make them a happier adult

Anyone who's ever been on a customer service course for work will no doubt have been given some variation on the theme of "behaviour breeds behaviour".  You know, if you're nice and calm and pleasant to someone and it looks like you really care about them, then they are likely to respond in kind. If you ignore them, or patronise them or lie to them, they are going to get angry, and understandably so.

That common sense approach, of treating others in the way you would want to be treated has positive benefits for all of human relationships - with, some would say, one exception.

Regime orientated parenting methods, some of which have every minute of the day planned in excruciatingly unachievable detail, encourage parents to treat their tiny babies as if they are animals to be trained rather than little people to be nurtured. Gina Ford suggests that babies be put to sleep, alone, in rooms that have been completely blacked out and if they cry, then let them.  There are other methods which discourage eye contact between mother and baby and not responding to baby's cries. Instinctively I feel that these methods are unbelievably cruel and I would never practice or advocate them, but do they actually cause harm?

Some new research has proven that babies who are shown affection by their mothers end up being better able to cope as adults in a range of situations - they are less prone to depression and better at dealing with stress, for a start. It seems so obvious, but it's good this now adds to the growing body of evidence that responsive parenting and gentle nurturing produce happier, better balanced adults who are more able to cope with the stresses life throws at them.

This sort of research is important because it gives mums the confidence to follow their own instincts with their babies rather than fear spoiling them by being over attentive. It's useful for them to have that sort of evidence to show family members who are doubtful about what they are doing.

I think the other thing that's good about this research is that it specifically states that it's the affection from the mother which makes the difference. I don't think that we value mothering or mothers nearly enough but this research shows how important that relationship is in determining our emotional wellbeing in later life. There's a really good book called What mothers do especially when it looks like nothing that has a look at what happens when you become a mother and how important it is to spend time building trust with the baby by responding to them.  Our society is very quick to blame a mother when anything goes wrong with her child, but very slow to reward and give mothers credit for their phenomenal work raising the next generation.

I hope that research like this, showing unequivocally that being affectionate with and responsive to babies, finally discredits those who would undermine the mother/baby relationship. There are lots of complex inter-relationships between mother and baby, on a physical and emotional level,  that we much about with at our peril.

As Dr Joanna Maselko, the lead author of the research says:

"These provocative findings add to the growing evidence that early childhood helps set the stage for later life experiences and provide support for the notion that biological "memories" laid down early may alter psychological and physiological systems and produce latent vulnerabilities or resilience to problems emerging later in adulthood.
"Thus, the quality of early socio-emotional development may have more far-reaching effects than previously believed.
"These findings suggest that early nurturing and warmth have long-lasting positive effects on mental health well into adulthood."
Given the huge social and financial cost of mental health problems such as Depression, and drug and alcohol addiction which cause immense suffering for people who are rarely sufficiently supported and treated, isn't it time that we use evidence such as this to try to prevent it? The message is simple - affection in the early years of life pays dividends in the future. That's not to say that everyone who suffers from these conditions wasn't shown affection as a baby, but that will be a factor for some people.

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