A nurturing and responsive environment is a buffer against toxic stress.
Mary Tarsha* is co-author
On-demand services may have spoiled parenting! Yes, by their convenience. For example, we no longer have to plan our schedule around the airing of our favorite program or make efforts to record a particular show. With a few clicks we can escape into streaming thousands of movies (and other forms of entertainment) from our TV, computer, or mobile device. We can use Google to answer a question about almost anything. We can order ahead from a favorite restaurant and our order will be ready when we arrive. An Uber is just around the corner. We don’t have to wait, or slow down our pace. We can stay focused on our own needs and goals. Always thinking ahead.
How does this fast pace focused on getting the next thing done influence our relationships? If we are tilted forward towards checking off the next thing on our list, can we really be in the present moment? Why does it matter? A present-moment focus is linked to happiness (e.g., mindfulness). But it is also required for being a good friend and a good parent.
Being emotionally present is especially important with those who are still learning to be human—babies and young children. They operate at a slower pace and expect caregivers to be with them in the moment (notice how your young child will start to demand attention when you are on the phone—which is probably why we evolved to have a village of caregivers and playmates!)
When we get used to things on demand we start to think that everyone should act accordingly. We lose patience with people who move too slow and or take too long. We can start to think that babies should conform to our preferences on demand too. But they cannot. They follow an inner compass of growth and development. Practically speaking, tending to the needs of babies means meeting their needs in the here and now, not demanding that they conform to adult schedules. Their basic needs are many and include the components of what we call the evolved nest: on-request breastfeeding, extensive affectionate touch, self-directed play and quick responsiveness (see previous post here). When an infant receives care that satiates needs as they arise, with a present-moment focus from the parent or caregiver, the infant develops normally, along a healthy trajectory, into adulthood.
Why does early experience matter so much? Because as the infant’s needs are met, the neuronal architecture of the brain and neurobiological systems are supported as they are developing rapidly, enabling proper functioning. At a very basic level, babies are self-actualizing when their needs are met—they are getting support to follow the inner guidance system that Maslow found so important for self-actualization to occur. Maslow agreed with psychoanalytic theory that the thwarting of the self, of one’s normal path to self-actualization, occurs in early life from the betrayal in relationships. When we don’t provide the evolved nest, it is a betrayal to babies’ soul/spirit/being.
Meeting basic needs in the early years carries long-term benefits that protect the child throughout life, physiologically and psychologically. Adults who received nurturing and responsive care environments in their early years demonstrate greater resilience to stressful situations, better immune functioning, less anxiety and overall, fewer physical health problems (Shonkoff et al., 2012). There is a plethora of research from neuroscience, developmental psychology, molecular biology, chemistry, genomics and sociology validating the importance of early care experiences upon brain development, specifically the prefrontal cortex, amygdala, and hippocampus, critical parts of the brain that control learning, memory, and behavior (Suderman, 2012; Champagne & Meaney, 2007; Gunnar & Quevedo, 2007).
Recognizing the overwhelming, converging evidence from an array of disciplines, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) issued a report in 2012 addressing the importance of early care experience for adult health. The report encourages all pediatricians to be the “front-line guardians of child development” because “many adult diseases should be viewed as developmental disorders that begin early in life” (Shonkoff, 2012, p.2). The AAP is calling for a greater awareness of the importance of early care experiences, proclaiming that many adult diseases begin in early life and more emphasis should be given to providing healthy environments to infants and children.
Unmet Needs = Toxic Stress
So, what happens when an infant’s needs are not met? The Answer: potential toxic stress is created. Toxic stress and traumatic attachments in early life influence brain development, specifically the right hemisphere, resulting in:
- An inability to regulate emotional states under stress, including regulating fear-terror states
- dysregulation of the “fight or flight” system (part of the Autonomic Nervous System); dysregulated “flight” systems results in PTSD and dysregulated “fight” systems potentially leads to aggression disorders
- dysregulation of the vagus nerve which connects with major body systems and governs social capacities (Porges, 2017)
- personality disorders in early adulthood (Schore, 2003).
In short, the individual is stunted or thwarted in reaching their full potential. Long-lasting effects include both personality and emotion regulation disorders. Deprivation of basic needs in the early years of life leads to an internal divisiveness; children become divided within themselves and divided against the world (Narvaez, 2016). It pushes the child off the trajectory for self-actualization.
There is evidence that suggests that deprivation of basic needs (neglect or undercare) may be more detrimental than physical abuse. Neglected children demonstrate more severe cognitive and academic deficits, social withdrawal, limited peer interactions and internalizing problems compared to children who were physically abused (Hildyard & Wolfe, 2002).
Meeting Basic Needs Buffers Against Toxic Stress
Supportive and responsive care has a profound role in mitigating the effects of adverse (stressful) experiences (The National Scientific Council of the Developing Child, 2011). A nurturing and responsive environment is a buffer against toxic stress, helping the infant return to baseline (non-stressed condition) and consequently, continue along an adequate developmental trajectory (for species-typical normal development, the full evolved nest would need to be provided). However, if supportive and responsive care is not provided in the midst of stressful events, toxic stress ensues, and severe traumatic attachments can develop.
A Practical Suggestion for Young Child Care
What is one practical way to increase the quality of infants’ early care experiences? Build extra time into the family’s schedule. Create buffers of time around scheduled events in the caregiving routine. For example, if you need to leave the house by a certain time, factor in an extra 15-20 minutes as a buffer. In this way, if the infant or child requests to nurse, needs a diaper change, needs extra play time, or more affectionate touch, these needs can be met in a non-stressed manner. Extra pockets of time allow the caregiver to meet the infant’s needs, safeguarding against an “on-demand” mentality but also, may diminish the caregiver’s stress. A parent or caregiver that is less stressed and anxious is able to be more responsive to the infant’s need, picking up on subtle cues from their baby. Less mental and emotional energy is dedicated to navigating the schedule (trying to get the infant/child out the door on time), freeing the caregiver to be nurturing, warm and responsive in the here and now, safeguarding against an “on-demand” mentality toward infants. Thus, built in buffers of time have the two-fold benefit of ameliorating caregiving stress and facilitating the meeting of the infant’s needs.
Early Investment in Baby has Long-Term Benefits
When infants and children are not treated with warm, responsive care, bad things happen. However, when they are given a healthy start with responsive, stable and nurturing relationships around them, infants flourish into happy and healthy adolescents and adults. Many pitfalls are avoided and the long-lasting consequences of learning disabilities, emotional disorders and physical health conditions are averted. Investing in infants provides a return of better health and happiness!
What if you didn’t meet your child’s needs in the early years? Even if your child is older, you can begin providing responsive and nurturing care now. See this post about promoting thriving in school-aged children. Physical and emotional health is one of the greatest gifts to any child. All is takes is some time, warmth and responsiveness to their needs.
More on what scholars say about early nurturing here.
More on what babies need here.
*Mary Tarsha is a graduate student in Developmental Psychology and Peace Studies at the Kroc Institute for International Peace at the University of Notre Dame
Champagne, F. A., & Meaney, M. J. (2007). Transgenerational effects of social environment on variations in maternal care and behavioral response to novelty. Behavioral neuroscience, 121(6), 1353.
Gunnar, M. R., & Quevedo, K. M. (2007). Early care experiences and HPA axis regulation in children: a mechanism for later trauma vulnerability. Progress in brain research, 167, 137-149.
Hildyard, K. L., & Wolfe, D. A. (2002). Child neglect: developmental issues and outcomes. Child abuse & neglect, 26(6), 679-695.
Narvaez, D. (2016). Embodied morality: Protectionism, engagement and imagination. Springer.
National Scientific Council on the Developing Child. Excessive Stress Disrupts the Architecture of the Brain: Working Paper #3. Available at: https://developingchild.harvard.edu/resources/wp3/.
Schore, A. N. (2003). Early Relational Trauma, Disorganized Attachment, and the Development of a Predisposition to Violence. Healing Trauma: Attachment, Mind, Body and Brain (Norton Series on Interpersonal Neurobiology), 107.
Shonkoff, Jack P., Andrew S. Garner, Benjamin S. Siegel, Mary I. Dobbins, Marian F. Earls, Laura McGuinn, John Pascoe, David L. Wood, Committee on Psychosocial Aspects of Child and Family Health, and Committee on Early Childhood, Adoption, and Dependent Care. “The lifelong effects of early childhood adversity and toxic stress.” Pediatrics 129, no. 1 (2012): e232-e246.
Suderman, M., McGowan, P. O., Sasaki, A., Huang, T. C., Hallett, M. T., Meaney, M. J., … & Szyf, M. (2012). Conserved epigenetic sensitivity to early life experience in the rat and human hippocampus. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 109(Supplement 2), 17266-17272.