One of my recent posts looked at the impact of our beginnings and how the environment we grow up in largely determines how we see the world and, if not changed, how we see the world as an adult. In my work as a therapist it is often very easy to draw a direct link between the two. However, if we look even further back, the very early days of our lives on earth and in fact, the very first few minutes of our lives. This is, also in my opinion an extremely crucial stage for our development.
Bonding should be a natural process that happens as parents take care of their children. As the first days, weeks and months of a baby’s life come and go, their days are regulated by cycles of sleeping, waking, eating and playing. The overriding determinant in the first six months is hunger and sleeping and waking is set around this. When a baby cries, it doesn’t know it is wet, tired, hungry, bored or hot – it just knows something is wrong, and it relies on a loving adult to soothe its feelings. The baby whose basic needs are met learns that the world is a good place, and he or she will retain this sense for life, as almost an instinct. The baby who is neglected or abused cannot regulate its own feelings. If its needs are not met it will scream louder and louder and eventually take refuge in sleep. A baby left to continually scream will experience raised levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which can damage the immune system. The “social” part of the brain only starts to develop at around six months. Where a baby does not receive any attention, this part of the brain does not grow and may nver truly develop fully. This need to be attended to is accompanied by noises increasing in insensitivity until they become extremely loud. As soon as the parents, and especially the mother, fills the need, the baby relaxes and so the cycle goes on. This period is often a trial and error phase for parents as they become attuned to their baby’s needs and they begin to recognise and get to know their newborn’s nuances. How effectively the baby’s needs are met determines how relaxed the child will enter the next cycle of sleeping, waking and indeed development.. Even though, it is fully ok to have outside practical help during this phase, it is extremely important that the parents are responsible for taking care of the baby’s emotional needs, however difficult that may be. That is a parent’s responsibility. At the heart of the bonding process is the parents’ ability to help the baby regulate its emotional states. This is done during times of play and excitement where hormones are produced on both sides which have an elevating effect. The baby’s emotions are regulated here by eye-to eye and skin to skin contact. A baby will not be able to communicate verbally but will use facial gestures to imply joy at the experience. Parents need to be adept at picking these up. These experiences create a sense of security for children which allows them to build a foundation for exploration and the ability to trust.
When this process goes wrong, children can suffer developmental trauma. This occurs when the primary caregivers do not attune themselves to the emotional needs of the baby and fail to provide the baby’s basic requirements for nurturing, comfort and guidance. One aspect of birth that needs to be taken into account here are the effects of a traumatic birth. Many babies constantly cry due to the effects of birth, leaving parents feeling frustrated and incompetent and unable to provide comfort to their baby. ( A German scientist, Dr Gutmann (Traumatic Birth Syndrome) discovered that up to 80 percent of newborns that he examined were suffering from injury to the spine.) When parents are unable (or unwilling) to meet their child’s basic needs, there is often a disengagement from the baby. Some parents even take it personally or live under the belief that the child hates them or does it intentionally. Children then experience this loss of emotional attunement as overwhelming and suffer a sense of abandonment. This is well known to produce changes in their bodies and hormones and produce symptoms similar to PTSD.
One must add at this point that none of the above normally occurs as a result of malicious intent on the part of the parents. The first six months of a baby’s life is extremely taxing for the parents and mistakes are made. However, parents must realise that the “small” events that take place in the first six months of life set the foundation for mental health and life long development of their child. The concept of developmental trauma also has a bearing on how children see relationships and their ability to form them and see them as secure. Children who have not bonded sufficiently often become disengaged. They fear the world and they fear change. They are often timid and shy and have difficulty exploring outside their small comfort zone. They often turn into reactive adults unable to anticipate and need concrete assurances before taking action. They often close off feelings, engage in compulsive behavior to numb this but have a rigid inflexible view of life which only increases their anxiety.
More on the importance of bonding and what parents can do to help this process can be found HERE
Dr. Nicholas Jenner is a counseling psychologist in private practice working with individuals, couples, groups and companies with a speciality in CBT techniques. Apart from seeing clients face-to-face, Dr. Jenner also runs a thriving online therapy business bringing help to those who find taking therapy online as convenient and tailored for their needs. More Details HERE