Take a look at the picture on the right. They are brains. Both belong to three year old children. Why is one so much bigger than the other? This is a very interesting and hugely important topic that is being researched on by neurologists more and more, and might have future implications on how our society raises babies. The answer to the difference in size is: the child with the large brain was constantly looked after and cherished by it’s caregiver, the smaller one was neglected. The brain on the right is not only smaller, but it also lacks some of the most fundamental areas – areas that would enable the child to develop certain capacities such as intelligence, the ability to empathise with others, and also because of the lack of these areas this person will be much more vulnerable for mental and other serious health problems, addiction and violence later in life.
But why is that so? A baby is born with only 20% of the adult’s brain capacity. The other 80% are built up in the first two years. There is now substantial neurological evidence that shows that the way a baby is treated in the first two years determines the development of these 80% of the brain. In order to develop a fully functioning brain, a baby is in need of a caregiver who is constantly and fully responsive to the baby. This constant responsiveness is necessary to build up the brain cells and connections between them. Deficits are permanent – the brain mass that is not being built in the first two years will be lost forever. This is not the place to get into the neurological details of this, but if you’d like to know more about the neurological development of a baby’s brain and what can go wrong in the first two years, I recommend you to read Why Love Matters (click on link to read my book review).
In order to fully develop the brain, a baby needs to be cherished by their caregiver with constant and responsive care. This means: a baby needs to be picked up as soon as she cries, the baby needs to spend her days in a calm environment without stress, the caregiver needs to respond to the baby’s needs quickly, and the baby needs a lot of touch. Also, it is crucial that the main caregiver remains the same – whether it is the mother, a relative, a nanny or nursery staff, in the first 18-24 months a baby needs one main caregiver. In order to thrive later, children are high-need beings in the first two years. Unfortunately our Western culture is very independence driven – in our minds a baby is born as a small grown-up and needs to learn how to be independent from day one. But it is actually quite the opposite – the children that are allowed to be as much dependent as they need to be in the first two years, will generally be the most independent ones later on. I’ll write more about this in another post about separation anxiety.
So, one might wonder: can our babies’ need for being treated as a high-need person be fulfilled by all of today’s childcare options? It’s quite obvious with nannies and childminders: the baby has one constant caregiver, which is good. For the rest just see how responsive the nanny/childminder is. But what about nurseries? It’s really tricky to know what the care for a baby in there actually is like. The caregiver needs to be able to always and quickly be there when the baby needs it, this means the caregiver needs to have enough time for each baby. Also, it is absolutely crucial that the caregiver stays the same over the months and years. If there are lots of staff changes, it can be harmful for the baby’s brain development. Also, staff needs to be educated enough to know about the developmental psychology of a baby. This is serious business with long term effects. But then you hear some very disturbing things. Because the pay is very low, in some nurseries staff changes are often. Also, I’ve seen a documentary on nurseries in Zurich – some staff said they don’t have time to pick up a crying baby, or some are even not allowed to do so. Also, there’s a big debate about Cortisol levels in nursery children. Cortisol is a stress hormone like Adrenalin and is found in much higher dosages in nursery children than in children who are looked after by childminders, nannies and the likes. I’m not going into this now, but if you’re interested, you could do your own research (again, the book Why Love Matters is a good start). Here in the UK, the economy is more than keen to get mums back into work as soon as possible, while the UK’s childcare costs are the highest in Europe. There are talks in the government about how to lower the costs in order to increase childcare availability. Lowering costs can hardly be achieved by the same or even better childcare quality. How does it help if mums help boost the economy, but at the same time we’ll have to pay an increasing amount of money for social services in a few years time?
I’m not saying that external childcare is bad. It can be a good thing if applied properly. But I urge parents to do research about this topic and really inform themselves about what babies need in the first 24 months, and then really scrutinise the childcare places they’re interested in. Don’t just go with the flow and assume that what the others do is the right thing. The first two years are the absolutely most important ones for the future well-being of your child. If you’re trusting someone else to spend those two years with your baby, you’d probably want to do your absolutely best to ensure your baby is in the right hands.