As a human species, we were never designed to go it alone in the baby-rearing department and yet, that is exactly the expectation our modern culture has recently (in evolutionary terms) upheld. The baby is typically the sole responsibility of the nuclear family, and really, just the parents . . . and many times, just one parent. This is an enormous diversion from the norm when considering most of human history. If you’ve been that one and only caregiver for an infant, the necessity to bring others into the mix is quickly clear. But how exactly do we modern parents meet those unrelenting newborn needs, short of hiring a full time nanny and housekeeping staff?
The degree to which baby needs us to embrace the help of others has been less obvious. But decades of developmental research clearly demonstrate the importance of sensitive, emotionally responsive care giving, especially in the first year or so of a baby’s life, and more recent neuroscience is confirming this. Allan N. Schore, PhD, who is a top authority on how emotional relationships in infancy shape the human brain for life, says, “During critical periods, brain growth is exquisitely susceptible to adverse environmental factors such as dysregulating interpersonal affective experiences . . . which negatively impact infant mental health.” This is not one expert opinion, but the conclusion of a thought leader who specializes in synthesizing the latest findings from studies across disciplines like neuropsychology and developmental neuroscience. (If you’d like a thorough breakdown of the plethora of research available to back up this line of thinking, check out a textbook or two Schore has authored, like The Science of the Art of Psychotherapy or most recently, Evolution, Early Experience and Human Development.)
The critical periods Schore refers to happen disproportionately in the first 18 months of life. During the first two years of your baby’s life, she will form all of her brain structures and her brain volume will grow from 25 percent of its final size to 80 percent. The fact that the brain is so unfinished at birth, forms so incredibly quickly and directly in response to “other brains” as Dr. Schore astutely states, makes a biological basis for Alloparenting undeniable. Baby simply needs more attention than modern environments are able to give. One reason this is true, is that those “dysregulating interpersonal affective experiences” (translation: emotional experiences related to others, or lack of others, which throw the maturing nervous system out of balance) that Schore cautions against are a constant threat in the reality of modern life with a baby, especially in the first three to four months.
While not a popular assertion in the mainstream, science does seem to suggest that someone has to be hands-on and synced in virtually around the clock in order to give the average baby what she needs for optimum brain development. And yet, a mother is just one person (or father; I’m assuming here that one parent is out being the breadwinner). How can one person provide all the regulation, loving input, affection and holding a completely helpless, unfinished little person needs 24/7 when she or he has a zillion other responsibilities? Part of the answer has to be that those needs be met by more than one—some modern form of alloparenting.
Anthropological evidence shows that, even before mom’s role expanded to include board meetings, financial reports and the PTA, she needed a great deal of help, especially in the first year. Our human ancestors parented in groups and many experts, like anthropologist, Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, PhD, believe the practice of engaging multiple caregivers was a key to the survival of our species. It may also have, in part, allowed for our bigger brains, heightened intelligence, and social complexity—all good things. And yet, our modern culture in many ways has strayed from this essential component of human well-being and perhaps even survival. Sure we have daycare to take over after mom goes to work, but there are empirically based concerns about the mental health impact of daycare in the first year, primarily for the emotional-regulation reasons Schore and others voice. (There are negative correlations.) Add to that, longitudinal research on neglected babies orphaned at birth suggests that by the tender age of four months, the human baby must establish a trust in the world through bonding with another person or be at risk for future mental health disorders. Yet, the first three to four months can be exactly when many modern mothers feel most isolated and exhausted, often interfering with her ability to regulate and bond.
The postpartum depression rates for both mothers and fathers (spirally upwards of 20 percent) suggest the impossibility that has been perpetuated as “work-life balance.” Could alloparenting be the missing key? It’s a question that goes beyond the “mommy wars” over working outside the home or practicing a certain parenting style. The current neuroscience strongly suggests that a “high-nurturing” and “attuned” caregiver who regulates baby’s emotions is the most important component of optimum brain development, whether mom goes to the office or not. Sensitive care-giving with lots of positive face-to-face interaction, scientists are seeing, is far more influential than whether baby goes in the crib at night and the stroller during the day (unless, of course, he’s crying the whole time). These are tricky matters, which I’m not dismissing at all, as you’ll see in future blog posts.
The point is we need to focus on the essence of parenting that is good for babies and then figure out how to make it work in reality. Often culture places this the other way around. Practices that transcend the mommy-wars-divide to deliver optimum infant health is going to be a major theme of this blog. For me, that has meant choosing caregivers who bond with my babies. It has meant hanging around the preschool longer than I was welcome until my little guy stopped clinging and started playing, rather than having him peeled off of me by a stranger; it has even meant not working for a period of time.
What have you done or are you doing to ensure your baby’s emotional regulation? Let’s share strategies and ideas, especially when it comes to rallying the support of others to get our babies the attention they need to thrive. With grandparents (the most common alloparents traditionally) suffering failing health at younger ages and extended families facing geographical distance, many of us have to get creative. We have to bring in substitute family to fill the biologically based void in baby care—the void of others. Flexible work schedules, extended maternity and paternity leave are probably needed, I admit, but alloparenting is not to be overlooked in closing the gap between what baby needs and what parents can give.
World-renowned biological anthropologist, James McKenna, PhD, who has studied the early motherhood era for decades, became fascinated early in his prolific career by a question that has likely crossed most moms’ minds at some point: “What is it that makes caring for a baby so difficult for some and fairly breezy for others?” (I’m paraphrasing the question.) The single biggest factor, McKenna concluded, in determining a thriving newborn chapter, was given to me, without hesitation, in one word: “alloparenting.” I would add one adjective that would make it healthier too, based on what I’ve learned about brain development from Schore and others: emotionally-regulating alloparenting. It’s a tall order, and yet, there it is. We can’t deny it; how are we going to meet it?