The Affect of a Nurturing Environment on Babies

If survival is the brain’s most important priority, safety is the most important expression of that priority. This is the lesson Harlow’s iron maidens teach us. Babies are completely at the mercy of the people who brought them into the world. This understanding has a behavioral blast radius in infants that obscures every other behavioral priority they have.

How do babies handle these concerns? By attempting to establish a productive relationship with the local power structures—you, in other words—as soon as possible. We call this attachment. During the attachment process, a baby’s brain intensely monitors the caregiving it receives. It is essentially asking such things as “Am I being touched? Am I being fed? Who is safe?” If the baby’s requirements are being fulfilled, the brain develops one way; if not, genetic instructions trigger it to develop in another way. It may be a bit disconcerting to realize, but infants have their parents behaviors in their sights virtually from the moment they come into this world. It is in their evolutionary best interests to do so, of course, which is another way of saying that they can’t help it. Babies have nowhere else to turn.

There’s a window of several years during which babies strive to create these bonds and establish perceptions of safety. If it doesn’t happen, they can suffer long-term emotional damage. In extreme cases, they can be scarred for life.

We know this because of a powerful—and heartbreaking—story from Communist Romania, discovered circa 1990 by Western reporters. In 1966, in an effort to boost the country’s low birthrate, the dictator Nicolae Ceausescu banned both contraception and abortion and taxed those who were childless after age 25—whether married, single, or infertile. As the birthrate rose, so did poverty and homeless-ness. Children were often simply abandoned. Ceausescu’s response was to create a gulag of state orphanages, with children warehoused by the thousands.

The orphanages soon were stripped of resources as Ceausescu began exporting most of Romania’s food and industry to repay the country’s crippling national debt. The scenes in these orphanages were shocking. Babies were seldom held or given deliberate sensory stimulation. Many were found tied to their beds, left alone for hours or days, with bottles of gruel propped haphazardly into their mouths. Many infants stared blankly into space. Indeed, you could walk into some of these hundred-bed orphanages and not hear a sound. Blankets were covered in urine, feces, and lice. The childhood mortality rate in these institutions was sickening, termed by some Westerners “pediatric Auschwitz.”

Horrible as these conditions were, they created a real opportunity to investigate—and perhaps treat—large groups of severely traumatized children. One remarkable study involved Canadian families who adopted some of these infants and raised them back home. As the adopted children matured, researchers could easily divide them into two groups. One group seemed remarkably stable. Social behavior, stress responses, grades, medical issues—all were indistinguishable from healthy Canadian controls. The other group seemed just as remarkably troubled. They had more eating problems, got sick more often, and exhibited increasingly aggressive antisocial behaviors. The independent variable? The age of adoption.

If the children were adopted before the fourth month of life, they acted like every other happy kid you know. If they were adopted after the eighth month of life, they acted like gang members. The inability to find safety through bonding, by a specific age in infancy, clearly caused immense stress to their systems. And that stress affected these children’s behavior years later. They may have been removed from the orphanages long ago, but they were never really free.


Babies that have their needs met grow up to be regular children, babies that are neglected, even in just the first four months, grow up to be gang members.

Folksonomies: parenting attachment parenting child development

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Nicolae Ceauşescu (0.967411): dbpedia | yago
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Adoption (0.698404): dbpedia | freebase | opencyc
Human behavior (0.657857): dbpedia | freebase
Communist Romania (0.644949): dbpedia | freebase
Infant mortality (0.620545): dbpedia | freebase

 Brain Rules for Baby: How to Raise a Smart and Happy Child from Zero to Five
Books, Brochures, and Chapters>Book:  Medina , John (2010-10-12), Brain Rules for Baby: How to Raise a Smart and Happy Child from Zero to Five, Pear Press, Retrieved on 2011-07-27
Folksonomies: parenting pregnancy babies child development


26 AUG 2011

 Human Cognitive Plasticity

Prenatal Influences as Information for the Fetus > Time Sequence > The Affect of a Nurturing Environment on Babies
Infants in the womb are taking in information about the environment into which they will be born, and after they are born they continue to adapt to their environment. A nurturing environment produces good citizens, a harsh environment produces gang members.


11 AUG 2011

 The Science of Social Welfare

Social Welfare grew from a series of studies that determined children and babies who were malnourished or overly stressed suffered lifetimes of problems behaviorally and economically.