One evening in Gran Canaria, I noticed a book lying abandoned on a deck chair, next to a pretty pink scarf. It was still there the evening after. The third evening someone had moved both items from the deck chair (probably they wanted to use it!) onto a ledge. The scarf looked nice but not my colour. The book I picked up because it had a smiling baby on the front cover. If no one had claimed it during three evenings, I figured I could adopt it.
From the back cover of Why Love Matters – How Affection Shapes a Baby’s Brain:
Why Love Matters explains why love is essential to brain development in the early years of life, and how early interactions between babies and their parents have lasting and serious consequences.
Sue Gerhart goes through all the various ways in which human contact and human relationships affect brain development, and how experiences during the first months and years of life can leave marks for life.
The main thesis is that a baby cannot regulate its own needs, physical or emotional. It needs the help of a caring adult. If that relationship is dysfunctional, if the adult is unable or unwilling to fulfil the baby’s needs, the baby suffers not just immediate discomfort but also longer-term effects. Brain chemistry becomes subtly imbalanced, some parts of the brain do not develop properly, inappropriate emotional habits are founded. In the long run, all kinds of mental and emotional troubles can arise, and Sue Gerhart shows how the former can lead to the latter. Babies of depressed mothers get used to a lack of positive emotions; babies of angry, resentful mothers learn to suppress their feelings. Babies who get no help with soothing negative emotions do not learn how to keep on an even keel.
While some other author on the back cover says “I would recommend it to all new parents” it really isn’t written so as to be accessible by most parents. I would guess it really wasn’t written for the general public but for politicians, social workers, those in charge of childcare facilities, psychologists etc. In particular the book is unlikely to be read by those who need its message the most: those depressed mothers, or the parents who meet their babies’ demands with anger.
A reviewer in The Guardian expresses resounding support and provides a thorough summary.
If there is one thing to take with you from this book, it’s this excerpt (p. 91):
Good timing is a critical aspect of parenting, as well as in comedy. The ability to judge when a baby or child has the capacity to manage a little more self-control, thoughtfulness or independence is not something that books on child development can provide: the timing of moves in a living relationship is an art, not a science. Parents’ sensitivity to the child’s unfolding capacities can often be hampered by an intolerance of dependency. This is partly cultural and partly the result of one’s own early experience. Dependency can evoke powerful reactions. It is often regarded with disgust and repulsion, not as a delightful but fleeting part of experience. It may even be that dependence has a magnetic pull and adults themselves fear getting seduced by it; or that it is just intolerable to give to someone else what you are furious you didn’t gt yourself. […] Often, parents are in such a hurry to make their child independent that they expose their babies to long periods of waiting for food or comfort, or long absences from the mother, in order to achieve this aim. Grandparents only too often reinforce the message that you mustn’t “spoil” the baby by giving in to him.
Unfortunately, leaving a baby to cry or to cope by himself for more than a very short period usually has the reverse effect: it undermines the baby’s confidence in the parent and in the world, leaving him more dependent not less. In the absence of the regulatory partner, a baby can do very little to regulate himself or herself other than to cry louder or to withdraw mentally. But the pain of being dependent like this and being powerless to help yourself leads to primitive psychological defences based on these two options.
[…] The dual nature of the defensive system seems to be built into our genetic programme: it’s either fight or flight. Cry loudly or withdraw. Exaggerate feelings or minimise feelings. Be hyper-aroused or suppress arousal. […] Whichever way the individual turns to find a solution (and these strategies may be used consistently or inconsistently), he or she will not have mastered the basic process of self-regulation and will remain prone to being overdemanding of others or underdemanding.