To varying degrees, a compromised first year of life is the norm, because factions of our society rail against any aspect of parenting seen as interfering with women's career advancement. The ability to return to the workplace quickly and seamlessly is considered paramount. Child development advocates like Darcia Narvaez, PhD, argue that our values are due for a upgrade (see part one of this post). Should we sacrifice our careers somewhat for healthier children and a more compassionate society? Probably. But what if that sacrifice was only on the surface and short-lived?
What if in the long run, the investment we make in our children through Narvaez's Evolved Developmental Niche (EDN) parenting strategies paid dividends at the individual, corporate, and societal levels? What if this investment in very early child development improved the productivity of nations, saved billions on healthcare costs, and even better equalized the gender gap in the workplace?
At the individual level, the benefits of extended breastfeeding and ample loving touch—the core of the EDN—are obviously palpable. We want to give these gifts to our babies. But the mental health savings of investing in the very early years (primarily the first year) can be as well, simply by considering the mental health crisis and among other things, the work of Allan N. Schore, PhD, who shows its roots in infancy.
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, four million children and adolescents in the U.S. suffer from a serious mental disorder that causes significant functional impairments at home, at school, and with peers. Of children nine to 17 years old, 21 percent have a diagnosable mental or addictive disorder that causes at least minimal impairment. We're given a convenient scapegoat for this, of course: darn genetics. But health crises don't reach epidemic proportions because of genetics. Evolution happens through genes, but epidemics occur too quickly. There has to be something going on in the environment. In this case, in the emotional and social environment of the first year or so of life. (Read a presentation by Dr. Allan Schore about how early child rearing quality creates protection against versus risk for mental illness.)
And even that can be okay. If that's when we parents step in. When we offer the greatest gift to the survival-minded baby, soothing, the repeated process culminates into better mental development and better physical health (for soothing tips). When that baby's panic is not calmed, however, as is prescribed in many sleep training methods, it sets into motion a developmental trajectory that's quite the opposite of raising an independent, tough child. It sets the baby's nervous system on high-alert (thus, our current anxiety epidemic). This high-stress state, when left alone, also contributes to a host of physical compromises, from immune to endocrine (hormones). Developmental neuroscience is beginning join biological anthropology to shine a light on the importance of listening to our babies.
In fact, from an evolutionary neuropsychological perspective, babies seem to come programed with the need to feel not only safe, but valued. Feeling valued, which is also communicated each time we respond to our babies' cries, boosts a host of mental health outcomes in the same way the cry-it-out practice increases risks for future anxiety. These innate safety and value needs point to the necessity of specific parenting practices in early life. Enter Darcia Narvaez, Ph.D, professor of psychology at Notre Dame. Her work has shown how getting these instinctual needs met well translates into a foundation for life-long well-being and better mental health. Narvaez has synthesized the latest research to pinpoint exactly what these baby-expected parenting practices are and their corresponding effects on early childhood development.
Narvaez's research indicates that the closer we get to the following these standards, the better, in terms of care that aligns with the natural, biological needs of our babies. She's also coined a term to describe care that falls short of these evolutionary norms: "Undercare." This serves to emphasize that we're not referring to abuse and neglect, but something further down the spectrum that falls short of meeting the instinctual expectations of babies. Those standards of care are: a soothing birth, avoiding stress and pain as much as possible; consistent and positive responsiveness to babies cues/communication; multiple care-givers who are bonded to baby; breastfeeding (on demand and extended); lots of physical contact and affectionate touch; and creative free-play in nature with multiple-aged peers. Narveaz calls this paradigm the Evolved Developmental Niche (EDN) and it's supported by concrete outcomes like, higher intelligence, better development of empathy, social aptitude, and attachment (itself protective against metal illness).
Though numerous studies from across disciplines support the benefits of these ancient parenting practices, they don't tend to mesh well with our modern cultural ideal of the "good baby": one who dutifully plays with a light-up toy in her isolated playpen, quietly accepts a bottle every 3 hours from day one, and endures being dropped off with a rotating staff of strangers without a fuss. Of course quality daycare transitioned to gradually with respect to the individual baby's comfort can make all the difference. But the reality is, many parents have to get back to work on a timeline that doesn't allow for "gentle" or "comfortable" anything, let alone care anywhere close to the EDN. This makes aspects of modern parenting at odds with the natural needs of babies and this is where the future costs begin to accrue—not just in terms of the human condition, but also financially and economically.
Case in point: short maternity and paternity leaves typically put adequate touch, responsiveness, and breastfeeding on the chopping block. Without a strong multiple-caregiver practice that includes night-care, a 12-week maternity leave—the federal requirement—can be punishing, for both parent and baby. At 12 weeks, maternal exhaustion is often at its peak, as the baby emerges from his fussiest period (2 to 12 weeks). Bonding has just begun for many of those parents with babies on the fussier side (let's face it, it's difficult to bond with a scream machine). The exhilaration of having a new baby has given way to an accumulated sleep deficient previously unmatched. Meanwhile, a 12 week-old baby's social and emotional brain has just blasted off on its fastest growth-spurt ever, featuring structures and systems that form in direct response to human interaction with attachment figures. Critical periods for development that will never occur again are looming large. And at this most vulnerable and crucial time, the baby is to be handed off to institutionalized care during the day and left to cry-it-out alone at night?
In light of healthy psychological development, Narvaez's EDN begins to look less like a parenting manifesto and more like a societal mandate. In Part Two of this post, I'll run the numbers to reveal why EDN-parenting pays dividends at the individual, corporate, and societal levels.
What if this investment in very early child development improved the productivity of nations, saved billions on healthcare costs, and even better equalized the gender gap in the workplace? Here's why it can. So, mommies unite (and daddies, too)! When we fight for a society that supports a high-nurturing babyhood, we all win.
Read Part Two: Why Fathers Provide The Solution here.