Archive for March, 2012

Foundations of narcissism in infancy

Stress-reactive people are often what outsiders perceive as egocentric, paranoid, volatile, and often become violent in response to perceived threats. Being stress-reactive means you have a low tolerance for threat; and perceived threats will trigger irrational actions and can even destroy health and accelerate aging. (Robert Sapolsky summarizes this research in his bestseller, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers.) In the face of a perceived threat, a stress-reactive individual’s compassion and empathy fly out the window, and self-preservation mode takes over. We often refer to those who default to this mode as being narcissists.

A fantastic article on Psychology Today talks about how stress-reactivity in adults can tear apart society, and it’s foundations form in infancy. One popular method that undermines healthy reactions to stress are methods that encourage parents to not respond to a child’s distress:

[When babies are left to cry, with no parental attempt at timely comforting,] epigenetic effects occur (genes are turned on or off and become part of subsequent cell generation). As a result, brain stress response systems can be wired permanently for oversensitivity and overreactivity (Anisman, Zaharia, Meaney, & Merali., 1998), leading to predispositions for clinical depression and anxiety (Barbas et al., 2003; de Kloet, Sibug, Helmerhorst, & Schmidt, 2005; see Watt & Panksepp, 2009, for a review), poor mental and physical health outcomes, and accelerated aging and mortality (for a review, Preston & de Waal, 2002)

Unrelieved distress in early life reduces the expression of GABA genes, leading to anxiety and depression disorders as well as increased use of alcohol for stress relief (Caldji, Francis, Sharma, Plotsky, & Meaney, 2000; Hsu et al., 2003). When emotional dysregulation becomes chronic, it forms the foundation for further psychopathologies (Cole, Michel & Teti, 1994), especially depression.

Infant emotional dysregulation is related to subsequent mental illness, including a propensity for violence (Davidson, Putnam & Larson, 2000). Stress that leads to “insecure attachment” disrupts emotional functioning, compromises social abilities and can promote a permanent bias towards self-preservation (Henry & Wang, 1998; also see Schore, in press, for a review). Children who are not nurtured well in early life tend to be more stress reactive, aggressive and troublesome.

Bottom line: Parents shape self-control in babyhood with nurturing care. Making sure babies’ needs are met promptly builds calm systems. Parents who don’t respond to baby’s needs lead to systems that are poorly shaped and easily stressed. What the baby’s body “practices” (calmness or distress) becomes habitual.


 Babies cannot sooth their own distress, and require a caregiver to calm them down when crying or alarmed. How we respond to their cues lays a foundation for future stress responses; cries that are not responded to flood the brain with stress-hormone cortisol, which can prevent the formation of critical neuron synapses in critical areas of the brain responsible for forming attachments and emotional wellbeing.
The message is clear: old advice to leave babies alone to “self-sooth” is erroneous and damaging; not responding to cries in a timely manner lays a poor foundation for mental health.
Anticipating stressful situations and reactions before they escalate is easier than trying to relax a hysterical baby. Practicing empathic attachment-parenting ensures that care-givers and babies are in sync.

Weekly round up

Here’s what else we’ve been reading this week:

(c)j.phipps/shutterstockEarly exposure to germs has lasting benefits: 
Findings help to explain how microbes programme a developing immune system. (via


No More Timeouts, No More Tiger Moms: How to Discipline Your Kids by Disciplining Yourself:  
Article by Mayim Bialik, Ph.D. Author of Beyond the Sling (via

Feeding Your Baby On Demand ‘May Contribute to Higher IQ’

Yet another reason to ignore advice that says to feed your baby on a schedule: Babies fed on demand demonstrate higher IQ scores.

Credit: © Oleg Kozlov / Fotolia

Credit: © Oleg Kozlov / Fotolia

“The finding is based on the results of IQ tests and school-based SATs tests carried out between the ages of five and 14, which show that demand-feeding was associated with higher IQ scores. The IQ scores of eight-year-old children who had been demand-fed as babies were between four and five points higher than the scores of schedule-fed children, says the study published in the European Journal of Public Health.”

Science Daily

More info on the benefits of nursing a baby on demand 

Common antibiotic linked to asthma: UBC research

Photo by: file, google imageAntibiotics may be linked to the onset of asthma, according to UBC research:

“The team found that mice treated with vancomycin as pups were not only more susceptible to asthma but also ended up with a “strikingly reduced” number of t-reg cells, which are key players in the immune system. Finlay says a reduction in t-reg cells pushed the immune system into a “more allergic mode.” …

Meanwhile, the findings add to mounting evidence about the importance of “microbiota” — the diverse and huge collection of bacteria, fungi and other microorganisms that have lived in and on humans over the eons.

“The message it (the study) drives home is the whole idea that you do need your microbiota to develop normally,” says Finlay, explaining how the microorganisms children encounter early in life help stimulate and shape the immune system. “There is a reason kids are crawling around the floor hoovering everything up.”

He and his colleagues say microbes play a big role throughout life — such a big part that some researchers have taken to describing people as highly complex human-bacteria hybrids or “super organisms.” Bacterial cells living in and on a healthy human body outnumber human cells by a factor of 10.

“We are discovering that a disruption of these bugs is associated with a number of chronic health conditions”

This new research will hopefully have an effect on our culture’s over-perscription of antibiotics :

Ouellette says the University of British Columbia findings underscore that antibiotics should be used judiciously: “Giving antibiotics to young children, which disturb their normal bacterial flora, should not be taken lightly.”


Supportive parenting builds better brains

Love is all you need? Maybe not quite, but a recent study published by The National Academy of Sciences shows in new terms the impact that positive parental care has on a child’s brain:

Maternal support observed in early childhood was strongly predictive of hippocampal volume measured at school age. The positive effect of maternal support on hippocampal volumes was greater in nondepressed children. These findings provide prospective evidence in humans of the positive effect of early supportive parenting on healthy hippocampal development, a brain region key to memory and stress modulation.

Positive parenting enhances neurogenesis, and it isn’t limited to mothers:

The experience of a nurturing caregiver early in life has proven to be one of the most essential prerequisites for healthy development and adaptive functioning in mammals (37). The current data provide evidence that the well-established significant impact of positive parenting on enhancing and maintaining hippocampal neuroplasticity, likely through epigenetic mechanisms enhancing neurogenesis, as suggested by the work of Naumova et al. (17), may also to be operative in humans. Further, it was notable that this effect remained robust even after controlling for other factors known to impact hippocampal volume, such as stressful life events and maternal history of depression. Importantly, although 96.7% of caregivers in this study sample were mothers, we expect that this effect pertains to the primary caregiver (the provider of nurturance) whether it be mother, father, grandparent, or other.


Also covered by CNN: Love key to brain development in children

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The hormonal costs of subtle forms of infant maltreatment

Stress isn’t just an adult issue; a 2003 study confirmed that even subtle forms of maltreatment have a impact on how children respond to stress.

Mothers who are emotionally unavailable (either due to depression or their use of withdrawal as a control tactic) are more likely to have children who demonstrate higher baseline levels of cortisol:

Infants’ hormonal responses were shown here to be re- active to subtle forms of parental maltreatment. Mothers who were emotionally unavailable (either due to depression or their use of withdrawal as a control tactic) were more likely to have children who demonstrated higher baseline levels of cortisol.

Mothers who report using physically harsh discipline are more likely to have children who are hyperreactive to stress:

These findings suggest that very early use of corporal punishment fosters heightened stress when the child is con- fronted with a novel and potentially frightening event—in this case, the presence of a stranger following the departure of the parent. Children’s hormonal reactivity in this setting may be seen as reflecting their vulnerability to unexpected, challenging, or novel life events.

Regardless of how an infant encounters a stressful situation, it’s the role of a supportive parent or caregiver to anticipate and respond to the child’s anxiety in a way that gives them a sense of security and models empathy; the parent as both mirror and soother, as opposed to a withdrawn or punitive parent.

In the best circumstances, parents allow children to confront such events in ways that facilitate recovery and “growth”; that is, young children become increasingly able to cope with an expanding world when they are socially supported by their parents in their response and recovery from stress-inducing events within that world.


Enabling empathic minds: a snapshot of cortisol and neurons


It’s a noble pursuit, for a parent, to want to foster in our children as many neuron connections as we can, and a staggering number of these are formed in infancy and early childhood. According to Sebastian Seung, a professor of computational neuroscience and physics at MIT and author of the new book, Connectome, the essence of our personalities and behaviour originate in the billions of these neuron connections in our brains. Time  has an interview with Seung on the amazing implications of being able to map these connections, including the scientific possibility of ‘mind-reading,’ and understanding various neurological conditions.)

While genetics determine our basic blue-print, (we already have nearly all our neurons at birth,) early childhood is a key time for forming connections between them:

“In the brain, the neurons are there at birth, as well as some synapses. As the neurons mature, more and more synapses are made. At birth, the number of synapses per neuron is 2,500, but by age two or three, it’s about 15,000 per neuron. The brain eliminates connections that are seldom or never used, which is a normal part of brain development.

“Windows of opportunity” are sensitive periods in children’s lives when specific types of learning take place. For instance, scientists have determined that the neurons for vision begin sending messages back and forth rapidly at 2 to 4 months of age, peaking in intensity at 8 months. It is no coincidence that babies begin to take notice of the world during this period.”

Parents help lay the groundwork for these connections daily, consciously or not, through environmental and sensory stimulation. But how about being mindful of factors which can contribute to what has been termed “neuron death?”
Cortisol, the stress hormone, plays an important role in many of our bodily systems, such as blood pressure, immune response, and glucose metabolism.  Cortisol is part of our proper response to stress, pain, and maintains homeostasis in the body. However, prolonged and/or consistently elevated cortisol levels in the bloodstream, secreted by the adrenal gland in the absence of activation of the body’s essential relaxation response, is a neuron killer (Panksepp, 1998), and children who are spanked frequently (see also: Early Spanking Increases Toddler Aggression, Lowers IQ,), experience the effects maternal emotional withdrawal, as well as babies left to ‘cry it out’, demonstrate higher levels of cortisol. Without the chance for the cortisol spikes to return to normal, a state of chronic stress can result. Responding instantly to a baby’s cues are one way of inducing this essential relaxation response. Thanks to neuroscience,  we now know that routinely letting babies get distressed is a practice that can damage children and their relational capacities in many ways for the long term.

If you want to help make a planet full of super-empathic mind readers, one small step is refusing the practices which create a toxic environment for optimal neuron synapse development.