Dec. 5, 2005 -- When Sonia Ruschak's 5-month-old daughter, Violet, wasn't napping much, she started to feel stressed. Then the problem got worse -- her daughter became even crankier and slept less. After a while, Ruschak decided to stop worrying -- and suddenly things got better.
"I definitely think she relaxed more and cried less when I stopped stressing," she said.
While parents have long felt their children read and react to their emotional states, scientists have only recently begun quantifying that connection and considering its importance in a child's development. Their research shows that the connection between an infant and a primary caregiver is so key that there can be drawbacks to placing the child in day care very early in life. Later on, however, there may be benefits to some separation.
Allan Schore, a leading neuroscientist at the University of California, Los Angeles' Center for Culture, Brain, and Development, points out that the parent-child connection during a child's first year can not only affect a child's psychological state, it actually plays a role in physically shaping the brain. Meanwhile, a study from the University of Bath, in England, has shown that placing 3- to 5-year-olds in day care can benefit the psychological well-being of both parent and child.
"The research is now moving out of theoretical science and into practical science to the point where we can begin advising pediatricians about what advice to offer parents," Schore said.
Schore recently amassed a large body of research looking at infant brain development and added his own studies to conclude that parent-child interaction plays a key role in shaping the right side of infants' brains. Animal studies and functional MRI studies have shown that neurons fire and develop here as a child interacts with his or her main caregiver. His findings were published in June in Pediatrics in Review.
"The key is you're getting genetic and learned experience together. The primary caregiver affects more than just the psychology of the child and even the psychobiology of the child, they affect their brain, itself," he said.
Right Brain Construction
Putting in time with your baby (or having someone else do so) may not guarantee they'll become brilliant mathematicians or musicians, Schore cautions. Instead, the benefits appear to be more internal. It's the child's ability to handle stress and feel emotionally secure, he says, that evolves during this early part of life.
"We've been looking into the brain of the infant, knowing it will double or triple in the first year of life and found it is not just shaped by genetics but also by experience in the last trimester of pregnancy through the child's first year and a half of life," he said. "The child's brain becomes the product of early attachments."
A parent or other caregiver can provide this early attachment, Schore said, but large day-care situations may be less ideal. Studies have shown infants placed in day care too young may not receive sufficient interaction, he said, and researchers have measured higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol.
Schore argues all the research points to the idea that a longer maternity leave is necessary in this country.
"In other cultures like in Europe the maternal leave is 56 weeks, here it is six weeks. Other cultures have learned how to protect that relationship. We have not," he said. "It places a lot of stress on young couples."
When Day Care Reduces Stress
That said, other research points out the benefits of day care for older children. Julie Turner-Cobb of the University of Bath, in England, recently tested the cortisol levels from saliva samples of 56 children ages 3 and 4 years old over six months. She found that children who attended day care had lower levels of the stress hormone when in day care -- particularly if their mothers were facing a lot of stress at work.
"The research suggests that using day care as a resource may help the mother get through a difficult period at work," Turner-Cobb said. "In doing so, it may provide a positive resource for her, which in turn has beneficial effects on family environment and a happier, healthier mother and child."
For parents, thinking about their child's brain development and psychobiological state may be a little daunting -- particularly when it can be tough enough just figuring out the basics such as sleeping through the night, toilet training and solid-food feeding. Schore's advice? As Violet's mom figured out on her own -- don't stress.
"The idea of trying to be a perfect mother or father is not necessary," he said. "Babies and children are good at adapting and it's an important skill. Plus there is a lot of plasticity in the brain."
Both he and Turner-Cobb added the aim of their work is to help -- not worry parents.
"I think most of us doing this kind of research are now looking at it not only from a scientific point of view, but from a more emotional level as parents and grandparents," Schore said. "It's important for the culture to understand and provide for parents and their children because it can have results in the long term for society."