The Power of Early Childhood Experiences
Brain Develops Better When Mom Bonds Well with Baby

By Alan Mease, MD, COL/USA (Ret)
Center for Health Advancement
Arkansas Department of Health

When they're born, human babies' brains are less developed than most animals' brains. Babies' brains develop rapidly in the first year. The lower part of the brain, responsible for the baby's stress response, is well developed at birth.

Signals to the brain from inside the body and the five senses outside the body tell a baby's brain when something is wrong. When this happens the baby is distressed and cries. That response can be caused by hunger, thirst, pain or even anxiety caused by separation from mother.

The mother who is tuned in (also known as "attuned") to her baby will repeatedly respond by lovingly nursing, holding, touching or rocking to relieve the baby's distress. This causes the baby to feel pleasure and forms a strong emotional connection between the two. This nurturing connection or attunement is necessary for the baby's normal brain development. The most important task of the first year of life is to create this secure connection between baby and mother.

This secure connection between mother and baby is necessary for the baby's right brain to develop normally. The right brain grows rapidly from the last part of pregnancy through the second year. Babies do not have memories of the first few years of life. But abnormal development of the right brain has lifelong bad effects. These cast a long shadow on the future relationships of that baby, including the future ability to parent.

Nurturing interactions are very important throughout the first year. During this time, the brain's volume is increasing by 101 percent.

In the first three years of life the emotional right brain is better developed than the left. Anything that interferes with connection/attunement between mother and baby is traumatic to the infant's developing brain.

The mother must be able to tune in to or read the baby's cry and distress. Basic communication between mother and baby is based on all five senses including sight.

The sensitive mother responds by learning to read the baby's emotional state. The infant will express distress initially by crying and then screaming. Parents and those around them need to understand the importance of establishing this secure emotional connection between mother and baby. Many things can interfere with this connection. Over the last two decades, research has shown that a mother's use of drugs and alcohol, environmental chaos, neglect, toxic stress and maternal depression can and do interfere.

Any trauma the mother experienced as a baby is also a risk factor. We parent as we were parented. Asking your mother what her life was like during the later part of her pregnancy with you and your first year of your life may give you clues.

You can change the patterns but it takes recognition, effort and sometimes professional help. The effects of this trauma are life-long and passed from one generation to the next. No parent decides to mistreat their children but unhealthy patterns in your right brain are not conscious. They are strong but can be changed. When you hear the voice of your parent coming out of your mouth when speaking to your baby, you recognize the power of how you were parented.

Understanding the critical nature of early life experiences and the long-term effects of early trauma is important. The way a society works is a reflection of the parenting practices of that society. We cannot ignore the results of early childhood trauma on the developing brain. As a society, we must find ways to better support new mothers and babies and decrease anything that interferes with their connection.

"At a time when the brain is most easily shaped — infancy and early childhood — we spend the fewest public dollars to influence brain development. However, expenditures on programs designed to change the brain dramatically increase for later stages of development (e.g., mental health, substance abuse or juvenile justice interventions)."

- Bruce Perry, MD, How Early Childhood Experience Shapes Child and Culture, 2004