My Brain grows faster when you you relax with me...
“ When I was born I had no way to calm myself down or to manage my own reactions. When we are stressed our bodies are full of chemicals that make us active so that we can deal with whatever is upsetting us. These chemicals can be bad for the brain if we can’t get the stress under control.
So when I feel stressed I need you to help me. My body works in tune with yours. When I am stressed I need you to calm down!
I know that having a baby is stressful. But if you can find ways to relax when you are with me, you can make a big difference to the way my brain works.
When you relax your heartbeat slows down – and so does mine. Your breathing slows down – and so does mine. Your blood pressure drops – and so does mine. Your muscles relax – and so do mine. Then you feel calm and comfortable, and so do I. That calm relaxed feeling fills my body with chemicals that help my brain to grow.
Just remember that my brain works more slowly than yours, so it may take some time for me to respond.”
• Try to end exciting play or activity sessions with a wind-down time in which you and your baby can enjoy a few moments of calm.
• Think about what makes a relaxing space for your baby to be in – soft lighting, warmth and gentle sounds all help.
• Sing or hum if you or your baby are getting stressed – this will help you relax and is very soothing for your baby. Singing is better than shouting!
• Try to have some time when you are just focused on the warmth, sounds, sights and smells of your baby, not on things you need to get done, or on people or events that have made you upset or angry.
• Find some of your own time to do the special things that help you relax – you have to look after yourself if you want to look after your baby.
• Relax into being a parent – the experience can be unfamiliar, scary or leave you feeling guilty or stressed, but all parents have had to learn the hard way.
• A baby that has become over-tired and over-stimulated may need particular help to wind down. A close cuddle, rhythmic rocking and persistent Ssh-ing in a dark environment will sometimes ‘reset’ an over-stimulated baby brain.
Stress and brain development
Stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol can injure the human brain. Under the impact of unregulated stress, these excessive hormones change blood supply to key areas of the brain such as those that control language and the self-regulation of mood and impulse. This is the organic explanation for the survival mechanism of fight or flight, in which brain functions that slow down response times (such as thinking) are switched off.
If excessive stress is toxic to the adult human brain, it is much more toxic to the rapidly developing brain of a baby. Yet human babies are not born able to self-regulate stress. They must acquire this ability through attunement to at least one adult who can self-regulate their own stress. As the adult relaxes the attuned baby also relaxes, and this builds patterns in the brain enabling the child to begin to self-regulate.
So relaxation is a vital activity for parents. Relaxation techniques can be learned, and learning to relax in the presence of the child is a key skill for all parents.
When relaxation is impossible for a parent, perhaps because they are experiencing a mental disorder such as depression or post-traumatic stress disorder, then they can help their baby’s brain development by making sure that the baby does have access to at least one reliable adult who can relax with the child.
Like all these brain-building activities, relaxation in the parent can involve both soothing and stimulation. Sometimes when a child is in an agitated state they can only be soothed by the parent matching the level of stimulus so that the child re-attunes to the parent. Then when the parent relaxes the child is able to relax with them.
Using saliva swab tests, scientists have been able to measure toxic levels of the stress hormone cortisol in distraught babies whose cries elicit no response from parent or carer.
The cycle of attunement
This may sound like a paradox, but as Allan Schore shows, healthy brain development requires both attunement and misattunement. The baby develops self-regulation through a rhythmic cycle of attunement, which soothes the child, and misattunement, which agitates the child and causes them to initiate re-attunement. In this way the young child develops resilience, becoming able to handle stress and to find change interesting.
This misattunement and re-attunement is also the way that children become able to manage their own impulses. When they do something unacceptable the parent shows them through facial expression and tone of voice that they have made a mistake. The child experiences a moment of shame as a result of this brief misattunement. But re-attunement enables the child to build a brain pattern for managing shame and for learning from mistakes.
This is the origin of the capacity for social learning, and for recognising social cues. It is regulatory patterning, providing the child with the ability to self-regulate impulses and shame.