In Part Two we will look at the newborn infant’s senses and introduce critical periods for their development.
Through my studies and research of the mind body brain social connection, I have learnt that our body knows what it needs, is always wise, and at all times, strives to maintain homeostasis. We respond to our environment through our senses and perceptions. These experiences create our thoughts, emotions and beliefs and are not only in our mind and nervous system. Our brain releases chemicals messages (neurotransmitters) that allow it to communicate with itself, and organ tissues. Our body bio-logically responds depending how we perceive the experience. So we are physically reacting, and changing, in response to the thoughts that run through our mind.1 This occurs at all stages of our development from a fetus in utero, to a new born baby and as we grow and become adults.
Dr Sears 2 writes of the "sensitive period" at birth when mothers and newborns are uniquely programmed to be in contact with each other and do good things to each other.
Infants placed skin to skin on their mother, calm. I consider myself fortunate to repeatedly observe newborn babies vital signs normalise, as they snuggle in between their mother’s breasts. Warm, safe and protected, and, if they instinctively orientate towards the breast, nourished. Smell is the newborn’s first sense and they are totally reliant on it. When a baby cannot smell their mother, they perceive their world as unsafe and instead of oxytocin, our love and social bonding hormone, and dopamine our reward hormone, flooding the brain and enabling growth and development, cortisol, our stress activated hormone, is released.3. 4
When I talk about skin to skin and / or enabling breast feeding with new mums and dads / families, I get my own oxytocin release, a warm beautiful feeling between my shoulders that sometimes spreads over my whole body. I see it as a gift, an energy, a knowing that all is as it should be. If I can experience this, how much more does a newborn infant feel when it is critical for their brain connections to wire up flooded with oxytocin.
Did you know the secretions from the little bumps on the breast areola (Montgomery's Tubules) smell like amniotic fluid to a newborn baby?3. Loving skin to skin provides a wonderful way to calmly transition from life in the womb to the outside world. I have watched premature babies as young as 31 weeks orientate to the breast, and activate their sucking reflex and research tells us that many do this even younger.
Strange smells are considered dangerous to a baby until they learn whether they are safe or unsafe. This is something to be aware of with the personal care products one uses especially in the early postnatal period. Your baby knows and prefers your natural scent.
Guided by smell, babies activate their other senses. Skin to skin provides extensive touch. What an exquisite way to activate all the neurons in their skin as they feel their mother with their hands and their near entire body. A nappy only creates a little less and is practical to use.
Babies are born with perfect hearing. They cannot close their ears to unexpected sounds, so these especially if loud, lead to dysregulation. Touch, tactile stimulation plus smell, sucking and hearing their mother’s, father’s, and other voices they know while in utero and are soothed by, stimulate oxytocin. They also need their mother at all times for optimum auditory and language development.3
Like when in utero, babies have innate instincts to suck. Taste receptors are activated by sucking their hands, licking and nuzzling their mother and tasting her breast milk. Skin to skin also ensures transfer of microbes essential for newborn healthy gut and immune system activation. And the special breast milk sugars (oligosaccharides) feed the right kind of microbes acquired during vaginal birth and skin to skin.5 We will learn more about microbes in part three.
Infants have a huge need for social connection. If you are a mum constantly distracted on your cell phone while holding your baby, please pay attention. Babies constantly try to engage with their mother. She is their world, their food source, their survival. When they sense their mother is not responding to them they will disassociate and self regulate - a bad idea as cortisol is involved. Unsafe feelings activate the Hypothalamus Pituitary Axis and disrupt brain function. Many studies now show us the effect of major separation trauma or repeated small traumas have on our physical and mental wellbeing.6 Separation perceived as stress increases our cortisol levels and disrupts development of new neural brain pathways. When cortisol is up, dopamine is down. Early stress has the potential to alter gene expression (more in part three).
Newborns are born with emotions, smell and face recognition and prefer to look at their mother.3 Skin to skin fires and wires the infant’s social and emotional intelligence brain centre, the amygdala, the area of our limbic brain that controls our emotions, memory modulation and sympathetic nervous system activation. It achieves this directly and via the pre frontal cortex, the area of our brain behind our forehead that we consider our conscious mind. This is a critical period for maturation in the first 2 months following birth4. 7. 8.
Babies learn empathy through the eyes of their mother - that loving reciprocating gaze.9 Visual experience is essential for continued visual development.
A newborn infant lying within their mothers heart field, enables not only hearing her heart beat, but also creates a powerful connection of energy flow between them especially when the mother tunes into her baby.10
In Part Three we will build on our learning of epigenetics and the microbiome, and, explore the interrelationship of infants with their mother, father and others special to them in their neonatal period.
Part 2 References
1. Hampton, D. (2016). How Your Thoughts Change Your Brain, Cells, And Genes. http://reset.me/story/how-your-thoughts-change-your-brain-cells-and-genes/
2. Sears, W. (2017). Bonding with Your Newborn. http://www.attachmentparenting.org/support/articles/bonding
3. Bergman, N. (2016). Skin-to-skin contact is our BIOLOGY. http://www.skintoskincontact.com/ssc-biology.aspx And a one day seminar with Nils Bergman I had the pleasure to attend.
4. Skin-to-Skin-contact. (2012-2017). Skin-to-skin contact is key to perinatal neuroscience. http://www.skintoskincontact.com/ssc-neuroscience.aspx
5. Harman. T. & Wakeford, A. (2014). MICROBIRTH Movie Trailer. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6CTmwUU2iHU
6. Shonkoff, J. P. & Garner, A. S. (2015). The Lifelong Effects of Early Childhood Adversity and Toxic Stress. http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/129/1/e232
7. Phillips, R, (2013). Uninterrupted Skin-to-Skin Contact Immediately After Birth. http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/806325_5
8. Schore AN. (2001). Effects of a secure attachment relationship on right brain development, affect regulation, and infant mental health. http://www.allanschore.com/pdf/SchoreIMHJAttachment.pdf
9. Matousek, M. (2011). The Meeting Eyes of Love: How Empathy Is Born In Us. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/ethical-wisdom/201104/the-meeting-eyes-love-how-empathy-is-born-in-us
10. HeartMath. (2008). Mother-Baby Study Supports Heart-Brain Interactions. https://www.heartmath.org/articles-of-the-heart/science-of-the-heart/mother-baby-study-supports-heart-brain-interactions/