In part two we looked at the infant’s amazing senses and critical periods of development.
In part three we continue our learning of epigenetics and the microbiome, and will explore the dependency and interrelationship of newborn infants with their mother, father, and others special to them.
The science of epigenetics and theories of attachment have much to teach us. Epigenetics is the switching on and off of genes (DNA) in response to environmental influences. Yes you read that right. Your experiences change your gene expression, and in addition, key environmental factors during critical development periods, have life long effects. As Bruce Lipton1 teaches us, it is ‘nature x nurture’ (gene x environment).
Our brain development is ordered and higher circuits build on lower circuits. But we need to experience critical periods for optimum brain development. These include smelling, touching, feeling, seeing, hearing, and sensing our mother.
“It matters how we are born” - the first 1000 minutes and 1000 days are critical periods.2 Bonding research reaffirms the importance of the mother as the newborn's primary caregiver.3
In regards to the microbiome, miss the window of opportunity to have colostrum in your first days of life and your gut bacteria will develop differently over your life. The work of Harman and Wakeford 4 provides increasing research of how our ancient microbiome, designed to protect us against many diseases, is degrading. This creates consequences and a significant impact on the infant’s life and what he or she is able to pass on to future generations. Microbes from a vaginal birth, breast milk as our source of food, and skin to skin nurturing, provide the ideal environment for optimal functioning of the newborn baby’s intestinal tract and immune system and has lifelong effects.
So what can parents and all those caring for babies do to ensure every baby feels safe and receives care that optimises their development?
Provide gentle, loving, safe care at all times - during birth and following. Loving hands, skin to skin nurturing, soft lights, quiet sounds, warm soft materials, breast feed and give mother’s colostrum / breast milk. No routine procedures in this precious first hour. Newborn babies need to smell, touch, feel, hear, taste, and see their mother without interruption. Zero separation. The first hour is an alert time for most babies and critical for firing and wiring maternal infant attachment. It is a two way process not only involving wiring baby’s brain but also creating neural attachment connections in their mother.
Ensure individual gentle loving care at all times. Learn your baby’s cues and what they mean. A booklet ‘Getting to Know Your Baby’ 5. 6 provides a wealth of information on baby’s organised and disorganised behaviours and what they need.
Although this article is written mostly about mothers, fathers also play a critical role in the development of their newborn. Babies need skin to skin on dad too. 2. 7 Did you know just 30 minutes of skin on skin with dad (especially in the first 24 hours) wires his dopamine levels for life. Dr Sears 3 also writes that bonding right after birth brings out sensitivity in dad and that “fathers have their own unique way of relating to babies, and babies thrive on this difference”. So after mum has had a few hours skin to skin at birth, baby will love bonding with his or her daddy. Such a special time for all. Then return to mum as she needs 18 hours uninterrupted skin to skin (preferably in the first 24 post birth) to wire all her circuits, mind, body and social, as more are involved.2 For the premature infant this is even more crucial and needs to be ongoing for as long as possible.
If for any reason mum is unable to have skin to skin initially or later, dad can bond with his little one during this sensitive period. If neither are able, consider someone else who baby knows well (maybe grandma). Your baby needs a significant presence with a loved one.3
Twins (triplets) also need one another. Imagine being with someone continuously for nine months then suddenly being separated. The ideal is both twins skin to skin on mum with times together on dad. Enabling premature twins connection with one another is important. If mum, dad or significant other is not available, at least consider placing them in the same incubator. If concerned about safety, most small premature infants are monitored and observed continuously. When transported between areas or hospitals, premature twins frequently travel in the same incubator so why not put them together at other times? A beautiful moment I witnessed was when I nested one twin beside her sister in her incubator and she smiled. A precious moment.
The more premature the infant, the more they need skin to skin.2. 8 Premature babies are less able to tolerate stress and are more dependent on their mother, father and significant others. Technology and expertise in neonatal care has increased survival of premature infants however long term effects are becoming more apparent as we learn more from emotional and social outcomes.
An international study of premature infants weighing 1000 grams to 1800 grams is in its pilot stage. The IPISTOSS, ‘Immediate Parent-Infant Skin-to-Skin Study’ is planned to enrol 5000 babies. 4000 will have zero separation committed to and shared between 3 people - their mother and 2 others, one preferably their father. The further 1000 infants are the control group who will receive skin to skin as it is currently utilised in neonatal units. All babies receive the full neonatal care they require. Only the place of care differs - continuously on skin to skin or in an incubator / thermal cot with some skin to skin. Follow up is planned for 2 years and if the outcome is positive, it will continue for 30 years. This is a very much needed study, and I for one, thank Nils and Jill Bergman for their continuing pioneering work in this area.
So get all sensations right and individual for every baby. Mother’s smell, soft sounds, soft materials, loving gentle touch, gazing into one another’s eyes and breast feeding. Holding your newborn baby provides many of these, but skin to skin is the ultimate.
In Part 4 we will review how separation can impact on the infants life.
Part 3 References
1. Lipton, B. (2014). How does epigenetics play a role in a developing infant?
2. 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.
3. Sears, W. (2017). Bonding with Your Newborn. http://www.attachmentparenting.org/support/articles/bonding
4. Harman. T. & Wakeford, A. (2014). MICROBIRTH Movie Trailer. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6CTmwUU2iHU
5. Vandenberg, K. A., Browne, J. V., Perez, L., Newstetter, A. (2009). Getting to Know Your Baby. http://specialstart.ucsf.edu/sstp/download/getting_to_know.pdf
6. Vandenberg, K. A., Perez, L., Newstetter, A. (2008) Supporting Your Infant After the Neonatal
Intensive Care Nursery Experience. http://specialstart.ucsf.edu/sstp/supporting_your_infant.pdf
7. Skin-to-Skin contact. (2012-2017). Skin-to-skin contact is for FATHERS also!
8. Skin-to-Skin contact. (2012-2017). Skin-to-skin contact is specially for PRETERM newborns