Tuesday, May 10, 2005

The Importance of Mothering ~ Part Two

(See post for 4/21/2005 for Part One)

I could blog about my end of pregnancy physical discomforts, but it hardly makes for uplifting or interesting reading. Instead, I want to focus on more of what I have been learning about the importance of attachment and attunement in raising well adjusted and happy children, as I find this something that personally encourages me to continue in the Mommy track.

When babies are first born, the only part of their brain that is fully functional is the brain stem, which is responsible for things like breathing, heartrate, and other necessary functions for life to exist. If the first nine months in the womb are for the gestation of a baby's body, the second nine months following birth constitute a continuance of gestation, neurologically speaking. Human babies experience a tremendous amount of brain growth in this time, and a large part of that growth is dependant upon the amount and type of stimulation that babies receive from their mothers or primary caregivers at this time.

The areas of the cortex responsible for attention, long-range planning, impulse control, attention, and self-regulation develop in response to the emotional interaction with the person we'll call the mothering figure. The formation of the baby's brain circuits is influenced by the emotional state of the mother. If mother is stressed by internal and external pressures, her ability to be attached and attuned to her infant are impaired.

Since babies can't decipher the meanings of words, most of the communication that takes place between an infant and his/her mother is on the emotional level. The mother's conscious and unconscious emotional state is conveyed by her tone of voice, her body language, and her eyes.

When babies are first born, one of the first things that stimulates the branching of millions of brain cells within minutes of birth, is the scent of the mother's body. Studies have shown that a six day old infant can already distinguish the scent of his mother from that of other women. Over weeks, the infant shifts to visual imputs via the mother's face. A baby between 2-7 weeks old will orient to its mother's face in preference to a stranger, or even its own father. By 7 weeks, the focus becomes the mother's eyes in preference to her mouth movements, thereby fixating on the visible portion of the mother's central nervous system. In essence, the baby is able to read what is going on in the right brain of the mother, which is responsible for our unconscious emotional reactions during intense eye to eye mutual gaze interactions. Our eyes are truly a window to the soul in that embryologically and anatomically, the eye is an extension of the brain in plain sight. Kind of gives a whole new meaning to what the Bible says about the eye being the light of the soul, doesn't it?

One of the means of communication that takes place at the eye level has to do with the size of the pupil. An enlarged pupil indicates interest and pleasure. Studies have demonstrated that women's eyes dilate in response to a picture of a baby. But even more interestingly, viewing enlarge dilated pupils elicits larger pupils in the eyes of the observer so you have a positive feedback loop of emotion that occurs between the gazer and gazee. Babies will smile more when their mothers' eyes are dilated rather than constricted.

We have all probably experienced the intense emotional rush that can come when you suddenly lock your gaze with another person. The feeling can be one of intense pleasure or intensely uncomfortable. The effect of the gaze can alter the electrical brain pattern as registered by an EEG and cause physiological changes to occur in the body. Infants are highly susceptible to such influences, with a direct impact on the maturation of the brain.

Infants are also quite good at sorting out genuine emotion from a forced effort.

It is known that depression will cause a decrease in electrical activity in the left hemisphere of the brain. A study conducted at the University of Washington in Seattle compared the infants of mothers who suffered from postpartum depression with those of mothers in a happy state of mind. During playful interactions with their mothers, the infants of the happy moms showed a greater left than right brain activation. The infants of depressed mothers failed to show a difference in frontal brain activation meanting that the left side brain activity did not occur, despite the mothers' best efforts. These frontal areas of the brain are responsible for the self-regulation of emotion. The infants of depressed mothers also exhibited decreased activity levels, gaze aversion, more irritability, and less positive emotion.

Why would this be? Because the element of attunement is missing in most of the interactions between the mother and her child. Attunement is a subtle process whereby an infant initiates an interaction or withdraws from it according to its own rhythms, while the mother regulates her behavior to mesh with the baby's. She lets the baby call the tune, as the weaker vessel and skillfully interweaves her own responses with his to create an intimate dialogue which, in effect, shuts out the world and locks mom and baby in a special emotional realm that no one else has access to for that moment.

In attunement interaction, the mother follows the baby's cues and allows baby to not only initiate interaction, but also allows the baby to break the interaction off when it reaches a certain stage of intensity of uncomfortably high arousal. Mothers who are not attuned to their infants or sensitive to their lead may try to stimulate the baby to draw him or her back into interaction. Then the baby's nervous system is not allowed to "cool down" which hampers the relationship.

At the other extreme of the attunement dysfunction is the mother who is too stressed to give the necessary attunement interaction because she is emotionally isolated from others, or else has learned a philosophy of child rearing such as the Ezzo parenting techniques which actually place children in an adversarial position from which the parent must defend themselves lest they be "manipulated" by the child. Another contributing factor that impairs attachment and attunement is the notion that too much interaction based on baby's cues will cause a child to be "spoiled." So babies are allowed to cry it out in their cribs by themselves all in the name of not spoiling them.

When you listen to popular music, watch tv shows, movies or videos, or even read popular fiction, take note of how much of it is devoted to the joys or sorrows that flow from our satisfaction or disappointment with our attachment relationships. This exercise will give you an idea of how big a driving force attachment is for humans.

Thus, the role of a mother in nurturing and becoming attached and attuned to her infants is a vitally important one not only in the neurological development of her child, but also because some of their future happiness and contentment in life rests upon this foundation.

More to come...

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