TIME OFF WITH BABY II: Babies
When we left off last week, I gave some dismal numbers that probably left you a bit irritated about the condition of parental support for early life childcare. But there was a silver lining: that if America were to support parents in taking extended (6 months) leave to be home with their infants, our society as a whole could see benefits that are valued at as much as $17 to $1 of investment by some world renowned economists.
That's all fine and well, but most of us don't ask the monetary value of nursing our baby 8 times a day, or spending 20 minutes a day stacking blocks, knocking them over and laughing about it for a week. So, let's talk in human terms. What does it mean for parents to be home caring for their infant? and what does it mean for parents to be separated from their baby because they have to work?
- Recent research has shown a clear relationship between early experiences, like nursing, and longterm behavior reinforcing the commonly held belief that these experiences influence the "wiring" of a baby's brain. To wit: what happens to an infant shapes his or her brain, for better or worse, even as brain plasticity is reduced as the child reaches 3 years old. The wiring of the brain in early years builds a foundation for every developmental ability that will occur in life, literally determining neural architecture.
- Researchers have seen that both paid and unpaid maternity leaves facilitate maternal benefits including lessened depressive symptoms and severe depression, and support improved health generally. We know that how the mother feels is directly felt by her child and strongly effects how she behaves with her child at this very vulnerable period in brain development.
- Oddly or not, only paid leave had a beneficial effect on infant health during a mother's leave. Perhaps this is why researchers recommend a minimum of 6 months of full-time breastfeeding, but at least 4 months if 6 cannot be managed, and - as most working mothers have experienced - mama needs to be home to make that happen. (From other sources: all mama needs to do is smell her baby and milk flows. Separate mama and baby, and that process is arrested.)
- Personally, I was relieved to hear this book report that many moms echoed the sentiments I felt daily, and repeated them: "I know my baby is in a good place, but I know what she needs best." "I feel stressed (or guilty) that I am not with my baby during these months." "I am being 'cheated out of an important experience.'" "If he could only sit up (usually happens reliably between 6 and 7 months), I would feel better [less horrible] about leaving him."
- Urie Bronfrenbrenner, developmental psychologist, is quoted as saying, "in order to develop normally, a child needs the enduring, irrational involvement of one or more adults in care of and joint activity with that child... somebody has to be crazy about that kid."
- The authors boil down the relevant research about parent-child relations to this: "It is almost as if parents and babies are programmed to care for each other."
- Erik Erikson is supported in his notion that the most fundamental task of infant caregivers is to form basic trust.
- Some research has shown that if the mother returns to work full time at any point in the first year of life, children show cognitive delays at 3, 4 or 5, and sometimes as late as 7 or 8 years old. (New research shows that if that return to work brings significant funding into the house, and care provided is ok, the negative effects are negated.) When fathers supplement some of that care - lesser effects are seen.
- Additionally, at least one recent study showed that extended hours of nonmaternal care (more than full time work) were linked to greater impulsivity and risk taking as late at 15 years old. Additionally, research has shown elevated cortisol (stress hormone) levels in children 12 - 24 months old who were cared for out of the home [I've seen this, it's very disturbing; my child didn't act like himself, he was inconsolable and miserable until falling asleep.] In some kids it gets high enough to call "toxic stress" triggering fear, anxiety and aggression.
- By the same token, babies 3 to 54 months old who were in 30 hours or less per week of day care did not show greater behavioral problems than those home with a parent full time.
- But if you're like me, and have no choice but to go back to work when your baby is just 19 weeks old, hear this: "Across all outcome measures, the influence of parents appears to be greater than that of nonparental child care. Put simply, parent-child interactions have a much stronger effect on the child's development than does the child's experience in out-of-home care." So, if you have to go back, and you don't work too much, and you love that child as much as you can, your child is really going to be ok.
Please leave your comments, thoughts, concerns and even additional research if you've got it below. Let's talk about what all of this means, for us, today, as moms and dads in the real world.
Research above is reported from Time Off With Baby: The Case for Paid Care Leave by Edward Zigler, Susan Muenchow and Christopher J. Ruhm, 2012.