Why is it that our earliest experiences leave such a lasting mark? Professor Robert Winston discovers why babies need loving carers
Early loving care is by no means the norm in the animal kingdom. All animals produce young, but few animal parents dedicate years to caring for their young.
An ancient reptile such as the marine turtle uses a prolific egg-laying strategy to try and ensure that she produces another generation of turtles. She drags herself out of the sea and lays about 100 eggs in a sand nest. When they are hatched, the tiny, fragile hatchlings are left to scramble down the sandy beach to the sea alone. Very few survive to adulthood.
Mammals keep their developing young in a safer location, inside their own body. Still, when an antelope is born it will stand and walk independently within hours.
When the first humans stood up on two legs to walk, they had to compromise by giving birth to essentially premature babies. Our babies are born with an incompletely formed brain – which will increase five-fold in size as they develop and grow into adults.
It is crucial to appreciate this unique truth about our babies. The protection and nurture for that brain in its early stages of growth is of critical importance. We usually only have one baby at a time and we care for it intensively, for not just days but many years while they grow to full adulthood. Newborn infants are unable to feed themselves or move without help and are completely reliant on their parents. So we have evolved a vital system that helps us to look after our children properly. From the beginning of their lives we feel a deep and loving bond with them.
I have been privileged to be present at the birth of hundreds of babies, and that intense feeling between mother, father and baby is often very evident. However, unlike geese we don’t imprint instantly on our parents at birth. Bonding for humans is a process during which parent and child develop a deep emotional attachment.
So can the love and nurture we experience in our first year really effect our brain development, our potential, our future?
The human brain has more than 100 billion special cells called neurons, each one of which can connect to as many as 7,000 other brain cells. It’s more complicated than any computer; in fact, it’s most complicated object in the known universe.
But a baby’s brain is immature. The experiences a baby has with its parents lead to the formation of millions and millions of new connections in the brain. Pathways will be laid down that help memories and relationships form and learning and logic to develop. So the right experience is all-important for good or bad development.
The new science called epigenetics is beginning to explain the mechanism by which early parental care affects the brain. Some extraordinary studies done in mice show that loving mothers who are attentive and lick their newborn offspring (and the offspring of other mouse mothers who are put into their litter by the scientists) actually change the behaviour of the mice they raise long after they have grown up. What’s more, well cared for female mice, long after leaving their mother’s nest, become better mothers themselves when they have babies.
It’s good news all the way for the well-nurtured baby mice. They also turn out to be more intelligent than those that have been neglected, are less likely to be aggressive and are more social. These powerful effects stretch over two generations, possibly more. So an attentive ‘loving’ grandmother mouse may actually influence the behaviour and attributes of her grandchildren. It seems that these changes may depend on a variety of chemical alterations in the genes and hormones in the brains of baby mice.
These staggering changes are likely to affect humans too. Babies who experience little love, laughter and stimulation may have the development of their brains impaired. Good parenting is even more important than we could have imagined. Understanding the mechanisms by which a loving bond leads to resilience and good mental health is essential.
I have worked for much of my professional life on the early development of babies. Science is now demonstrating not merely what I have felt as a scientist, but as a father and now a grandfather. Depriving children of a loving family environment is very likely to risk lasting damage to their emotional wellbeing, to their intelligence and to their capacity to develop fully as citizens able to contribute fully to the wellbeing of our society.
Professor Robert Winston is the expert advisor and narrator of the Essential Baby Care Guide DVDs, produced by The Essential Parent Company. The set of four DVDs costs £35 and is available from John Lewis, Mamas & Papas, Amazon and essentialparent.com. He also presents Child Of Our Time on BBC One