Why Your Baby’s First Years of Life Matter Most
While staying home with our kids is a challenging feet in our times, because of stressful financial needs, lack of family or community support, and a society pressuring women to compete in the workplace, it is useful to know the benefits of investing in our babies’ first years.
Even if you can’t stay home with them, knowing what happens during these two first years can help you make the best decisions for your family.
As a psychologist and mother who has researched a lot into developmental science as well as traditional wisdom, here’s what I have found:
1. Your Baby’s first years are most crucial for Their brain development
Neurological research shows that the first two years of life are the most crucial for brain development. During this period, 80 percent of the brain cells a person will ever have are manufactured.
What’s also important to note, is that a child’s brain develops best in one-on-one conversations and empathetic interactions with an adult.
The growth of the baby’s brain “literally requires positive interaction between mother and infant,” says Allan Schore, a leading neurologist in this field. “The development of cerebral circuits depends on it.”
From the beginning of the third trimester of pregnancy to the 24th month of life, the human brain more than doubles in size, but only if it gets the “right” positive experiences, Schore says.
“There is something the human brain needs in terms of contact with other humans for it to grow. The hormones generated by the relationship between the infant and mother (or primary caregiver) affect the way the genes are encoded.” He explains.
What this means practically is that the best thing you can do is for you, or a primary caretaker to be and talk with your baby as much as possible. Even if they can’t quite understand what you are saying, talk to them as if they do. This ongoing conversation is what helps their brain develop best.
2. Your baby’s immune system is developing.
It is during the first two years of life that your baby’s immune system matures and ripens considerably. Staying close to mom and being breastfed during this duration, ensures the healthiest development for a child whose systems are still maturing and sensitive.
The World Health Organization is now recommending that mothers breastfeed for at least two years of age.
3. Your Pregnancy continues “externally” for the first two years after birth!
A child needs their parents near them for a long time after they have left the womb.
Let’s face it, even after spending 9 full months in the womb, human babies are some of the most helpless creatures in nature!
Other animals just hop up and start walking hours or days after birth, and become independent quite quickly. But for humans it takes many many years to become fully independent!
According to traditional wisdom, your baby continues to be in a kind of “external pregnancy” for an entire two years after they are born. This is corroborated by many factors that science shows to be true.
Being in an external pregnancy, means that even though your baby has left the womb, they are still physically (through breastfeeding), emotionally and cognitively connected to you.
You are still the vessel through which they perceive the world. Your reactions, speech and actions are how they learn and interpret their experience.
Their previous connection to you through the umbilical cord, now continues through the act of breastfeeding. The breast becomes the new point of connection, where baby can receive food, immunity and emotionally balancing influences through your milk.
When you are breastfeeding them keep in mind that it’s not just milk your baby is getting! It’s your emotions and thoughts too! Just like during pregnancy, they become one physical and emotional system with you, so use this time to think positive thoughts and bring your baby into a safe, nurturing space with you.
4. Do kids need to socialize during their first two years of life?
There is a widespread claim that children are better off socializing in daycare environments than being home with their mother or primary caretaker.
Although it is a good idea to have social meetings with one or more friends, psychological research shows that children don’t really play with other children until they are between 2–3 years old.
Cooperative play starts even later. They do mimic other children and enjoy being around them, but they don’t need “group interaction”, and they do better when they are meeting friends accompanied by an adult they trust.
Another point to keep in mind when considering when to place your child in daycare is any negative impact on the child’s emotional life and behavior.
The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHHD) performed a rigorous longitudinal study following over 1000 children analyzing the effects of child-care on children under the age of five. The researchers found that the more time young children had spent in non-parental care, the more behavioral problems were seen, including defiance, temper tantrums, refusing to cooperate and aggression.
While not all children will be affected this way, we need to remember that for the baby, their mother is their source of life. Disconnecting them from this source too abruptly may be very tough on them, threatening their sense of security, trust and confidence. This may lead to behavioral and emotional problems.
Research shows that this effect can be mitigated by a secure, positive attachment to devoted daycare staff. It is also important to make any separation gradual, and very attuned to the child and his needs.
Parenting During Your Baby’s First Years
The first two years of your baby’s life, is the time to give them as much love, attention and age appropriate stimulation as possible.
They need you to continue to nurture them, as a direct continuation to your pregnancy, to support them and gradually expose them to the world.
Playing with them, reading to them and speaking to them as much as possible will ensure they develop their cognitive and motor skills.
Speak to them about the world, explain their reality to them, and tell them what you are doing because they learn best from your example.
Unfortunately, our hectic lives and the difficulties making ends meet are causing parents to disconnect from their babies way too soon. It is impossible for many parents to stay home with their kids.
We often lack the support network that families used to have in our tribal past. This often makes staying at home with a baby a solitary and draining task.
This is another reason that connection is so important for us as a society. Parents need the support of others, for company and for balancing their lives without sacrificing their connection with their children.
I fully encourage parents to work and fulfill their abilities in contribution to our world, but I believe that they should be given the ability to nurture their children at a time that they most need it.