Modern parenting may hinder brain development

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Research has found that social practices and cultural beliefs of modern life prevents healthy brain and emotional development in children.

Hindering children’s brain development

Social practices and cultural beliefs of modern life prevent healthy brain and emotional development in children, according to an interdisciplinary body of research presented recently at a symposium at the University of Notre Dame.

“Life outcomes for American youth are worsening, especially in comparison to 50 years ago,” says Darcia Narvaez, Notre Dame Professor of Psychology who specialises in moral development in children and how early life experiences can influence brain development.

Formula and isolation

“Ill-advised practices and beliefs have become commonplace in our culture, such as the use of infant formula, the isolation of infants in their own rooms or the belief that responding too quickly to a fussing baby will ‘spoil’ it,” Prof Narvaez says.

This new research links certain early, nurturing parenting practices – the kind common in foraging hunter-gatherer societies – to specific, healthy emotional outcomes in adulthood, and has many experts rethinking some of our modern, cultural child-rearing ‘norms’.

“Breast-feeding infants, responsiveness to crying, almost constant touch and having multiple adult caregivers are some of the nurturing ancestral parenting practices that are shown to positively impact the developing brain, which not only shapes personality, but also helps physical health and moral development,” says Narvaez.

Don’t let baby “cry it out”

Studies show that responding to a baby’s needs (not letting a baby “cry it out”) has been shown to influence the development of conscience; positive touch affects stress reactivity, impulse control and empathy; free play in nature influences social capacities and aggression; and a set of supportive caregivers (beyond the mother alone) predicts IQ and ego resilience as well as empathy.

The United States has been on a downward trajectory on all of these care characteristics, according to Prof Narvaez. Instead of being held, infants spend much more time in carriers, car seats and strollers than they did in the past. Only about 15 percent of mothers are breast-feeding at all by 12 months, extended families are broken up and free play allowed by parents has decreased dramatically since 1970.

Notably there is also an epidemic of anxiety and depression among all age groups, including young children; rising rates of aggressive behaviour and delinquency in young children; and decreasing empathy, the backbone of compassionate, moral behaviour, among college students, are shown in research.

There is hope

According to Prof Narvaez, other relatives and teachers can also have a beneficial impact when a child feels safe in their presence. Also, early deficits can be made up later, she says.

“The right brain, which governs much of our self-regulation, creativity and empathy, can grow throughout life. The right brain grows through full-body experience like rough-and-tumble play, dancing or freelance artistic creation. So at any point, a parent can take up a creative activity with a child and they can grow together.”

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