Human babies are unique in the animal kingdom in the extent of their underdevelopment at birth. What other animal cannot walk until it is a year old?
But the physical underdevelopment is only a part of it. The human brain is also only partially formed at birth. It is the earliest experiences of the human baby that literally shape his or her brain development, and will have a lifelong impact on the baby’s mental and emotional health.
The baby that learns about the world as a good place will retain this sense as almost an ‘instinct’ for life; this individual will become emotionally more robust than the baby whose basic needs are not usually met. So what is meant by ‘having your needs met?’ Well, when a baby cries, he doesn’t know he is wet, tired, hungry, bored or too hot – he only knows something is wrong, and he relies on an adult carer to soothe his feelings. There are two impacts on the brain of the baby who is continuously neglected or abused.
A baby cannot regulate her own feelings at all. If her needs are not met she will simply scream louder and louder and eventually take refuge in sleep. So the first impact is that a baby left to continually scream will experience raised levels of the stress hormone, cortisol. Excessive amounts of this damages the baby’s immune system, and there is also evidence to suggest that a baby left to scream throughout babyhood will have a higher tolerance to stress, meaning that in later life they will be more attracted to high risk –taking behaviour than a baby who has only a normal level of cortisol.
The second impact is that the ‘social’ part of the brain only starts to develop at around 6 months. The peak period for development of this part of the brain is at 6-18 months old. Growth is stimulated by the relationship between baby and carer, where ‘peekaboo’ games and singing songs, cuddling etc all play a strong role.
Where a baby does not receive any attention (as has been shown in certain developing world orphanages where physical contact with babies has been minimal), this part of the brain literally does not grow and may never grow. This has profound implications for society. A human being without a social brain finds it very difficult to empathise and to form relationships with other human beings.
There is scientific evidence that shows more than 80% of long term prison inmates have attachment problems that stem from babyhood. It is now believed that you can predict two thirds of future chronic criminals by behaviour seen at the age of two.
Before the age of two, there is a huge opportunity to turn around the life chances of a baby. But even if you think it is not the job of society to worry about the individual baby, then consider a while why we have so many violent young gangs, so many unhappy children, so much drug abuse and such a vast financial burden on our society that must pick up the pieces of these damaged people.
Support for early attachment is the single greatest thing we can do to mend our broken society.