Friday, October 4, 2013

Remember how much your parents’ mental and emotional states affected you when you were a child yourself?

By Jennifer Waldburger, LCSW, Co-Founder of Sleepy Planet and Co-Author of Calm Mama, Happy Baby

Your baby is learning how to think, feel, and behave, and you are one of her most important teachers. Her survival instincts cause her to want to be like you, so she is paying close attention. Even when it seems like she’s just being a baby—grabbing at your hair while nursing, laughing in delight as you tickle and squeeze her—your little bright light is actually studying you quite intensely, taking note of your tone of voice, your facial expressions, the way your touch feels, and all kinds of other sensory cues, in addition to how it generally feels to be around you. As mama—the one who carried her for (give or take) forty weeks and the person she’s likely spending most of her time with—you are an indisputable star in the riveting reality show she calls life.

As you may already know, your influence on your baby’s experience started early. Science and the fields of fetal psychology and epigenetics, which studies genetic expression, can now show us that your baby began tuning into you when she was still in the womb. During your pregnancy, while the umbilical cord passed along nutrients from your body to your growing baby, she also picked up on your mood, your emotions, even your conversations—and your stress. When the baby was born, she went right on tuning into mommy, using her five senses to imprint on your scent, your voice, the taste of your milk, and the feeling of your arms around her. But her attunement didn’t stop there. Just as she did in utero, she’s continued to pick up on your mood and emotions, too, and new research indicates just how powerfully contagious these can be. Emerging science on mirror neurons, for example, suggests that when your baby watches you having an experience, she can feel what you’re feeling. Other research has documented the powerful influence of a baby’s early social interactions on both her current and future behavior.

So even though the physical umbilical cord was cut at birth, it’s as though there’s an invisible umbilical that continues to connect the two of you at all times. Remember how much your parents’ mental and emotional states affected you when you were a child yourself? Maybe you had a mother who was depressed much of the time or who always worried that something bad was going to happen; maybe your father had an explosive temper or always seemed stressed-out about money. Whatever the case, by now you’ve probably realized, at least to some extent, which of your parents’ habits of thinking, feeling, and behaving rubbed off on you and eventually became your own. Just as happened in your household growing up, now that you are the parent, your particular patterns of thinking, feeling and behaving are influencing your child, too, as chronic, similar experiences of interacting with you light up the same neural pathways in her brain over and over. This is how the brain becomes “wired,” or programmed, in a particular way, and how we develop tendencies toward positive or negative thoughts and feelings. Children are pretty well programmed by age five; the rest of their life experience—their degree of self-esteem and empathy, the quality of their relationships, their ability to accomplish goals and manage the stress of life’s ups and downs—will be determined largely by what happens during this range. This is why what you offer as a parent matters so much in these early years.

Come chat with Jennifer and Dereck O'Neil at their official Book Launch of Calm Mama, Happy Baby presented by our dear friends at Bump Club and Beyond Los Angeles at The Garage in Culver City this Tuesday, October 8th! Enjoy some drinks, mock-tails and appetizers!