Why Love Matters

How Affection Shapes a Baby's Brain

by Sue Gerhardt (Routledge, London, 2004)

(Continued) But the laboratory evidence is now clear: A baby's emotional environment is no less important than the physical environment. A baby with a depressed mother develops a low-key response to stress, while an anxious mother creates an intense baby. A balanced, responsive mother's baby is adaptable to different stress levels. A baby depends on a parent (or other caregiver) to regulate sources of discomfort. The caregiver must be sensitive to whatever is making the baby uncomfortable, such as a lack of skin contact, and solve the problem for the baby - e.g. by caressing him. Babies can't solve their own problems.

A child with unresponsive caregivers may appear calm on the surface, but his heart rate and other stress measures are rocketing. Responsiveness requires some degree of attunement, and since child care workers are rarely intimate with their wards, attunement is lacking and responsiveness is superficial. Without stimulation, brain cells atrophy, in a well-known process called pruning. A child needs a caregiver to be present emotionally, not just physically.

The author offers a wealth of information on what stress really is, and how babies learn to regulate stress - or fail to learn self-regulation because their parents or other caregivers are sloppy in regulating their own stress. Although there are genetic components to depression and the anxious personality, incompetent early care can doom a child to dysfunctional relationships regardless of genes. This book is invaluable in understanding why love and affection are so important in infancy and early childhood.