Thoughts on early childhood development
The number of children that go on to develop emotional or intellectual deficiencies is significantly higher amongst those who were born premature or with special needs. The specific environmental conditions that a premature baby is subjected to during the first few days of her life are discussed as possible causes for this. The need for isolation in an incubator can also play a role.
Insights from comparative behaviour research, neuroanatomy and neurophysiology as well as empirical findings create a coherent picture. Accordingly, environmental influences have a direct effect on the developing brain. The effects of adverse developmental stimuli, particularly arising from stressful experiences, have been proven up to the neuronal layer and are known to change the anatomy of the brain with long-lasting consequences the earlier they occur.
Stress during the first few weeks of life specifically inhibits the maturation process of the limbic system, which can result in a life-long impairment of emotional accountability.
In this respect, the suppression of genetically dependent behavioural processes is a very effective stressor that is often overlooked. However, it’s precisely these initial instinctive acts and their successes or failures that are directly imprinted in the hardware of the brain and thus in a child’s emotional scaffolding that then influence the success of later learning.
The purpose of this article is to discuss the relevance of certain propositions and observations relating to contact with newborns, to gauge their significance specifically for premature infants and babies with special needs and to suggest consequences for neonatal environments.
In order to judge the significance of physical contact with a caregiver for a newborn, we assume the following:
- Suppressing instinctive behavioural programmes creates stress.
- Stress affects the important vital functions.
- Stress influences brain development.
Firstly we will discuss each proposition:
Stress caused by inhibiting instinctive programmes
Human behaviour shortly after birth is very similar to that of other animals. The first steps are:
- Identifying the caregiver
- Searching for the nipple
- Retaining physical contact
The first step (filial imprinting) is carried out by all animals that practise maternal care, the second occurs naturally in mammals and the third only by mammals that give birth to immature infants who are helpless without their parents.
The purpose of the first two behavioural patterns is immediately obvious. In order to imagine what significance the third point has for human babies, you simply have to picture a lost baby all alone in the wilderness. A penetrative contact call is the only option available in his instinctive survival strategy. If fear of death is stressful, then this infant is currently in a very stressful situation!
The type of surroundings is completely irrelevant to the child. He cannot tell the difference between a cosy delivery room and the dangerous wilderness. The only thing that will trigger his ‘emergency response programme’ is losing contact with his caregiver.
As the infant cannot judge the seriousness of the situation, the genetic emergency programme is always started when sensory impressions do not correspond with genetically programmed expectations. In this regard, every deviation from these expectations is perceived as a stressor.
Stress controls the important vital functions
We won’t go into the enormous changes that take place in the hormone balance and in the vegetative nervous system when stress is triggered, but here are a few notes on what happens when.
After the initial mobilisation, the body reduces its vital functions and begins to operate on a bear minimum when faced with prolonged stress. When a baby cries after being laid down and then manages to ‘self-sooth’ and stop crying after a while, this does not mean that she has come to terms with her situation; what has happened is that her emergency response programme has moved on to the next stage. Eustress becomes distress and all vital functions are put on the back burner.
In this situation no progress, particularly mental progress, is made. It is simply to bridge the gap until the environmental conditions return to ‘normal’, i.e. when sensory impressions correspond to expectations again.
Stress influences brain development
At first glance it seems surprising that even short-term disturbances in early childhood development can leave physical scars on the brain that continue to have an effect into adulthood. However, new studies suggest precisely that. The research carried out by Professors Katharina Braun and Jörg Bock is of particular note as they were able to prove and quantify extensive and irreversible changes to the anatomy of the brain under stress in animals.
The young animals used by Professor Braun (degus) reacted very sensitively to short-term separation from their parents. This stress left scars on the brains of the animals. Amongst other things, Braun was able to demonstrate that in normal situations at certain times, the relationship of spine and shaft synapses changed dramatically (by around 60%). If the lab animal was subjected to (separation) stress at these certain times, the change did not occur.
The first weeks of postnatal development are characterised by extensive restructuring work to the limbic system during which a significant part of the neurological connections are cut. When learning at a neuronal level, unused neuronal connections are therefore physically severed thus permanently changing the structure of the nerve tissue. These radical changes take place in tightly scheduled phases whereby the individual phases are to be seen as time windows in which the mental status makes a direct impression on the anatomy of the area of the brain in question.
If a phase is missed because the wrong signals or even no signals are received, the corresponding region of the brain remains undeveloped. Later corrections outside the time window require disproportionately higher effort and success is uncertain.
Comparable time windows that occur later in childhood development in connection with acquiring new phylogenetic abilities such as speech have long been known. If you look at childhood development backwards up until birth, the amount of time between these windows becomes shorter and shorter and always corresponds to elementary skills. Shortly after birth the focal point of these cerebral maturation processes is limited to the limbic system, the oldest phylogenetic cerebrum area which is responsible for emotional control.
The quality of basic emotional configuration that is formed early on determines whether the child will be able to use her inherited potential in later learning phases.
For obvious reasons, little is known about the precise time and length of individual maximum cerebral activity levels. Animal experiments indicate that the earliest imprinting phases are completed just hours after birth.
Are premature babies particularly sensitive?
When it comes to premature babies and babies with special needs, additional questions arise. Does the prenatal behavioural programme run for a while longer or does the infant switch immediately to postnatal mode right after (premature) birth? This in turn poses the question of which environmental conditions should be created in order to ensure that both programmes run smoothly. And if the postnatal programme does kick in, how can the still immature brain tissue deal with the modifications that accompany it? Does it maybe react more sensitively to disturbances than the brain of a correctly developed child?
Luckily a newborn’s expectations of the world around him are reasonable. They are mainly limited to breast-feeding and regular, or better, constant skin contact with their caregiver. Other people are also accepted as replacements. Sometimes making a noise to show you are nearby is enough to sooth a child temporarily.
In animal experiments on degus, contact calls made by a mother only soothed her daughters. The sons had to be comforted with physical contact. However this is all just mentioned in passing to demonstrate that you have to be prepared for all sorts of surprises in this uncertain terrain.
It cannot be expected that this uncertain state of knowledge will change much in the near future – at least not in relation to humans.
The effects of disruptions in early childhood development only appear years or even decades later when it’s almost impossible to reconstruct the chain of events.
Human research sometimes quotes historic ‘experiments’ such as the search for the ‘natural language’ carried out by Frederick II in the 13th century or other extreme cases such as the children in the Romanian orphanage; the results of these experiments also led to the conclusions described above.
However, it is much more difficult to determine the effects of comparably harmless disturbances that newborns are subjected to in a normal clinic environment. Only statistical findings can provide the best indications.
For example, numerous statistics prove that former premature babies are significantly more likely to develop behavioural problems when they reach school age than babies born to term. These problems particularly affect the emotional control complex, which gives us something to think about considering what we’ve just learnt. During animal experiments it was precisely that area of the brain that reacted sensitively to early disturbances.
We can play with this thought some more…
Could there be a correlation between the conditions on maternity wards during the 1960s and the current rate of divorce? And could such a correlation be seen as evidence that the former isolation of newborns – as was common in those days – has made the current generation incapable of forming relationships? Can the causes for the increase in single person households, the decline in birth rates and the erosion of social graces in Germany be traced back to the maternity ward nurseries of the economic miracle years when everything had to be modern, distant and aseptic?
These sort of conclusions are, of course, going a little too far, however it’s worth bearing in mind that it is at least plausible that the environmental conditions that a person is subjected to during their first few weeks of life could set the course for their entire lives. These conditions should therefore be designed very carefully.