In March of 2016, Conceição and Juliana were delegates at the United Nations for the 60th Commission on the Status of Women where they advocated for the right of families to be an integral part of the development and education of their children. Conceição was a lead speaker at a special meeting on refugees on the subject of “Empowering Mothers to Parent with the Brain in Mind.”
As a result of their conversations at the UN, Reach was invited to contribute to a compilation of articles focusing on specific targets of the Sustainable Development Goals discussed during the UN Commission. These articles were recently published in a book entitled Family Capital and the SDGs: Implementing the 17 Sustainable Development Goals.
Reach’s contribution is below and serves as a great outline of “Parenting with the Brain in Mind™” during the first two years of life.
Using Family Capital to Achieve the Sustainable Development Goals
SDG #4 Quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities
#4.2 Quality early childhood development, care and pre-primary education
Purposeful Parenting – Parenting with the Brain in Mind™
Goal #4.2 of the Sustainable Development Goals is to ensure that all children have access to quality early childhood development, care and pre-primary education so that they are ready for primary education.
This lofty goal is particularly challenging because it includes children from all cultural and social backgrounds, many living in very difficult circumstances. Poverty and trauma negatively impact the developing brain. Children living in poverty experience higher levels of developmental, learning and intellectual disabilities. Traumatic stress results in more problems related to anger, aggression and lack of compassion and empathy.
Beginning with the assumption that basic needs like food, shelter and safety are being met, achieving this goal will require that we focus on two things, the magnificent human brain and the family.
The brain – More than any other stage of development, the early years of a child’s life determine who that child becomes as an adult. When we look at early brain development two factors stand out. First is that the young brain develops at an astonishing rate. By the age of 2 years old, the brain is about 80% of the adult size! Second is the phenomenon called brain plasticity, the ability of the human brain to modify its structure in response to sensory stimulation, the use of motor function and the presence of adequate nutrition. Recognizing the importance of proper brain development in the first years of life is a critical first step in ensuring that children will enter school ready to learn.
The family – Given the importance of good brain development, it is fair to ask who is best suited to accomplish this? Based on 40 years of clinical and teaching experience at the REACH Family Institute, I know without question that the answer is the family. Parents are the best coaches and teachers their children will ever have provided they understand how the brain develops and how to apply that knowledge in practical ways in their daily lives. Why are parents best at this? Because nobody else loves a child more than his parents and immediate family! This is the anthropological reality of the family bond.
In our work with parents throughout the world, we teach them how to parent with the brain in mind, an approach to parenting that we call “Purposeful Parenting”. When we combine parental love with knowledge about “Purposeful Parenting” the results are powerful not just for that child and his family but for the community and society in general.
Our experience teaching “Purposeful Parenting” shows that it is both effective and economical. In Venezuela, where we worked with families from the low end of the socio-economic spectrum, parents of children with developmental difficulties were highly successful at accelerating the development of not only their struggling child but also the development of their other children. So there is a ripple effect that begins with one child, extends to others and eventually reaches an entire community.
Parenting with the brain in mind is not as complicated as it might seem. After all, parents successfully raised children for millennia until professionals took over. But it does require that the needs of the child be placed first and that all other needs follow, something that is not always easy or common in our modern society.
Professor James McKenna, former head of the Anthropology department at the University of Notre Dame and a leading expert on SIDS, says “Selecting a pattern of social care for a baby is essentially selecting a pattern of physiological regulation for the baby. They’re one and the same thing. There is no distinction.” Which is Dr. McKenna’s way of saying that the child’s needs come first and how parents meet those needs matters.
Here are some simple, practical and easy to implement steps that will have a profound impact on your child’s development.
Purposeful Parenting Best Practices
Newborn to 3 months
Often referred to as the 4th trimester, the first three months of life are a time for parents to get to know and bond with their new baby. Newborn babies are completely dependent on their parents for the fulfillment of all biological and physiological needs. Nature simply assumes that the relationship between baby and mother, which begins in pregnancy, will remain throughout the first years of life. How a mother is able to fulfill her role as her baby’s physiological regulating system affects how her baby’s brain develops and thus affects the baby’s future. Modern culture tends to rule in favor of decisions that separate mother from baby and the consequences of this decision may be greater than we think. The following best practices are particularly important in the early months of life and, ideally, should be extended for at least the first year if possible.
Sleeping arrangements – Nature intends for mother to be in close proximity to her baby so that she can respond to the baby’s biological and physiological needs in a timely and loving manner. Sleeping close to mother provides for this and promotes brain development. Sleeping with or close to baby is normal. It has been done for nearly all of human history, is done throughout the world and serves important biological purposes.
Breastfeeding – Breastfeeding provides the ideal nutrition for babies. In addition, it is an ideal opportunity for emotional bonding that involves extensive touch as well as mutual gaze. Mutual gaze is the term neuroscientists give to that special moment when mother and baby’s eyes are locked in a dance of mutual admiration. Neuroscience research shows that the development of empathy and compassion is directly dependent on the number of mutual gaze experiences a baby shares with a primary caregiver (usually mother) during the first year of life. Think about it, every time you and your baby are looking into each other’s eyes you are growing his brain and helping him become more compassionate!
Skin to skin tactile stimulation – Touch is critical to the development of babies especially in the early months of life. Research shows that when premature babies are caressed or massaged frequently they gain weight faster, spend less time in the hospital and are less stressed. The most convenient time to provide this kind of stimulation is during breastfeeding. Infant massage is another great form of skin-to-skin tactile stimulation.
Respond to crying – The newborn baby’s way of communicating is through crying. That is how they express their needs! It is very important to respond in a timely manner when a baby cries so he learns that he is safe, loved and cared for. You can also communicate with your little one. Talk and sing to your baby. Let him know how much you love him, how tired you are and so on.
Tummy time – Human babies are designed to start moving on the tummy! Provide frequent brief moments throughout the day for your baby to spend time on the tummy. Every time your baby is awake and you are not changing, feeding or loving him put him on his tummy. As baby grows and gets stronger you can increase the time he spends on his tummy. Complete freedom of movement is important so make sure his arms and legs are free so he can easily move them. Make sure you are with your baby at all times while he is on his tummy. The first thing you will notice is that your baby will resist the force of gravity and try to lift his head. Do this often and he will very quickly strengthen his neck and develop good head control.
3 to 6 months
Floor time – By 3 months of age the baby should have good head control, enjoy being on his tummy, be looking around at whatever is at his level and be making lots of arm and leg movements trying to move. The more opportunity you give the faster and earlier he will learn to crawl. Baby’s arms, feet and legs should be bare and he should be on a smooth surface to make it easier for him to move. At this stage you can place your baby on a clean, warm, smooth floor or a firm, smooth mat. You should be on the floor with him, talking, singing, reading books and playing with him. As your baby gets stronger he will be able to play with toys while he is on his tummy. The baby will learn to roll from tummy to back and vice versa. Eventually, your baby will start to move. At first, your baby may turn in circles or go backwards but eventually he should learn to go forward. Now he needs the opportunity to tummy crawl a lot! This is a very important stage of development and should not be skipped.
Sensory Development – Continue to provide baby with lots of pleasant tactile opportunities like tickling, caressing, hugging and so on. Musical instruments are fun at this stage but if you don’t have them you can use whatever is around your house. Kitchen utensils, Tupperware and pots and pans make great instruments for you to play for your child. You should talk a lot to your child. The more you talk the earlier he will understand language. Everything around your child is new to him. So, the environment you are in provides lots of new things for you to teach. Every time a child sees a new thing his brain is developing. Take advantage of this!
6 months to 1 year
Floor time – Now that your baby is army crawling a lot he should be very strong. The next important stage is called creeping. Creeping is when a baby is moving on his hands and knees! At this stage you want to give your baby lots of stimulation to develop balance – swinging, holding him close and spinning, rocking, etc. By now your baby should have good head control but make sure this is done in a safe manner. As balance improves he will get up on his hands and knees. At first, he might rock back and forth but once he feels confident he will begin to move forward. At this stage a carpet or a firm mat is the ideal surface but babies can creep on almost any surface. Now he needs the opportunity to creep a lot!
Sensory Development – As for the rest, continue following the previous advice for providing visual, auditory and tactile stimulation, gradually making everything more sophisticated.
1 to 2 years
Floor time – If you have given your baby lot’s of opportunities to crawl on his tummy and creep on his hands and knees he should be getting ready to walk. Keep doing lots of balance activities, rocking, swinging, spinning and so on. Your baby will walk when he is ready. It might be at 10 months, 1 year or 14 months. The important thing is not how early he walks but that he has he gone through all the important stages of mobility! If he has, from here on just keep giving him the opportunity to use his function. He will keep getting better and better.
Sensory Development – Continue reading to your baby, talking and playing. Just keep increasing the sophistication of everything you do and HAVE FUN watching and being part of your baby’s development!