Hugs, lullabies, a gentle touch and the smile of caregivers can provide an excellent vaccine for future broken hearts, teenage anxiety and it can even help to pass an important exam several decades later. Evidence from a new branch of science called epigenetics* shows that such a long-term emotional vaccination is actually possible!

Early infant relationships are a dynamic, two-way process involving both the child and the caregiver. The attachment of infants to their caregivers, which develops from the first moments of a child’s life, has a dual function. Firstly, it ensures that the infant, while remaining close to the caregiver, receives the necessary nurturing needed to survive. Secondly, the quality of attachment and the sensory stimuli associated with this attachment set further directions for the cognitive and socio-emotional development of the infant.

The development of infants’ brains (as well as their social, emotional and cognitive development) depends on a loving relationship with their primary caregiver, usually the parent.

There is growing evidence from the areas of developmental psychology, neurobiology and animal epigenetic research that early neglect and lack of love can lead to long-term mental health problems, as well as reduced overall well-being in later life. Therefore, intensive support for children and their parents, especially disadvantaged families, during the first two years of a child’s life should be a key objective for all organizations that deal with young children. Notably, ECEC staff due to frequent and lasting contacts with families have a great role in this matter.

We learn relationships from the first moments of life

Research on animals’ relationships [1] has shown that mice under the care of loving mothers (who are attentive and groom them with carefulness) grow up to be ‘good’ mothers. This effect is so strong that it can extend over up to two generations, with mice- granddaughters that are even better mothers and more effective at dealing with stress. These long-term benefits of good parenting in mice depend on the chemical changes that are visible in their DNA!

Interactions and communication between infant and caregiver lead to the establishment of pathways that help to create memories and develop learning processes [2]. Longitudinal studies report that a child’s ability to establish and maintain healthy relationships throughout his or her life can be significantly weakened by an insecure attachment (type of relation contaminated with fear) to the primary caregiver in the first stage of development [3].

D. Teicher [4] described the following brain dysfunctions in children who suffered from neglect (an extreme form of insecure attachment) in their early years:
● reduced growth of the left hemisphere, which may lead to the associated increased risk of depression,
● increased sensitivity in the limbic system, which can lead to anxiety disorders,
● reduced growth of the hippocampus, which can contribute to a decrease in learning abilities and memory capacity.

What does a baby’s brain need?

The most precious gift a child can receive from their caregivers is simply love, time and support. However, for a parent to be able to give their child attention and love, he or she must be cared for, emotionally adjusted and feel safe in life. Jack Shonkoff, Director of the Children’s Development Centre at Harvard University [5] and advisor to UNICEF, advocates the need to provide focused interventions and support for the emotional needs of parents of young children. He believes it is crucial to provide parents with information on how to build safe attachment and early emotional resilience in their children, as well as to care for the well-being of parents and their mental and physical condition.

How can ECEC staff help in this important task?

ECEC professionals can provide basic and reassuring information in daily conversations with parents as well as in simple leaflets and posters promoting a warm and gentle approach to the child, parenthood and importantly themselves. Infancy is an extremely intensive time for caregivers. It is important that during this time children and their parents are supported to promote affection. Without a good initial bond, children are less likely to become happy, independent and resilient adults. In other words ECEC professionals should remember that in order to support a baby they need to consider his/her home environment as much as it is possible.

* Epigenetics is a science that investigates changes in the expression of genes modified by external factors and being subject to inheritance.

[1] Champagne F.A., Francis D.D., Mar A., Meaney M.J., 2003. Variations in maternal care in the rat as a mediating influence for the effects of environment on development. Physiol. Behav. 79: 359–371.
[2] Shore R., 1997. Rethinking the brain. New York, NY: Families and Work Institute .
[3] Perry B.D., 2002. Childhood experience and the expression of genetic potential: what childhood neglect tells us about nature and nurture; Vol. 3. Brain and mind; pp. 79–-100.
[4] Teicher M.D., 2000. Wounds that time won’t heal: the neurobiology of child abuse. Cerebrum: The Dana Forum on brain science. 2: 50–67.
[5] Shonkoff J.P. 2010. Building a New Biodevelopmental Framework to Guide the Future of Early Childhood Policy. Child Development. 81: 357–367.

This blog post was contributed by Marta Kotarba (Maria Grzegorzewska University).

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A child’s brain needs love

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