What's new?

How do we know that babies need their mothers?

A Quick History of Attachment Theory

Only last century, wet nurses and nannies were hired and little boys sent to boarding schools in the wealthiest families. It was thought that emotions were not important, and that too much physical comfort would make children weak and spoilt.


John Bowlby  (the “father” of Attachment Theory) was the fifth of six children born in a wealthy English medical family. A second nanny was hired by the family when he was born, and all was well until she left for another position when he was four years old. He was not without a mother. They lived in the same house and he saw her every afternoon for one hour with the rest of the children. However, John had, in reality, lost his "mother" (The theme of the film "The Nanny" is similar). When he grew up. became a doctor and a psychiatrist, he understood that something was wrong with him, and that all his training could not explain it.


It was the post-war years in England and the children who had missing and distracted parents, or who had been sent to the country for safety, were starting to cause social problems. From personal experience, and then with a whole generation of troubled children to observe and help, Bowlby developed his theory of attachment.


The World Health Organisation sponsored Bowlby’s study called “Maternal Care and Mental Health”. He reviewed previous studies on the effects of institutionalisation on child development and the distress experienced by children when they are separated from their mothers. In three books he argued that the mother-child relationship and the physical contact between them is critically important to the child’s future development. In 1953 a colleague produced a short documentary called A Two-Year-Old Goes to Hospital, which showed the immediate effects of maternal separation.At about the same time Harry Harlowe was studying the effect of maternal absence on baby monkeys. They were given food and something soft to cuddle, yet these monkeys grew up with many social problems when they were put together with normally-reared "child" monkeys. They did not know how to act and mostly stayed separate from the group. They were often aggressive and later unable to develop mating relationships. Harlowe concluded infant monkeys needed nurturing from the mother monkey, and that this was critical in forming the ability to interact with other monkeys. He generalised this conclusion to human children. These men (!) showed the importance of the primary caregiver (usually mother, although it can be father or another adult) in both human and primate development.

Since those early studies, the long-term effects of secure  and insecure attachment have been studied. Insecure attachment is not the same as neglect and abuse which can often be observed from outside the family. Attachment is all about relationships, where children feel safe, "got" and valued. It is often only in later mental health or behavioural troubles that poor parent-child attachment can be seen in retrospect as the cause. Insecure attachment patterns have long-lasting effects, including low self-esteem, depression, anxiety, social and personality problems, learning difficulties, externalising behaviours and inter-generational parenting problems.

Studies of children adopted out of the Romanian orphanages in the 1990s were able to show that the later a child had access to sensitive parents, the worse their outcomes. 

Emotional Intelligence, the concept developed by Daniel Goleman, is argued to be even more important than cognitive intelligence, and develops within secure attachment relationships between babies and their carers.


Eat a healthy diet before getting pregnant

For the first time, researchers have confirmed that women who eat a poor diet before they become pregnant are around 50% more likely to have a preterm birth than those on a healthy diet. The study shows that women who consistently ate a diet high in protein and fruit prior to becoming pregnant were less likely to have a preterm birth, while those who consistently ate high fat and sugar foods, and take-out food were about 50% more likely to have a preterm birth. In this study women who ate protein-rich foods like lean meat, fish and chicken, as well as whole grains and vegetables, had a much lower risk of preterm birth. Women who ate take-aways, potato chips, cakes, biscuits and other foods with high fat and sugar were more likely to have premmies. It is important to have a good diet before, as well as during pregnancy.

Sweet solutions help relieve pain in older babies as well

Premmies are given sucrose  before painful procedures because this seems to reduce the stress and discomfort of the babies.A recent study assessed the amount of crying following immunisations of babies up to 12 months of age. There were a total of 1674 injections. When babies were given sucrose or glucose before the needles, there was a modest reduction in crying and time crying. There seemed to be a dose-related effect in the older babies (the more sugar, the less the baby cried). Immunisations are stressful for babies and parents and it may be helpful to make the experience less uncomfortable for all involved. Ref: Harrison, D., Stevens, B., Bueno, M et al., Efficacy of sweet solutions for analgesia in infants between 1 and 12 months of age: a systematic review. Arch Dis Child 2010;95;406-

Brain Plasticity from swimming and dancing

Children who are taught to swim early in life do better at school later in life. This knowledge came from an enormous study of Australian and New Zealand children. So what does swimming do? It gets rhythmic, controlled breathing happening. It makes gets left-right coordination of the brain happen. It strengthens all the connective tissue from and to many parts of the brain, across the hemispheres, and from the top (cortical) to the bottom (sub-cortical). There are other activities that do all of this as well. Dancing! Dance has been shown to improve motor, cognitive, and mental

One premmie mum told me about how her little daughter learns ballet and what it does for her. It gives her pleasure, is all pink and girly, improves her core strength (a common problem with premmies) and motor coordination. It is also doing lots of wonderful things to her brain. Hackney, M.E. & Earhart, G.M. (2010). Effects of dance on gait and balance in Parkinsons Disease. Clinical Neurology.


What teachers know about children born prematurely

Although the vast majority of premature children attend mainstream schools, they have poorer academic success, especially in mathematics, and have more need for special education needs than full-term children. Teachers often lack knowledge about how health conditions affect children’s abilities at school.

It is likely that in every class of 30 children, at least one will have been born prematurely. A study in England showed that teachers lacked knowledge about this matter and feel ill-equipped to support them at school.This is a significant public health and educational concern.


Reference: Johnson S. et al., (2015) The long-term consequences of preterm birth: what do teachers know? Developmental Medicine and Child Neurology. DOI:10.1111/dmcn.12683

Omega-3 for behavioural problems

Children (who lived in a very poor situation) were given an enrichment program when they were 3 years old – stimulating activities, physical exercise and nutritional enrichment. At 11 years these children had markedly improved brain function and at 23 they were 34% less likely to be criminals. In trying to tease out which part of the intervention seemed important, the researcherslooked at nutrition. Children with poor nutrition at age 3 were more antisocial and aggressive at ages 8, 11 and 17. They then looked at  another group of children who were given just an omega-3 supplement>The children who got the supplements were later found to be less aggressive and antisocial as well as less internalizing (anxious and withdrawn). This study suggests a link between nutrition, brain development and antisocial behaviour. Since premmies are at risk for both hyperactivity and withdrawal, including omega-3 nutrition from an early age may be an easy and inexpensive way to minimize these risks.Reference: Raine, A., et al. Reduction in behaviour problems with omega-3 supplementation in children ages 8-16 years: a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled, stratified, parallel group trial.

Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 2015; 56(5): 509DOI:10.1111/jcpp.12314.


Why Kids Need to Move, Touch and Experience to Learn

Extract from the articlehttp://ww2.kqed.org/mindshift/2015/03/26/why-kids-need-to-move-touch-and-experience-to-learn/

Maria Montessori highlighted the connection between minds and bodies in her 1936 book The Secret of Childhood. Increasingly scientists are proving Montessori right. Researchers are studying the body movements of children as young as four-to-six months old and have found earlier and more frequent movement correlates with academic learning down the road. Kids who could sit up, sustain “tummy time” longer and walk were all correlated with future academic success, even when researchers controlled for socioeconomics, family education and type of future education, among other mitigating factors.

“A very strong predictor of academic achievement was how early kids were moving, exploring their world,” Beilock said. “When kids can explore their surroundings, all of a sudden, things change.” Once kids are on the move the adults in their lives use directives and other more complicated language forms. As kids are coached by their parents, they begin to understand the directions and change behaviors. And once a child can do something on her own, she’s more likely to internalize what’s happening with others. “There is evidence that our ability to use our hands affects the structure and functioning of the brain,” Beilock said. As young children move and explore their worlds, they are learning through touch. Early bimanual training correlates with the robustness of the corpus callosum, a part of the brain that facilitates quick communication between the left and right brain hemispheres, Beilock said. This connection between using ones hands and swift communication in the brain may be part of the reason learning to play music is often correlated with math ability. professor of psychology at the University of Chicago.


Self-regulation (the new buzz word)

"Self-regulation" is the new buzz-word in psychology. If little children develop self-regulation, it seems to predict lots of good things in their future lives.

Have you heard about the now-famous marshmallow test? An experimenter sits with a 4-year-old at a table. He explains that he must leave the room for a few minutes. He also gives the child a marshmallow that can be eaten straight away, while he is out of the room. However if the child is able to wait until the experimenter returns, they will be given two marshmallows (you can see examples of this on you-tube).

This simple test was delivered among many other more formal assessments. The children were followed up many years later so that early predictors of later success could be identified. The marshmallow test was found to predict lots of good things, including academic and social skills.

The marshmallow test assesses the child’s ability to put off a reward until some later time. In order to do this, the child must first understand how the later reward will be greater than the immediate one, and they must be able to “hold” the negative feelings of looking at a marshmallow without touching it.

As children grow, so does their ability to stop themselves from doing something compelling, even when their parents (or an experimenter) is not around to control them. The name for this very helpful new skill is “self-regulation”. It is another of those hidden skills that is so very important. Without being able to stop ourselves doing exactly what we feel like, learning at school, playing with peers and generally getting along with people would be very difficult.

There are “DO” and “DON’T” sides to self-regulation

We might ask our child to come to the table, get dressed, or get in the bath. These are the “do”-type parts of self-regulation. Then there are the “don’ts” which include asking children not to do things like drawing on the walls. Little children are found to be better at complying with “don’t” requests. This might be because they hear so many “don’t” statements, often associated with safety (e.g. “don’t touch that hot cup of tea”). The “don’t” statements are often compelling and require immediate responses and they are in the parent’s presence. “Do” statements ( “Go and get your pyjamas”) require the child to act on their own to some extent.


There is no magic moment when children have self-regulation. It develops little by little. One moment you may notice that your child is happy to help you put their toys away. Then they may develop some self-control and obey some house rules, and finally they can remember parent’s wishes and think about consequences. As they become older, this self-control generalises to school and road rules and laws of the land. The ability to exercise self-control is directly related to developmental changes in the brain’s frontal lobes. This is why 2-year-olds have tantrums and 20 year-olds (normally) don't.

Carol Newnham, Premiepress December 2014