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Interesting Tips to New Parents

Like most parents, I turned myself into a scholar about pregnancy, newborns, and child development when I found out that I was expecting my first child. The week my doctors confirmed my pregnancy, I went to the library and borrowed all of the books that I can carry and read through all of them. Yet despite these best efforts, I still found myself struggling through the first few weeks with my newborn, and I am still as confused as most first time parents are, now that I have a giggly, soon to turn 3 year old, toddler. There are a lot of books available, and multitudes of articles in magazines and in the web about parenting tips and styles in every step of your child’s development. However, there is one book that I’ve been known to say to friends as “the only book that I should have read about parenting from birth to toddler years”. This is the renowned book by neurologist Lise Eliot Ph.D. titled “What’s Going On In There? How the Brain and Mind Develop in the First Five Years of Life”.

Some of the information provided is the usual tips to first time parents like prohibition of alcohol, illegal drugs, and smoking, importance of touch and affection, etc. How this book differs from the other parenting books is the in depth scientific explanation of how each of these factors and the many incidences and environmental conditions that our child goes through affects his or her neural development. These, in consequence, affects how the mind develops. There are also substantial amount of information and research findings provided about the different stages of cognitive growth that I find amusing and were not discussed in most parenting books. Some of these interesting tidbits of information are as follows:

(1) The Effects of Psychological Maternal Stress.

Our sympathetic nervous system releases hormones that are responsible for our physiological adaptations to a stressful situation; i.e. the flight-or-flight response – accelerated heart beat, tunnel vision, shaking, etc (Flight-or-flight, p. 784). According to Eliot (2000), these flows of hormones can be experienced by the fetus too, but are not necessarily detrimental, unless the hormone levels get too high (p. 84).   She says that if in the extreme, these substance are thought to contribute to the formation of cleft lift, Down syndrome, newborn health problems like eczema, respiratory difficulty, higher incidence of miscarriages, low birth weight, premature birth, as well as fetal and neonatal brain functions like fussier, more irritable newborns, including some delays in mental and motor development (Eliot, 2000, p. 84). But Eliot (2000) also explicitly mentioned that the placenta protects the fetus from the mother’s stress hormones and it is capable of breaking them down into smaller concentrations (p.91). She also expounds that, endorphins, which rise during pregnancy modulate the flow of stress hormones, helping shield the fetus. (Eliot, 2000, p.92). So similar to the age-old advise of eating healthy when one is pregnant, mothers should also observe  “thinking healthy”;  trying their best to have a well-balanced range of emotions and thoughts that will help maintain a more beneficial environment for the growth of the developing fetus.

(2) Sensory Development

The book goes into detail how the different senses (touch, sight, hear, taste, vestibular) develop from the embryo, to birth, and past infancy. She discusses the different sensory capabilities of newborns as well as well as the benefits of facilitating these experiences. She describes how the neuron pools (collection of neurons for certain functions) develop through formation of new dendrites and synapses in the brain which occurs every time an infant experiences something new or a certain behavior and/or observation is reinforced to them (Eliot, p. 28). She shares that when breastfeeding mothers were asked to ingest garlic pills prior to breastfeeding, 3-4 month old babies sucked longer and consume more milk, however, they don’t such more after a certain period of time – indicating that like adults, they get bored and prefer some variety (Eliot, 2000, p. 191). According to her, it is known that the perception of the full range of colors mature by 4 months of age, and experiments have shown that they are good at remembering colors than shape (Eliot, 2000, p. 217). Due to the way our brain processes colors, she recommends that babies respond more to the brightest and purest versions of red, blue, green, and yellow to enhance visual stimulations (Eliot, 2000, p. 217). Another fascinating study she discussed is the benefit of daily massages for infants. Massaged babies, when tested against those who were entertained with a toy, tested higher in detecting changes in auditory-visual stimulus (novelty preference test), which study has shown to correlate to higher IQ (Eliot, 2000, p.143).   

(3) Encouraging Motor Development

Eliot (2000) sites studies that prove the disadvantages of using an infant walker and how it consequently delays walking because it: (1) does not allow locomotor and balance skill development, (2) block’s baby’s view of their feet, an important visual feedback in learning to walk (p. 287). She also notes that the infant’s brain benefits from “gentle challenging” so the first step to encourage motor development in baby proofing the home after which, stimulating infant exercises such as holding their head up, rolling over, sitting, crawling, standing should be consistently encouraged (Eliot, 2000, p. 289).

(3) The importance of ” protoconversations”

According to Eliot (2000), these are the face-to-face, verbal interactions that baby do like cooing with intonations, hand and finger movements, the smile and excited facial expression, all of which the baby maintains as long as he or she has a conversational partner (p. 302). She informs that this, as well as imitation of the baby’s facial expressions usually done by parents, are essentials in their social development which are known to trigger emotional centers in the brain as well as play a vital role in language acquisition and the development of emotional exchange (Eliot, 2000, p. 303).  

(4) The Shy and the Bold Child

As a mother of an inhibited child, this aspect of the development of a child’s temperament and personality is very important to me. Temperament, the characteristic emotional reactivity and intensity, is considered as a genetic trait (Myer, p. 140). A study by Jerome Kagan, a Harvard psychologist, provided proof that timidity, regarded as mostly due to fear, is orchestrated by a more reactive amygdala which is part of the lower, more primitive, and less malleable limbic system (Eliot, 2000, p 318) While personality, the characteristic pattern of thinking, is influenced by the very plastic upper limbic structure – the cerebral cortex. Eliot (2000) postulates that from these studies as well as others, it is likely that an inhibited toddler will grow up to be a shy adult, but they usually also grow up to be good students since they are more afraid of failure and they enjoy solitary school-work more (p. 318). With the appropriate coaching from parents, their immediate social environment, and the presence of enriching opportunities, timid kids can still then have enjoying, satisfying, and very successful lives. A big sense of relief, especially to a worried mom like myself.

(5) The “Perfect” Parent.

According to Dr. Lise Eliot (2000), the perfect parent “if she (or he) existed, would devote herself full time to the care and teaching of her child” (p. 459). This does not simple mean taking time off from work, but entire sense of a mother’s personhood is taken over into rearing this little person: having the ideal, unmedicated delivery, breastfeeding until the child is potty-trained, spending all the mom’s hours enriching the child’s experiences, allowing her child to play with children of similar perfect parents, and attend various toddler classes and the perfect preschool, while being always on the top of her game on learning the latest child-rearing information and preparing more interesting activities for the child. Such a parent would really be ideal, but Eliot (2000) notes, “Then again, you have to wonder what children learn from parents whose only focus in life is their offspring” (p. 460). Whenever a friend worries that she is not being the best mother that she can be, I always say that no one can beat a mother’s best effort for her child. Anything better than that is impossible. As much as a healthy dose of paranoia is most of the time helpful especially to the first-time parent, we also need to trust in ourselves and all the evolutionary and cultural progresses behind our body and our society that will help us rear this special person that has been given to us.

  References:

Brosnan-Watters, Gayle L. “Fight-or-Flight Response.” Salem Health: Psychology & Mental Health. Ed. Nancy A. Piotrowski. Vol. 2. Pasadena, CA: Salem Press, 2010. 784-787. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 29 Oct. 2010. http://go.galegroup.com.ezproxy.vccs.edu:2048/ps/i.do?&id=GALE%7CCX2275200232&v=2.1&u=viva2_vccs&it=r&p=GVRL&sw=w

  Eliot, Lise. “What’s Going On In There? How the Brain and Mind Develop in the First Five Years of Life”. New York, NY: Bantam Book.

  Myers, David G. Psychology. 9 th ed. 2010 Worth Publishers. p 140

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