Emotional Needs of Newborn Babies
Continuing on with our Thursday parenting series based on Owen Connolly’s book for fathers “Standing on the Shoulders of Giants”, today’s blog post is taken from the second section of the book which focuses on the parenting of small children. The book is based around the answers to frequently asked questions and in this series we are looking at a few of these FAQs. If you’re only joining us now, please feel free to go back to the series beginning. You can read the introduction post here and the post covering the first question in the book here.
WHAT DOES A MAN NEED TO KNOW ABOUT HIS NEWBORN BABY?
There is a plethora of publications describing the infant’s developments from Day 1 onwards, detailing when you might expect to see their first tooth and when they will be expected to walk and to talk, etc. Such books, written by eminent and highly-qualified doctors and psychologists, are widely available and should you need that type of information, there are many books that could do the job. My endeavour here, however, is to inform you about the emotional needs of the child, which aren’t always visible to the eye. You notice when your child isn’t eating or walking or talking, but it’s much more difficult to see their emotional needs. The children themselves will give you very broad hints, but if you don’t know what to look for, you could very well miss them, especially if you are a parent who did not have your own emotional needs met in childhood.
With regards to babies, one area I do want to cover is a baby’s sense of attachment to its parents. The signature scent of our birth mother is indelibly marked in our brains. The part of our brain that deals with emotion is near the nose, so when we smell that signature scent it goes straight to that place and makes us feel safe. If you have any prolonged distancing from that scent, it can – depending on the particular child – have traumatic effects. It was French researchers who first discovered that the mother has a signature scent and that a scent connection exists between the mother and child. They found that if you put day-old infants in the middle of a circle of women, they’ll wriggle their way towards their natural mother, no matter where she is in the circle. The child that doesn’t move at all is the one whose mother is not present. That kind of evidence says that the child does know its mother and has identified with her. In the same way, research has found that when a child presents itself at the mother’s birth channel, it stimulates a part of the mother’s brain that creates an attachment with the baby. As a result, mothers can have all kinds of difficulties when they want to leave that baby with someone else. Before having the baby they may have said, “I’ll leave it with my mother or my sister,” but then find they can’t do it. These new mothers find it very distressing to have to leave the baby and go to work. It’s a sense of attachment they’ve never experienced before. Likewise, many women say “I’ll never have big conversations about my baby” because they were bored out of their trees when meeting friends who had recently become mothers, but when they have their own child they find that the baby is all they want to talk about. “The baby’s doing this and the baby’s doing that and the baby’s smiling and it’s so exciting!” These women find they have a whole new way of looking at children and thinking about children because of the way they’re designed.
Just as women find it hard to leave their new babies, the babies react badly to any break in the scent connection with its mother. There is research from Holland to suggest that children shouldn’t be separated from that scent for more than twenty hours. A wonderful (and true) old wives tales is for the mother to work up a good sweat and leave some garment under the pillow so that you can spend longer away from the child without it stressing the child. One of my clients had a new baby and I had already told her about the signature scent, so when she had to be rushed back to the hospital, she gave plenty of her underwear and clothes to the husband for the baby. And the baby was very much at ease for the week she was away! It kept the child in contact with the scent. The closest thing to the mother’s scent is the scent of the mother’s mother, so if you’re fortunate enough to have the child’s maternal grandmother around and you have a good relationship with her, that’s a very good place to leave the child and for the child to find comfort. If a father is present at the birth of his child, a strong scent connection is made with him as well. This scent factor is crucial up to about three years of age. After that, children get a bit more independent and less anxious about being close to their mothers and fathers.
(Just as a side note, another example of how scent is so important to children can be seen in the fact that many children hold on to a “comforter” that has a familiar smell that they can put up to their nose and feel safe. They don’t want it washed. They just want that smell that says, “I feel safe.”)
We’re all born very different and with different levels of sensitivity. How we react to any given situation depends on our sensitivity. As such, different results occur when a baby is separated from its mother’s signature scent for a prolonged period, depending on the sensitivity of the particular child. I have called the trauma that some babies experience when separated from the birth scent Infantile Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (iPTSD). Bolby, Ainsworth and many other researchers in attachment theory did great work on separation anxiety but didn’t go all the way back to the trauma caused by separation from that signature scent. As I’ve explained, a mother’s signature scent is like a fingerprint and it’s unique to that woman and it’s emblazoned on the brain of her infant, and it’s what that child identifies with its safety and security. Although the child is out of the womb, it’s attached to the “invisible umbilical” of that birth mother for the first three years of life. If the child is separated from that scent, trauma can occur, and can cause the child to live defensively and see the world as hostile. A lot of antisocial activities – like acting out and aggression – can be the result of this type of trauma. As children under three who experience trauma will not have an expressible memory of the event (as the child’s memory is only being developed – their library of events), therefore the child has only the feelings to rely on, and the feeling most often expressed is that something terrible is going to happen. The child that has to live with this feeling begins to interpret that something could happen to mum and dad or they themselves may die. This feeling that something bad’s going to happen can start the process of being hyper-sensitive, startled at sudden noises. Their imagination begins to see the world as more hostile and they start developing a mistrust of strangers and strange situations. This child is likely to display a very defensive attitude towards most things and find it difficult to accept closeness. They become more and more independent, trying to work things out for themselves. Later, they’re reluctant to speak about unhappy events such as death, dying or separation, which can make them have bad feelings towards mums, dads and siblings, leading to outbursts of anger followed by bouts of remorse. They end up with a feeling of not belonging – strangers in their own home. The child will need therapy in healing this condition. The child needs to have someone explain that they’re in that defensive mode and that they have authority over it and can switch out of it. And with professional help that’s possible. Some children are diagnosed with ADD and ADHD when in fact it’s more likely to be “infantile post-traumatic stress disorder” (iPTSD).