My major professor in my doctoral program once told me that by the time children are three years old, their lives are set. I was not convinced by his deterministic view of child development.  However, as I’ve gotten older and grown to understand children better, I think he was probably right.

This doesn’t mean that we have no choice in our behaviors, but what I believe to be true is that a sort of default mode is set well before a child ever enters school. This includes the child’s personality, his approach to problems, and his temperament. For example, current research shows that children who live in anxious homes – homes where there is a lot of fighting or yelling – tend to be anxious in their teen and adult years. And depression that was once thought to be inherited now appears to be a byproduct of neonatal brain development in the presence of a depressed primary caregiver.

Once these default modes are set, they can only be changed with great effort.  Therefore, the importance of meeting the child’s needs in those early years is more vivid than ever.

Children require a number of things from their primary caregivers in these first few years of life.  Other than their obvious physical needs, they need hours of face-to-face contact. They need skin-to-skin contact. They need someone to make eye contact with them, to talk to them, and to snuggle their little bodies. These are not things that happen with “quality time.”  They require “quantity time.”

An interesting experiment was conducted many decades ago that set the stage for the research on attachment – the bonding that happens between child and caregiver. Researchers tracked babies that were being raised in two very different environments. The first was a Catholic orphanage. The loving nuns who cared for the babies in the orphanage were well-intentioned and perceived their mission as a calling from God. They took in any abandoned or unwanted baby. These babies were fed, clothed, and given a safe place to sleep.

The second environment was a women’s prison in New York City. These babies were born to women who were incarcerated and the prison allowed the women to raise their children within the prison walls. These women were not paragons of intellectualism nor did they function at the highest levels of the social ladder. The conditions in the prison were gray, cold, and anything but what you would expect as an ideal place to raise a baby.

The fetal death rate of the two groups were compared and to the researchers’ surprise, the fetal mortality rate was higher among the babies in the orphanage than at the prison. The reason became obvious. The nuns only had two hands each. Despite their intent to do well, they only had time to provide basic needs for the babies in their care. None of the children were neglected, but none of them had the required hours of rocking, cooing, and eye-contact that the babies in the prison received. The prisoner-mothers had nothing BUT time. They spent hours cuddling their children, talking to them, and loving them.

The term that was coined for the babies who died in the orphanage was “fetal failure to thrive.”  This study taught us that snuggles and face-to-face time is just as important as the food babies consume. It validates years of research that propose the importance of parents investing in their childrens’ early years.

Children are not robots and if these first three years are dysfunctional, there is hope for their futures. But change doesn’t happen by accident. Obviously, it is better to avoid the problem all together simply by providing for your child’s needs in those early years. Give your baby what she needs as much as the roof over her head and the food in her bottle. Give her your patience, your energy, and equally important, your time.

Gregory K. Moffatt, Ph.D.

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