Do Common Parenting Practices Hinder Brain Development?

When compared to 50 years ago, life outcomes for American youth are worsening, according to University of Notre Dame professor of psychology, Darcia Narvaez.  Narvaez specializes in moral development in children and how early life experiences can influence brain development  (Notre Dame News, 2015).

According to a new study from the University of Notre Dame, cultural beliefs that have pervaded modern parenting can prevent healthy brain and emotional development in children.  Some of these modern practices that appear to have a negative impact include:

  • The use of infant formula vs. breastfeeding
  • Isolation of infants vs. near-constant touch or holding
  • Ignoring a fussy baby to avoid “spoiling” it
  • A sole, primary care giver

What has been linked with healthy psychological development are common in hunter-gatherer societies include breast feeding, responsiveness to crying, near constant touch and more than one adult caregiver.

Studies have show that responding to a baby’s needs has influences the development of conscience; positive touch affects stress reactivity, impulse control and empathy; free play in nature influences social capacities and aggression; and a set of supportive caregivers (beyond just the mother) predicts IQ and ego resilience as well as empathy (Notre Dame News, 2015).

Babies in the US have seen a reduction in all of these components of child rearing in recent years; they spend less time being held and more time in a variety of carriers, only 15% of mothers are still breast feeding at 12 months, extended families are no longer living close together to help support infant development, and parents limit free play for a variety of reasons.

What is to be discovered is if the rise in anxiety and depression, aggressive behavior and a reduction in empathy in children is a result of this parenting change or other reasons.