Babies are not born resilient.
It’s time we stop parenting them like they are and give them the support they need in the first three years of life.
Everyone wants their children to be resilient to stress but there is a grave misunderstanding about the origin of resilience. Babies are not born resilient to stress but are born with the ability to become resilient if provided with the right environment. It’s an important distinction. Resilience is the ability to adapt to adversity in a healthy manner. Babies are born with varying degrees of adaptability and sensitivity to their surroundings; but no matter what your baby’s personality, emotional resilience — the ability to cope with stress and adversity — is created by a constant, loving, comforting, secure presence, ideally that of his mother. The healthy development of the right brain, which controls our resilience to stress throughout life, is a product of the attachment, bonding, and continuous care that a mother provides in the first three years.
According to research, many babies are born with a genetic predisposition or sensitivity to stress and for these babies especially and for all babies a sensitive and nurturing mother can prevent mental disorders due to stress from occurring. Sensitive nurturing is the buffer to stress and the foundation for resilience to stress. However, even the most devoted and present mother cannot always be there to soothe a sensitive baby, or needs some relief, because these babies are often more challenging to care for. An emotionally responsive surrogate caregiver or father can provide support to both mother and baby.
Early adversity such as a mother’s continuous absence, neglect, maternal depression, or the lack of a secure attachment may produce a lasting and chronic stress response, which alters the brain’s ability to cope with stress in the future. It may also produce symptoms like ADHD or anxiety, or feelings of restlessness. Research shows that a baby’s developing limbic system — the part of the brain that controls the autonomic nervous system and regulates our stress response — is positively shaped by sensitive parenting and maternal presence and that early stressful experiences or social adversity can increase the chances for mental or emotional disorders in the future.
It is clear that healthy and secure attachment is the first step in a long emotional journey necessary for emotional regulation, resilience to stress, good self-esteem, and the ability to have healthy relationships in the future. The time and effort we put into our children in the first three years to insure this healthy attachment is worth all the sacrifice we may have to make.
It’s hard being a baby! Your infant lives in a scary, confusing, complicated and demanding world. Mothers or primary caregivers help their child to interpret and regulate his emotions and keep him in a balanced state, both physically and emotionally; this is called emotional homeostasis. The ability to regulate our emotions means we can be angry without losing our temper, can experience sadness without getting depressed, and can be happy without becoming manic. Resilience is the ability to return to a regulated emotional state after being excited or upset. While it’s critical for our emotional health that we can rely on others to comfort us in times of difficulty, it’s equally important to be able to regulate our own emotions. The secure child, and later the secure adult, is one who can shift easily between self-soothing and asking others for support when he is under stress.
The mechanism for stress resilience is found in the right side and limbic system of the baby’s brain. How resilient a baby, and the adult she will become, are has much to do with her secure attachment, connection, and interaction with her mother/primary caregiver. If a mother is physically present but is emotionally unable to connect with her child, her emotional absence is as painful as if she were not there at all. Many of my adult patients have described the terrible emptiness of having a mother who ignored or misinterpreted their needs.
When a baby is securely attached to her mother and her mother is present to help to regulate the baby’s emotions, the limbic system continues to provide the baby with the same regulatory function as her mother even when the mother is absent for short periods of time. Babies internalize the stress-buffering their mothers provide and it becomes part of their protection in the future. However, when a mother is absent emotionally and/or physically, the limbic system is not developed enough to protect the baby from the emotional and physical effects of stress and fear.
Modern society demands that our children are independent of us and self-sufficient too early. We want our children to be able to cope with being left in childcare at 2 weeks of age without the protection of their mothers or primary caregivers who serve as the emotional skin for babies in the first three years. We want them to be able to sleep through the night at 6 weeks of age, potty train, read and be able to clean up after themselves at 18 months. We have very unreal expectations of our children. Many of our babies and toddlers accommodate to our needs as parents, yet many of these expectations come from our own conflicts and issues with dependency. This creates pressure on the baby to develop unhealthy defenses which make them seem like they can handle more than they actually can. In other words when a child seems too independent and cognitively advanced before the age of three and you think as a mother its too much of a good thing, you are probably correct.
I am seeing in my parent guidance practice an epidemic of children whose early independence and forced self-sufficiency has backfired causing signs of stress, depression and anxiety as well as suicidal thoughts and actions as early as 5 years of age. The defenses which are fragile crack like an eggshell. I am also approached on a regular bases by very accomplished, left brain dominant and precocious young adults who are overwhelmed by anxiety because they don’t have the internal resources or social emotional development to cope with the adversities and expectations they and place on themselves.
There is not real stress resilience without having a physically and emotionally present mother or primary caregiver in the first three years who protects you from the harsh environment, teaches you that when you are in distress you can find comfort and lays the foundation for resilience to adversity and stress throughout your life. Maybe its time for us as parents to take a long look at ourselves and why we need our children to develop faster and to be free of their need of us before they are really ready. If we don’t become more self-reflective as mothers and as a society we are going to continue to produce children who seem high functioning but are frail internally and unprepared to deal with the challenges of life.
Erica Komisar, LCSW is a psychoanalyst, parent guidance expert and author of the book Being There: Why Prioritizing Motherhood in the First Three Years Matters