Parenting: Your adult relationship and baby's brain

September 28, 2010

So, it's not a matter of more vitamins, more jars of baby vegetables or more classical music/movies/books.

It has everything to do with keeping your marriage or adult relationship with the baby's other parent happy and stress free.

John Medina, author of BRAIN RULES FOR BABY, outlines the huge damage a stressful home has on the actual size and health of a newborn's brain that first year.

He states unequivocally that most marriages suffer when a new baby comes home. New parents usually expect giggling, cooing newborns who smell sweet and look happy just like in the commercials and on sitcoms.

The reality is much different. Even though little babies often do coo, smile and smell nice... just as often they projectile vomit on you, have diarrhea, stay up all night crying for no clear reason and seem unhappy.

Even veteran parents sometimes forget between children how tough that first year can be. Between the sleep deprivation (young babies rarely sleep more than 4 hours at a time and are on a 24-hour clock - they have to "learn" to sleep at night), colicky bellies, premature births with medical complications and the challenge of having other children or retired parents at home to care for.

The pressure cooker usually bubbles over for MOST couples.

In fact, Medina says marital satisfaction plunges 90-percent that first year, and continues to fall over the next 15 years for most parents!

Medina repeatedly tells couples the one thing that will help their babies more than anything is to work on their relationship, be kind to each other, take "date nights together", have husbands help with more chores, get a babysitter to do some of the overnight care so the parents can get a full night's sleep, etc. When the base of the family pyramid weakens, the entire pyramid will fall.

Research shows that children's brains are quick to sense stress and will react by "shrinking" or never developing fully as a default mechanism or safety measure. The child automatically reverts to a "survival" status and will stop thriving... it's part of the "fight or flight" response that Mother Nature pre-wired into humans millennia ago.

Newborns aged birth to 6 months old react to stress with higher blood pressure, increased heart rates, and higher stress hormones just like adults. Some researchers say they can test a baby's urine sample over 24 hours and assess the stress level in a home.

As time goes on, high stress interferes with babies bone mineralization, so their bones are weaker, they have more coughs and colds, they're at greater risk for pediatric depression and anxiety disorders.

What's worse, stressed babies IQs are lower than children raised in stable homes by 8 POINTS!

Behaviorally, stressed babies from birth to 4 years old start to have less ability to regulate their emotions because they have fewer coping skills…they're just trying to survive the yelling, punching and screaming around them.

As they grow into small children and teenagers, they get worse grades, get pregnant mistakenly more often, are twice as likely to get divorced and rarely get grades good enough to get into college, much less qualify for scholarships or loans.

What's worse, infants exposed to regular stress for more than 8 months, don't recover very well.

Why all the fighting among the grown-ups?

Medina outlines 4 reasons why almost EVERY couple will fight after baby comes home:

    1. Sleep loss
    2. Feeling socially isolated by taking care of a baby
    3. Unequal workload at home with the chores
    4. Depression at how hard parenting is
Medina says, in American, women are still doing the bulk of the childcare and chores, despite the advances made. Even if the mom works outside the home, she does a whopping 39 hours of childcare a week. 40-percent of dads spend 14 hours or less a week taking care of baby, 14-percent spend less than 7 hours a week.

As for the household work, women still do 70-percent of the home tasks; that's better than 30 years ago when it was 85-percent...but it's still 2/3 of the hours. And the household duties increase 3 times as much for women as men when baby comes home.

And the expense of a baby, the financials, are usually a shock to both mom and dad, creating yet another source of arguments. "Why did you spend so much on the stroller?" "Did the baby really need another new outfit?" Accusatory questions like that typically lead to arguments. Invariably mom does the shopping, so mom catches heat for what is bought and how much it costs even if she is half the breadwinning team, according to Medina!

Medina says he hears from almost every couple, they had no idea how "hard" it would be to have a baby, raise a baby, and pay for a baby.

But the good news is, some of the damage can be reversed.

Babies taken out of a highly stressful environment by 8 months old and put into an empathic, nurturing environment show improvement in as little as 10 weeks. Babies not removed from chronic stress, never do recover. So researchers urge parents to put down the boxing gloves.

Next week, we'll talk about the ways to prevent some of this antagonism... how to shore up your relationship before and after baby arrives, and how to therefore keep your baby's brain growing to its full potential.

It's not all bad news... but it takes planning, understanding, and a lot of love.

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