What’s Going On in There? How the Brain and Mind Develop in the First Five Years of Life, by Lise Eliot (Bantam Books, New York, 1999)

I don’t have time to do justice to this wonderful book, only to say that every mother, grandmother, mother-to-be, and potential mother should read it—and that goes for fathers, too. When Eliot expresses her opinions on the data she presents, I don’t always agree, but as a collection of clear, readable reports on the latest research on brain development, this book is invaluable. I’d love to post large quantities of this amazing information, but will content myself with a few more or less random samples.

Elevated temperature is dangerous for developing babies; pregnant women should avoid electric blankets, heating pads, saunas, and hot tubs, should reduce high fevers, and—I wouldn’t have thought of this—should limit exercise to levels that don’t cause their bodies to overheat.

The birth process itself is amazingly good for babies. Some of the advantages require actual passage through the birth canal, but some come earlier in labor and thus it is recommended that even for planned Caesarian sections the mother be encouraged to undergo at least the early stages of labor. When compared with babies delivered by c-section, vaginally delivered babies take their first breaths sooner, experience a more rapid rise in blood oxygen levels after birth, are less likely to have respiratory problems, are better able to maintain their body temperatures, have larger reserves of glucose, and have better reflexes, muscle tone, and sensory responses.

Touch is enormously important to babies. Infant massage, long practiced in India, has been shown in several studies to promote physical, mental, and emotional health as well as brain development.

The dads are right. Dads fling their babies around in the most frightening manner while the babies crow with glee and the moms cringe. Of course proper precautions must be taken to protect the baby’s neck and brain—no one is advocating “shaken baby syndrome"!—but stimulation of the child’s vestibular system confers enormous developmental benefits. In one study, babies ranging in age from three to thirteen months sat in a researcher’s lap and were spun ten times in a swivel chair, each spin followed by an abrupt stop. The babies experienced spinning on both directions and in three different positions, to stimulate each of the ear’s three semicircular canals. After four sessions a week for four weeks, the results were clear. Compared with control groups (one with no treatment, another where the child sat in the researcher’s lap but did not spin), these babies showed clear advancement in both their reflexes and their motor skills (sitting, standing, crawling, walking). One set of three month old twins was split up in the study, and by the time they were four months old the one twin had control of his head and could sit independently, while the control twin was just beginning to hold his head up.

Babies are aware of odors in utero, are calmed by the smell of amniotic fluid, and prefer to nurse on a breast moistened with amniotic fluid.

Back in the days when women assisted in (or even soloed) their own deliveries, their hands were probably covered with amniotic fluid, which was then transferred to the breast as they attempted their first feedings.

Babies as young as six days can distinguish the smell of their own mother’s breast from that of another lactating woman, and even formula fed infants prefer the smell of an unfamiliar nursing mother to that of a non-nursing woman. Infants are also comforted by the scent of their own bodily secretions, which is why a well-chewed blanket or stuffed animal makes such a good “transitional object,” and why having them washed is so upsetting to the child.

It is interesting that children in non-Western cultures do not show as much attachment to these kinds of comfort objects as Western children, perhaps because the former continue to have a great deal of touch and olfactory contact with their parents. (They often keep nursing and sleeping with their parents well past infancy.)

Hearing, too, is acute in the womb. Newborns have been shown to recognize, and enjoy, sounds they heard before birth, from Dr. Seuss stories to concertos, and can distinguish not only familiar voices but also familiar languages.

The evidence for the superiority of breastfeeding is simply too overwhelming to summarize. For the baby’s physical, mental, emotional, intellectual, social, immunological, and every other kind of health, there is no arguing that breast milk—and the nursing process itself—is by far the best. One thing I hadn’t realized was the preponderance of evidence that breastfeeding makes babies smarter. Even after all efforts to correct for other variables, such as home environment and parental attitudes, there is compelling evidence that breastfed children are developmentally and cognitively superior. So that’s my problem….

Reading What’s Going On in There? will make you stand in awe of the tiny baby whose chief accomplishments you once thought were eating, screaming, and excreting.
Posted by sursumcorda on Friday, October 28, 2005 at 4:45 pm | Edit
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