Monday, June 14, 2010

Distracted parenting: Hang up and see your baby - The Boston Globe

Claudia Gold, a paediatrician in Great Barrington, wrote in the Boston Globe today:
"RECENTLY I was on vacation sitting by a pool. I noticed a father with his infant daughter who looked to be about 3 months old. Perched on a table in her car seat, she sat kicking and smiling. Her father faced her, but was talking on his cellphone. He distractedly shook the rattle hanging in front of her as he spoke in an animated way with the person on the other end of the line"
Her article continues to talk about how the baby develops her/his sense of self by the way the mother looks at her/him and interacts on a moment to moment basis. Dr Gold cautions that parents are perhaps not aware of the critical importance of the first few months and the vital importance of attending to and engaging with the baby to optimise the way the brain develops and the infant forms her/his sense of self. Fathers are taking more and more of the primary caretaking role of newborns and infants. A recent article in the New York Times outlined the way that social norms are changing as fathers become more engaged in parenting. Gold discusses the role of oxytocin in the way that mothers are preoccupied with their babies. Perhaps males are disadvantaged in this biological aspect? As feminists in the 70's, one of our catch cries was that 'biology is not destiny' but perhaps we were and are wrong not to pay attention to biological factors and instead of seeing these physiological realities as 'biological determinism' we could reframe the way that hormones and other communication molecules behave as 'biological intelligence'.

Mothers behaviour and orientation to their babies displays what D.W. Winnicott called 'primary maternal preoccupation'. Mothers are meant to be fixated on their babies, attending to their facial expressions; responding and reacting to them. In the past, women were told that babies are such 'time wasters'; that sitting staring at a baby was of no value, however, neuroscience has proven the value of primary maternal preoccupation and those hours of staring, awestruck at the wonder of one's own baby. From the beginning, a baby's brain wires itself, connecting and associating neurons to other neurons in response to environmental cues and emotional experiences. These neuronal associations form patterns of connection that from the earliest days form a mental map for security, enabling an infant to feel safe (or not) in the presence of her/his primary care giver. This primary relationship sets the stage for the child's future relationships and how the child perceives the world. As an infant feels more and more secure in her/his attachment to her/his primary care giver, she/he is able to then turn outward to the world and start engaging with the people and events in his/her wider environment. In those early days, the mother's face provides a mirror which allows the infant to see him/herself and form a sense of self that reflects that image. When mothers are fully engaged, smiling, encouraging, reflecting joy in being, the infant emerges emotionally resilient. Research has shown that mothers with flat affect produce withdrawn, less communicative infants.

Walking through any postnatal unit or going to any home where a new mother and baby reside, you see the ubiquitous cell phone in residence, either next to the woman's ear or being pounded by her flashing finger tips as she dashes off messages to cyberspace. Is it possible that primary maternal preoccupation has, in many instances, been diverted to the cell phone. What message and brain patterning do you think the little ones are getting? What do you think Mary Ainsworth and John Bowlby would make of this phenomenon?

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