Research can help us understand why traditional practices are so important. Knowing why, we are less quick to cast adrift customs that can deeply enrich our lives. Nearly every new parent hears the admonition, “Don’t spoil the baby!” at one time or another in the early months of parenting. Our concern about raising “spoiled” children comes from an earlier time when behaviorists, after discovering behavioral conditioning, though that we could condition our babies to behave like little adults by ignoring their cries and not offering “too much” affection.

    That approach has become popular again. (Fads swing like a pendulum from one extreme to another, and parenting advice, of course, is not immune to this phenomenon.) In the late 1990s, and again recently,  popular baby care programs advised parents to put babies on rigid schedules, allow them to “cry it out” alone, and punish them for behavior that was not convenient for parents. The leaders of these movements also manage to convince parents that they damaged their infant’s metabolism by breastfeeding on demand (all research to the contrary) and created spoiled, selfish children if parents respond to their needs and comfort them when they cry. Parents are admonished never to allow their infants to sleep with them, for they can easily kill them. These ideas represent the extreme; a more practical and research-verified approach is that:

  1. in order to become well-adjusted, kind, empathic adults, babies require a lot of attention, affection, and response to their needs;

  2. breastfeeding on demand, breastmilk in a bottle, and bottle-feeding as close to breastfeeding as possible are essential to a baby’s physical, mental and emotional health as well as continual bonding with parents;

  3. co-sleeping can easily be made completely safe if parents learn appropriate ways to make it happen.

    Proof abounds that babies who are neglected and punished suffer bonding breaks and, without intervention, often grow up to be troubled if not antisocial or sociopathic individuals. In my more than thirty years of working with parents to bond more deeply with their infants, respect them, learn their nonverbal “language,” and respond to them with love, I have received countless letters from parents saying infant massage changed their entire life as a family, and their children turned out to be lively, creative, inquisitive, secure, intelligent, social, loving, humanitarian human beings. I had this experience with my own two kids, now amazing adults; my own “laboratory” proved to me that my research and ideas are correct.

    Authoritarian advisers neglect to mention that parents all over the world have naturally responded with love to their babies, breastfed on demand, slept in “family beds,” and carried infants in various types of slings — for millennia — and that if you read the biographies of terrorists, serial killers, and cruel dictators, you will invariably find neglected or authoritarian childhoods.

Infant Eye Contact May Predict Later Behavior

The lack of sensitive parenting early on may predict the development of callous, unemotional traits later on. New research suggests that early parents’ lack of eye contact with their infants might indicate a tendency toward antisocial behavior.

The study, published in Biological Psychiatry, suggests that reduced attention to the human face soon after birth may increase the likelihood of being less responsive to others’ distress later. Callous, unemotional traits have been hypothesized to be precursors of antisocial behavior found in psychopathologic adults. These traits include problems recognizing the emotions of others, impairment in responding to the distress of others, and impaired guilt or empathy. Researchers hypothesize that these traits could be linked to decreased attention to the face, especially the eyes, during infancy.

Eye contact with caregivers may contribute critically to infant bonding and the development of the “social brain.”

Principal investigator Jonathan Hill, professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at the University of Manchester, UK noted, “A lot of research shows that we read others’ emotions in their eyes,” said Dr. Hill. “It is likely that we learn about others’ emotions early in life through eye contact and that this contributes to later responsiveness to the emotions of others.”

“This is an exciting first step in understanding the potential utility of infant eye gaze measures in the development of callous-unemotional traits in children,” agreed Kent A. Kiehl, PhD, professor of psychology at University of New Mexico in Albuquerque and author of The Psychopath Whisperer: The Science of Those Without Conscience.

The researchers enrolled 213 first-time mothers during their twentieth week of pregnancy. When their babies reached 5 weeks old, a trained observer assessed their preferences for tracking either a human face or a red ball. When the baby reached 29 weeks of age, researchers looked at maternal sensitivity using a standard test in which they observed mothers playing with their children. When the children were 18 months of age, researchers assessed callous-unemotional traits using standardized parental questionnaires. The study included 108 girls and 105 boys. At 2 1/2 years, boys tended to have higher callous-unemotional scores than girls. Higher maternal sensitivity was significantly linked to lower callous-unemotional traits. Boys were less affected by the parenting component, so constitutional influences might be stronger for boys. Girls were thought to be more susceptible to environmental effects, such as parenting and home environment.

Early eye contact is a major factor in the bonding process, and plays a major role in successful infant massage. In our classes we emphasize the importance of eye contact, allowing parents to continue and/or begin the bonding process. I have always thought that this, plus skin-to-skin contact and vocalization continue the bonding process for many months, and even years. Thus, teaching parents of premature babies and others who for one reason or another were not able to bond in the first days after birth, is crucial. When I was teaching, 41 years ago, I tried to get parents into my classes as soon as possible after their babies were born. Eventually, I was able to go into the NICU and teach parents touch and holding methods, and finally, an abbreviated massage.