Cortisol, T-Rex, and Your Baby
This post is part of the 2010 API Principles of Parenting blog carnival, a series of monthly parenting blog carnivals, hosted by API Speaks. Learn more about attachment parenting by visiting the API website.
The debate centered around “spoiling” a baby vs. cry-it-out (CIO) extinguishing methods normally focuses on parental life style. Even when framed in an argument that children need to learn to “self-soothe” the primary argument still seems to be that sleeping through the night is the primary goal for the sanity of the parents and the maturity of the child. (This idea that children need to learn self soothing is very flawed – see Authentic Parenting’s great article Autonomous babies, babied children.)
I’d like to look at this question from a much more objective standpoint – that is how CIO affects the brain of an infant.
Your Baby’s Brain – An Unwired House
At the moment of birth a baby has the most brain cells it will ever have. Over the next two years the number of brain cells will decrease (and continue to decrease over your lifetime). The important factor isn’t really the number of neurons but the connections (called synapses). The interesting thing about connections is that they are shaped by experience and thus are grown after birth through interactions with the world. (In some of the most depressing research I’ve done – click at your own risk – children deprived of interaction, such as feral children, develop much fewer brain connections and can lose the ability to make connections). So, even though a newborn has more neurons their brain is not very dense with connections – this is called synaptic density.
Cortisol – Run From the T-Rex!
So how does stress effect the developing brain? Cortisol gets bad press but it is useful in the human body. When a dangerous situation happens cortisol alters key things in your body to help you respond (fight or flight) and remember. However, our bodies were not designed to experience chronic stress.
The stress system in our bodies is really simple. Yeah right! Here’s a graphic describing the interplay of brain, hormones, glands, and organs:
- Cortisol counteracts insulin, contributing to hyperglycemia.
- Cortisol stimulates gastric acid secretion which increases loss of potassium. Potassium is essential to neuron function.
- Cortisol inhibits loss of sodium from small intestines of mammals.
- Cortisol weakens the immune system. Cortisol prevents proliferation of T-cells by rendering the interleukin-2 producer T-cells unresponsive to interleukin-1 (IL-1)
- Cortisol lowers bone formation thus favoring development of osteoporosis in the long term.
- Cortisol reduces calcium absorption in the intestine.
- Cortisol works with adrenaline to create short-term memories of stressful events. This is important in reminding cavemen not to taunt the T-rex the next time they are out hunting – hence the beneficial purpose of a short-term stress response. However, long-term exposure to cortisol results in damage to cells in the hippocampus – your brain’s long-term memory powerhouse. This damage results in impaired learning.”
Non-Responsiveness and Crying
Since cortisol was meant to be a short-lived condition the body reacts to chronically elevated levels by actually destroying synapses. In response your body produces more cortisol. Basically, the long-term effect is to wire the whole system for over-reaction so that every cortisol producing event causes your body to over-produce cortisol. Hence, all the effects above are prolonged.
“By regulating affect, the caregiver is also regulating the release of neurohormones in the infant’s brain. High levels of cortisol, a stress hormone that may well be released in the brain during states of distress, has been shown in some animal studies to destroy synapses (Schore, 1996 emphasis mine).”
This actually structurally changes the child’s brain in a way similar to an adult with prolonged depression
“Stress early in life can alter the development multiple neurotransmitter systems and promote structural and functional alterations in brain regions similar to those seen in adults with depression (Kaufman and Charney, 2001)
Infants that experience persistent crying episodes were 10 times more likely to have ADHD and were also more prone to poor school performance, antisocial behavior, increased aggression, impulsivity, and violence Wolke, Rizzo, and Woods and Perry, B. (1997), “Incubated in Terror: Neurodevelopmental Factors in the Cycle of Violence,” Children in a Violent Society, Guilford Press, New York.)
Responsiveness – The Cortisol Antidote
As much as parents can effect brain development in a negative way they can also do so in a positive way,
“In the inevitable event of distress states in the infant, the caregiver’s moving in to repair the connection and comfort the infant reduces the levels of cortisol and related stress hormones. As a result, the frontal cortex develops a greater concentration of glucocorticoid receptors that can modulate stress responses (Schore, 1996).
You can create a child that handles stress well, is less prone to depression, has a high-degree of emotional intelligence, and is better able to self-soothe as an adult.
The only question you have to ask yourself is – do you want your baby to self-soothe now or when they are an adult?