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Sunday, March 13, 2011

Let's Start at the Beginning...Childbirth

What does our child’s birth have to do with courage?  Birth triggers similar neurological mechanisms and the release of many of the same neurochemicals associated with courage.  If you don’t think it takes courage to give birth, to adopt a child, or unconditionally love another human being then stop reading right now!

Let’s start at the beginning.  I didn’t have the “perfect birth” with either of my kids.  READ: quick, soothing music, no emergency interventions and/or numbing chemical infusions, surrounded by family/friends/a birthing coach/midwife/massage therapist all focused on giving me exactly what I needed when I needed it, maybe even at home!  The kind of birth I’d read about in some of the baby and childbirth books I'd found.  The kind of birth other expectant moms and I proudly and excitedly whispered to each other about having in our childbirth education class or whilst we stretched our swollen limbs together in prenatal yoga class. Or the “natural births” other moms bragged to me about at baby showers or in grocery store lineups where I was, yet again, buying the weirdest combinations of food to stave off my pregnancy cravings and nausea whilst ensuring a hefty weight gain. Well, maybe they weren't bragging, but as a slightly competitive person myself (note the understatement) I definitely heard the brag.  Honestly, I even skipped over the Cesearean sections in all the baby books.  I figured: not going to happen to me, don't need to read it!  Boy, was I humbled and deeply grateful that an OB/GYN I trusted happened to be on-call.

That all said, when my kids ask about the day they were born, I fluff up my fur (a.k.a. my crazy curly hair) with pride, wrap them inside my protective lion mama arms, and whisper how I fell in love with them on the day they were born.  I tell them how brave they were (in their own specific ways) and how their cries could be heard far and wide awakening the world to their arrival.  How their dad and I wept with joy when we first saw them and heard their cry.  But most of all, how grateful we are to know them, to witness them grow every day, and to be their parents. Turns out it's the most “natural thing” in the world to love your child!

Just like the quest for the perfect wedding, it's nice if everything goes according to plan and it doesn't rain...but it's the marriage that really matters.  So, I worried about not having had the “perfect birth” for about as long as it took me to bond with my babies—not long.  As soon as I was able to hold them, we quickly discovered we fit perfectly together.  I was just happy that they, and I, had survived the whole experience! In large part due to my husband and aunt's loving support. That’s the whole deal with bonding: it helps us survive.  If we aren’t bonded as a species, why would we care enough to have the courage to save each other and our planet? 

Friends of mine who'd been brave enough to walk the path of parenthood ahead of me taught me a valuable lesson:  accept your experience—and your child for that matter—as the perfect learning for you. Other friends and clients of mine, who'd suffered the losses and, sadly, the self-recrimination sometimes associated with miscarriage, infertility, or even a C-section—as if these physical realities were personal failures instead examples of the arbitrariness of life—showed me the way to walk with courage over the hot coals of our own and others' expectations, judgments, and often limited perspective about the learning deep in birth narrative. 

The other thing you need to know about when I had babies:  I had my basic needs (food, water, shelter, quality healthcare) provided for—and could therefore ensure my baby's basic needs were metand I had a loving partner (even if sometimes asleep) beside me.  Many mamas on this planet don’t.  Yet another reason to develop courage in ourselves and our children to share our plentiful resources with the rest of the planet, therefore ensuring the survival of our species.

When my babies were born, I wasn’t chronically or significantly stressed.  Chronicity and intensity of stressors being correlated with a decrease in human resiliency.  Like any new parent, I was stressed to the extent I could pay close attention to my own and my baby’s needs.  My limbic-hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis (LHPA-axis) was releasing enough cortisol to boost my now-understood female “tend-or-befriend” responses (Taylor, et al., 2000).  I had enough cortisol to boost not only my ability to form a secure attachment with my baby, but to boost his/her neurological development also.  But I wasn’t stressed enough to prevent oxytocin’s ability to mediate the effects of the stress-hormone cortisol from stunting the parent-child bonding process.  That's why advice like “Nap when your baby naps,” or “Accept all the help you can get,” and anything else that helps take the stress level of becoming a parent down a notch, is good advice to heed.

When we are neurochemically in-balance (as much as is possible for any new parent), we are able to promote the bonding process.  We are able to provide the necessary cues for emotional regulation that begins the process of ensuring we can be a secure base for our infant.  Clients and friends of mine who have had to navigate the dark corridors of post-partum depression are often best-served by short-term psychotropic medication (i.e. an antidepressant) intervention at this stage, often combined with some psychotherapy to help ensure the effectiveness of the intervention.  The good news: as long as those periods of emotional disregulation are brief and not chronic, the human being (whether in infancy or adulthood) is resilient to withstand such stress.

Louisa Stokes, FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Eventually, a newborn not only feeds off our oxytocin stores but begins to produce his/her own, further deepening our attachment through mutually responsive, positive interactions.  It turns out oxytocin isn’t the only bonding hormone, particularly for men.  Vasopressin, too, plays an important role in mediating a father’s desire and ability to bond with his partner and baby.  It increases his protective instincts and decreases the likelihood he will want to leave the nest to procreate more elsewhere. In the studies I found, involving heterosexual couples, vasopressin’s release in a dad is correlated with a more secure attachment with his baby's mama.  The take-away message is the same whether a parent is gay, lesbian, or straight, secure pair-bonds help boost the kinds of neurochemicals associated with caregiver-infant bonding.  Anyone who has witnessed a parent with his/her newborn knows that infants don't discriminate the kind of love surrounding them.  If you are in a relationship with your baby's other parent, it's simply about ensuring that the pair-bond is secure to help boost the kinds of neurochemicals associated with your three-way bonding.  Couple-time, if at all possible, helps.  Even if it means just taking a few minutes together to review the day, hold each other's hand, and appreciate at least one thing about each other as new parents (I know, I know, sometimes when we are stressed and sleep-deprived this can be hard!)  If you don't have a partner, make sure you are getting all the support you can.  Remind people to tell you what an amazing new parent you are, as you hold your babe in the secure embrace of your love!

The research is clear: there are “sensitive periods”, and a subset of sensitive periods called “critical periods” (particularly the first six months of life), during which human bonding is essential for survival.  Critical periods for establishing the neural circuitry critical in shaping brain development and the kind of social/emotional behavior associated with courage (which if not achieved may be irreversible without circuit-specific manipulation to boost the capacity for plasticity in neural development).  A neurological and social skill-set involving:
·         emotional availability
·         emotional and behavioral regulation
·         moral development
·         stress management ability
·         intellectual capacity. 

The stronger a child’s “secure base”, (whether two-parent or single-parent) the more courage and confidence a child develops to look out at the world with lit-up eyes and venture forth independently (Bowlby, 2007). Upcoming posts will include lots of ways to continue nurturing the bonds between yourself and your child—whatever the age or stage, whether or not their birth or your first days of bonding went perfectly!

For an insightful look at the some of the differences in both birthing experiences and parent-child bonding amongst different cultures, check out the fabulous movie Babies.

Share a childbirth or baby-bonding story, your advice, or anything else you wish to share in the comment box! We love to hear from you.
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1 comment:

  1. Beautiful post Lisa! Thank you for sharing your birthing journey. Fascinating info on the neurological mechanisms that are in place to promote caregiver-infant bonding.