Set Your Child Up For Success: The Relationship Between Attachment Style and Financial Well-Being

We all want the best for our children: for them to succeed, be happy, and be their best selves. But did you know that you can even have an influence on your child’s financial security later in life simply through the way that you parent? 

A study out of the University of Arizona found that “people with high attachment anxiety and people with high attachment avoidance both reported low life satisfaction and low relationship satisfaction. Those with attachment anxiety also reported low financial satisfaction.” 

Likewise, the study revealed that those with high anxious or avoidant attachment—both types of insecure attachment—“engage in more irresponsible financial behaviors.”

Often as parents we feel that there are only certain areas of our children’s lives that we can truly influence. But in reality, focusing on fostering healthy attachment with our children can set them up for long term success in all areas of their lives—even down to their financial security and success as adults. 

Here are a few ways to cultivate healthy, secure attachment with your children:

Respond Promptly and Consistently—starting as early as birth, we can begin to set our children up for a lifetime of success by responding to their cries, needs, and concerns promptly and consistently. Research shows that babies who are responded to by their parents in a way that is loving, generous, prompt, and consistent develop a stronger and healthier sense of self, greater independence, as well as more positive relationships and coping strategies than those whose  needs were not met in such ways. 

Date Your Kids—Spending one on one time with our kids in both big and small ways helps our children develop a greater sense of identity and self worth. Sometimes it feels difficult or even impossible to get time with each of our kids to go out to dinner one on one, go to a movie together, or attend an event with them. But while these larger ways of spending time with our kids are important and wonderful when possible, we don’t have to wait for an entirely free day or evening to spend one on one time with our kids. Spending 15 minutes to take a walk with one of our children, running to grab coffee, or joining with them and doing chores together instead of separately are just a few ways we can spend quality time with our kids on a daily basis. 

Physical Affection—When we hug our kids (or anyone for that matter) our physical bodies—such as heart rate, respiratory rate, etc.—sync up. When we do this often with our kids through hugs, cuddling, gentle/loving touches, we are helping them learn how to emotionally regulate and we are creating the bond of healthy, secure attachment.

For more information on how to cultivate secure attachment in your children and set your kids up for success, check out Parenting With Grace: The Catholic Parents’ Guide to Raising (Almost) Perfect Kids!

Parenting in the Age of Weinstein

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Almost every day, new allegations of sexual harassment are in the headlines. The #metoo campaign has exposed the abusive behavior of power-brokers in Hollywood and DC helped victims, who have been silenced for too long, find their voices again.

One parent, despairing at the onslaught of depressing headlines and salacious stories recently asked me, “What can we do to raise boys not to act like this?  How can we protect our girls from a culture like this?”  While we can never control every variable, the truth is that parents can do a lot to raise young men who can be respectful of women and young women who know how they deserve to be treated.  Interestingly, the answer to both questions involves the same two things.

Attend to Attachment

Research consistently shows that a child’s attachment style predicts both how likely a child is to victimize others as he or she grows up as well as how likely it is that a child will be able to set appropriate boundaries with those who try to hurt them.

There are three basic attachment styles (secure, anxious, and avoidant) that determine a child’s basic sense of how they should both treat others and expect to be treated by others. Which attachment style a particular child develops is determined by how promptly, generously, and consistently his or her parents respond to the child’s emotional needs.

Securelyattached children are raised by parents who are generous with affection, employ gentle discipline that teaches good behavior instead of merely punishing bad behavior, encourage healthy emotional expression, and model the healthy give-and-take involved in loving relationships.  Securely attached children are naturally empathic, and are naturally repulsed by the idea of using or hurting another person.  They also have a gut-level sense of when they are not being treated properly and so are much more likely to sense and avoid dangerous situations, set boundaries early when someone tries to take advantage of them, and be confident about seeking help when they feel like they are in over their heads.

Anxiously-attached children are raised by parents who tend to be conditional about giving affection and praise, tend to use harsh, emotionally-driven discipline that blames rather than teaches, and tend to be too distracted by their own problems to consistently respond to the child’s emotional needs.  This child grows up feeling like it is their job to make other people meet their needs and it is their fault when other people don’t treat them well.  As adults, anxiously attached children often have a hard time recognizing unhealthy relationships. They tend not to notice that others are treating them badly until its gone too far.  And then, when they do notice, they tend to blame themselves, thinking they somehow caused the problem or even deserve the poor treatment.  This makes it difficult for them to set limits, or seek help.

Avoidantly-attached children are raised by parents who are unaffectionate and emotionally shut-off, tend to use heavy-handed approaches to discipline, and tend to leave children to themselves.  Avoidantly attached children grow up to become adults who, because they have never been taught to connect emotionally or spiritually with others, over-emphasize the importance of sex.  The more seriously avoidant a child’s attachment style is, the more likely that child will be a bully, a sex-addict, or, in the extreme, a sociopath who takes joy in hurting others.

If you want to raise a child who knows how to treat others well and knows how he or she deserves to be treated, the most important thing you can do is teach your child what a healthy relationship looks like by engaging in those practices that promote secure attachment.

LOVE VS. USE

The second most important thing a parent can do to raise children who know how to treat others well and know how they deserve to be treated is to teach kids, from an early age, that everything we do to another person is either ordered toward loving them or using them. When we are affectionate and respectful, when we do things to build them up, or look for ways to make their lives easier or more pleasant, we love others and help them become the persons they are meant to be.  By contrast, when we disregard others, when we are critical, mean, or derogatory, when we use people as a means to some end, or act in ways that say we don’t care about what they are going through, we treat people as things to be used, abused, or neglected.

A Catholics, we believe that the only appropriate response to another person is love, never use.  Children as young as 4 or 5 can understand the difference between love and use in relationships.

Parents who foster healthy attachment and teach their child the difference between loving and using another person from the earliest days not only are prone to raise healthy kids.  They strike a blow against a culture that sees people as objects and relationships as exchanges where the powerful use the less powerful as a means to their selfish ends.

Dr. Greg Popcak is the author of many books including Beyond the Bids and the Bees: The Catholic Guide to Raising Sexually Whole and Holy Kids.  Visit him at www.CatholicCounselors.com

Why So Down? Studies Show Humans Are Wired to Emphasize The Negative, UNLESS….

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Why is it that we can do 100 things right but obsess about the 1 thing that went wrong?  Or, why do we ignore the dozens of things the people around us do to be kind but then fuss about the 1 thing they miss?  It turns out that, except for one condition (which I’ll share below) human beings are actually wired to be negative.

In his book The Neurobiology of Human Relationships, Pepperdine psychologist, Louis Cozolino, reveals how research shows that the human brain is naturally wired to emphasize the negative more than the positive. Here’s a NYTimes article describing some of this research...

“The brain handles positive and negative information in different hemispheres,” said Professor Nass, who co-authored “The Man Who Lied to His Laptop: What Machines Teach Us About Human Relationships” (Penguin 2010). Negative emotions generally involve more thinking, and the information is processed more thoroughly than positive ones, he said. Thus, we tend to ruminate more about unpleasant events — and use stronger words to describe them — than happy ones.

Roy F. Baumeister, a professor of social psychology at Florida State University, captured the idea in the title of a journal article he co-authored in 2001, “Bad Is Stronger Than Good,” which appeared in The Review of General Psychology. “Research over and over again shows this is a basic and wide-ranging principle of psychology,” he said. “It’s in human nature, and there are even signs of it in animals,” in experiments with rats.

BUT, HERE’S THE CATCH

Cozolino notes, however, that there is one critical factor that mediates the brain’s tendency toward negative thinking; connection to other people.  Research shows that the degree to which we feel connected to others actually impact brain function.  Left alone, our brains are wired to emphasize the negative as a survival mechanism.  If I am on my own, I have to be prepared to face every threat.  I can’t relax.  My survival depends upon it.  But if I feel connected to the people around me, that sense of connection to others helps to balance out the brain’s natural tendency to go negative.  Connection actually stimulates the brain in a manner that allows me to feel safe. Because I am not alone and I am confident that others are here to help look out for me, I don’t have to pay as close attention to every negative thing.  In fact, I can even let some of the negativity go. I can be…(brace yourself) positive, happy, and even content, because I have people who are watching my back.  Attachment to others actually provides the nourishment our brains need to–as the old song puts it–accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative.

CONNECTION.  NOT A CROWD

The thing is, it isn’t enough to just have people around me.  If my family is little more than a collection of individuals sharing a roof and a data plan, I will not be able to enjoy the benefits that relationship can give to my brain.  In fact, I might be more likely to feel negative since I am prone to see all the ways these people could take advantage of me or act in uncaring ways toward me.  In order to balance out our brain’s natural tendency to emphasize negative input, I have to actually feel connected to and cared for by the people around me.

CREATED FOR COMMUNION

Pope St John Paul the Great’s asserts that God’s design of the body teaches us important lessons about God’s plan for human happiness and fulfillment.  This research is a powerful example.  We were created to crave communion in order to have a more balanced, healthy, and positive outlook that enables us to experience life as the gift its meant to be.

It is tempting to think, some days, that we’d be better off if we could get away from everyone and go live on a mountain somewhere, free to do our own thing and think our own thoughts.  But, in fact, we are wired to need others to be healthy and fulfilled.  The more connected and attached we are to the people who share our lives, the more we feel whole and healthy.  It turns out that isn’t the benefits we gain by being connected to the people we love isn’t just a psychological or spiritual reality.  It is a neurological one as well.

Major New Research Finds 40% of US Kids Are Poorly Attached–Middle Class Families Included.

–New study reveals why parenting is THE social justice issue of our time.–

Image: Shutterstock

Image: Shutterstock

In a study of 14,000 U.S. children, 40 percent lack strong emotional bonds — what psychologists call “secure attachment”  

Written by researchers from  Columbia University and the London School of Economics and Political Science, the report uses data collected by the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, a nationally representative U.S. study of 14,000 children born in 2001. The researchers also reviewed more than 100 academic studies.

Their analysis shows that about 60 percent of children develop strong attachments to their parents, which are formed through simple actions, such as holding a baby lovingly and responding to the baby’s needs. Such actions support children’s social and emotional development, which, in turn, strengthens their cognitive development, the researchers write. These children are more likely to be resilient to poverty, family instability, parental stress and depression. Additionally, if boys growing up in poverty have strong parental attachments, they are two and a half times less likely to display behavior problems at school.

The approximately 40 percent who lack secure attachments, on the other hand, are more likely to have poorer language and behavior before entering school. This effect continues throughout the children’s lives, and such children are more likely to leave school without further education, employment or training, the researchers write. Among children growing up in poverty, poor parental care and insecure attachment before age four strongly predicted a failure to complete school. Of the 40 percent who lack secure attachments, 25 percent avoid their parents when they are upset (because their parents are ignoring their needs), and 15 percent resist their parents because their parents cause them distress.

Susan Campbell, a professor of psychology at the University of Pittsburgh, said insecure attachments emerge when primary caregivers are not “tuned in” to their infant’s social signals, especially their cries of distress during infancy. “When helpless infants learn early that their cries will be responded to, they also learn that their needs will be met, and they are likely to form a secure attachment to their parents,” Campbell said. “However, when caregivers are overwhelmed because of their own difficulties, infants are more likely to learn that the world is not a safe place — leading them to become needy, frustrated, withdrawn or disorganized.  The researchers argue that many parents — including middle-class parents — need more support to provide proper parenting….  READ THE REST HERE.

Detachment is the atomic level of the Culture of Death.  We cluck about the immorality of our culture, about poverty, crime, violence, and porn.  And these are all horrible things.  But we fail to see the foundation for all these social evils that Satan is building right under our feet and in our own homes. It’s easy to fuss about “the media” and “the culture” etc.  But it is hard, genuinely, really, really hard, to go pick up that crying baby when we already feel drained. And yet this the great spiritually transformative work that lies at the heart of The Corporal Works of Mommy and Daddy.

Am I saying that exhausted mothers should torture themselves to meet everybody’s needs all by themselves?  Absolutely not.   Every person needs help and has a right to get whatever help they need to be their best selves.  That should go without saying.

Attachment: The Root of Social Transformation

But every time Satan convinces a mother or father to remain consistently deaf to the cries of their children because it is somehow “bad” or even “unnecessary” or “ridiculous”  to respond to those cries, he is laying the foundation for all these other social evils. As Catholics, if we want to evangelize the culture, if we want to beat poverty, make children resilient against the evils of our fallen world, decrease  the crime rate, drug usage rates,  incidence of promiscuity, and pornography rates,  the single most important things we can do are 1) respond to our babies cries promptly, generously, and consistently, 2) shower our children with extravagant affection, and 3) use gentle guidance approaches to discipline that teach our children how to behavior virtuously instead of simply punishing bad behavior and crossing our fingers that they’ll figure out how to do what’s right on their own through the process of elimination.

Oversimplification?  Survey says…

I realize that this strikes some people as a ridiculous oversimplification.  I remember the editor of the new edition of Beyond the Birds and the Bees saying to me, incredulously, “It’s like you’re saying that the way to make our kids more moral is to hug them more.”  And, although that is a bit of an exaggeration, yes.  That is more or less exactly what I am saying.  Or rather, that is, more or less, what hundreds of studies of tens of thousands of children over the last 60 years are saying.  Over and over and over again.

And why should this come as such a surprise to us?  Our Church tells us over and over–and especially in Pope St John Paul’s theology of the body–that we were created for communion.  The family is the “icon of the Trinity” the most intimate communion that ever existed!  And we are made in the image of that intimate communion. Relationship IS the very essence of our being.  When we try to escape that reality, or ignore it,  limit it,  or tamp it down, bad things happen–to our kids, our families, and our world.  We think that having children need us is somehow crippling.  The exact opposite is true. Creating communion with our children is the most liberating thing we can do both for ourselves and for them.

Want To Change The World?

Are there lots of social ills?  There sure are.  But the cure really is pretty simple.  As St. Teresa of Calcutta put it, “What can you do to promote world peace? Go home and love your families.”   It turns out,  there’s a lot of research to support that pithy, but powerfully world-changing, sentiment.

If you want to discover more ways parents can change the world through love, check out Parenting with Grace: The Catholic Parents’ Guide to Raising (almost) Perfect Kids and Then Comes Baby: The Catholic Guide to Surviving and Thriving in the First 3 Years of Parenthood.

 

 

Hate Attachment Parenting? So Did This Mom. Here’s The Surprising Thing She Discovered.

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God gives us the children we need.  He speaks to us through our children.  We can listen for his voice, or let the noise in our heads tune it out. The choice is ours.  Here’s one mother’s heartfelt struggle to learn to listen–and experience the healing that comes in hearing.

When my daughter Azalea was born, I was flooded with feelings of love. But it wasn’t long before I returned to a more familiar sense of myself, and that love was mixed with ambivalence, internal conflict, impatience, and sometimes anger. Yes, I adored my baby, the way she nose-breathed on me as she nursed, her milky smell, her beautiful face, her charming smiles, her bright energy. Her. I loved her. But I was exhausted and overwhelmed, and what might be expressed as irritability in some parents felt more like rage to me. I knew better than to express anger at a baby, but my control dials felt out of reach. I never hit or shook my daughter, but I did yell at her, in real and frightening fury. One time, when she was 6 months old, she was supposed to be taking a nap, but instead she was pulling herself up in her crib, over and over again, nonstop crying. I was over it, done, nothing left. I sat on the floor in her darkened room, and made my ugliest, angriest, face at her, seething, yelling at her to just…go…to…SLEEP.

If this had been a one-off, I could have rationalized that every parent loses it at some point. But this kind of heat was all too available to me. I would occasionally confess my behavior to my husband, a psychotherapist, but he rarely saw it up close. So as much as he, my own therapist, and my friends tried to support us both, I was largely alone in my shame. And my daughter was alone with a warm and loving and sometimes scary mom.

I had read Dr. Sears and his attachment-parenting ideas before Azalea was born, but I was deeply suspicious that a checklist of behaviors could teach anyone how to raise a human being. I would read things like “Respond to your baby’s cues,” and think, Right. As if. Her cues were often inscrutable and always exhausting. Sears’s cavalier oversimplification annoyed me to no end and added to the weight of expectations and disappointment.

As Azalea grew, some things got easier. Language helped. Her ever-increasing cuteness and sweetness helped. Our connection developed, and I loved doing things together — reading books, going to Target, cooking, cuddling, walking, hanging out with friends. Things were good. Except when they weren’t. Like the time in the grocery store as I was checking out with Thanksgiving groceries while struggling to manage Azalea’s unwieldy 10-month-old body in front of a line of blankly staring, silently huffing adults. I remember the jaw-setting, skin-tingling, adrenaline-pumping feeling of anger overtake me. While I don’t remember exactly what I said to my squirming baby, I will never forget the disgusted look on the checkout lady’s face, confirming that whatever outburst I settled on was definitely not okay.

In my dark moments, I felt like something inside me was missing, that thing that functions deep down that keeps us from hurting the people we love. But I also tried to remind myself that the cult of perfect parenthood is a myth, that there is no way to avoid making a mess of our kids one way or another. That gave me some peace. Then, when Azalea was 4, I interviewed Jon Kabat-Zinn, the [therapist and] mindfulness expert who has written many books, including Everyday Blessings: The Inner Work of the Mindful Parent. I think I was hoping he might encourage me to set down my burden of guilt and shame, maybe even offer a God-like let it go. But that wasn’t what happened.

Kabat-Zinn: The meaning of being a parent is that you take responsibility for your child’s life until they can take responsibility for their own life. That’s it! 

Me: That’s a lot.

Kabat-Zinn: True, and it doesn’t mean you can’t get help. Turns out how you are as a parent makes a huge difference in the neural development of your child for the first four or five years.

Me: That is so frightening.

Kabat-Zinn: All that’s required, though, is connection. That’s all. 

Me: But I want to be separate from my child; I don’t want to be connected all the time.

Kabat-Zinn: I see. Well, everything has consequences. How old is your child?

Me: Four and a half. 

Kabat-Zinn: Well, I gotta say, I have very strong feelings about that kind of thing. She didn’t ask to be born.  

I knew then that I needed to figure out why I am the kind of mother I am, and what effect it was having on my daughter.  READ THE REST HERE

And to learn more about how to listen to God speaking through your children, check out Parenting with Grace: A Catholic Parent Guide to Raising (almost) Perfect Kids and The Corporal Works of Mommy (and Daddy Too):  Living the Little Way of Family Life.

Millennials Less Promiscuous Than Any Generation for 60 Years. Here’s Why That’s TERRIBLE.

Image: Shutterstock.

Image: Shutterstock.

Some Christian news outlets are rejoicing at the recent study finding that Millennials are less sexually active than any other generation for the last 60 years. The perception by some is that this generation is experiencing a spontaneous outbreak of unusual moral fortitude.

Confronting the Nightmare

Would that it were so.  If you read the reports, the reasons Millennials give for not being interested in sex is that they are not interested in relationship at all.  Millennials appear to be so relationally broken that they would prefer to play video games, obsess over work, and dabble in porn rather than engage in any form of intimate relationship (not just sex) hardly counts as a win for our side. Rampant divorce, parental serial monogamy, an epidemic of absentee fathers, and households led by dual-parent workaholics. have killed this generation’s most basic, God-given desire for communion. It’s a nightmare.

Is It Porn?

Some commenters have suggested that this is the result of the porn epidemic.  That certainly doesn’t help, but that misses the larger point.  Under normal circumstances, even people who have a seriously compulsive relationship with porn historically indicated that a real relationship with a flesh and blood person would be preferable.  That isn’t the case with man Millennials.  The problem is much deeper.

RIP Mary White, One of the Seven Original Catholic Founders of La Leche League, Dies at 93.

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Image shutter stock

From WSJ.

When Mary White and six other moms from the Chicago suburbs started an organization to encourage breastfeeding in 1956, they had to be careful about naming it.

“They couldn’t say ‘breast,’” said Clare Daly, one of Mrs. White’s daughters. Newspapers, they were sure, wouldn’t publish notices about meetings involving such a crude term. Looking for something more discreet, they settled on La Leche League, derived from the name of a Roman Catholic shrine in Florida (Popcak Note:  see commentary below).

To their surprise, the league spread around the world. Now called La Leche League International, it has about 2,000 local groups in more than 70 countries. The league helped create today’s consensus that breastfeeding is far better for babies and mothers than infant formula.

Mrs. White died June 2 at age 93 of complications from a stroke she suffered last September. Her death leaves only two surviving founders of the league—Marian Tompson and Mary Ann Kerwin, Mrs. White’s sister-in-law.

In the 1950s, breastfeeding was widely considered backward and unsanitary. Around 80% of U.S. mothers chose formula instead, according to the league. Views gradually changed as researchers piled up evidence of the health benefits of natural feeding. As of 2012, about 80% of mothers in the U.S. were at least attempting to breastfeed, according to the latest government survey results.

A January report in the medical journal Lancet cited evidence that breastfeeding deters infections and enhances intelligence, while reducing breast cancer risks for mothers, among other benefits. Nestlé SA, once subject to boycotts because it promoted infant formula in poor countries, now says it favors “exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of life.”

Mrs. White was born Mary Elizabeth Kerwin on April 3, 1923, and grew up in the Chicago suburbs of Elmhurst and Oak Park as the oldest of eight children. Her father was a financial vice president for the Brach’s candy company; her mother was a homemaker with a philosophy degree from DePaul University.

After earning a drama and speech degree from Rosary College in River Forest, Ill., she married Gregory White, a family-practice physician. Dr. White favored breastfeeding but believed women could be more persuasive than he could in promoting it.

The league traces its roots to a church picnic. Mrs. White and Mrs. Tompson were both breastfeeding. Other mothers said they were using formula but would prefer breastfeeding if they could get more information and help. Mrs. Tompson and Mrs. White decided to start a support group and invited five other moms to Mrs. White’s home to set it up.

“Mary was the first woman I ever saw breastfeed in public,” Mrs. Tompson said. Mrs. White, known for wearing spotless white sweaters and coats despite the exertions of raising 11 children, was self-assured and had the prestige of being a doctor’s wife. “If Mary did it, we figured it was safe,” Mrs. Tompson said.

Though these suburban housewives were defying medical authority, they didn’t flaunt their rebellion. Infants were swaddled in blankets during public feedings. “We would practically smother our babies trying to be discreet,” Mrs. Kerwin recalled.

Ignorance was their biggest obstacle. Most women didn’t know their milk was better for the baby than formula, and many feared they wouldn’t be able to supply enough to sustain the baby.

Doctors could be dismissive. Mrs. Tompson recalled that one told an expectant mother he would let her breastfeed if she “behaved” during childbirth.

Still, times were changing, Mrs. Tompson said: “Women were ready to make the decisions about their life instead of going to an expert.”

At first, the league grew slowly. After Reader’s Digest wrote about it, though, “we got phone calls from all over,” said Mrs. Kerwin, one of the founders.

Mrs. White helped write “The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding,” a popular book, and edited other league publications. She often took phone calls at home from women who wanted her advice.

Her family has multiplied prodigiously. Mrs. White is survived by 10 of her 11 children, 61 grandchildren and 109 great grandchildren, said Mrs. Daly, one of her daughters. She kept track of all those birthdays on a calendar. “She was very organized,” Mrs. Daly said.

Mrs. Tompson, 86 years old and still active in the league, said she was pleased to see that some airports now have pods for nursing mothers. “We’re still running into mothers who are getting really bad advice,” she said, “but it’s so much better than it was.”

Has the pendulum swung too far? Mrs. Tompson said she would never shame a woman who chose not to breastfeed. If such women feel guilty, however, there is nothing the league can do about it, she said.


Many people–Catholics in particular–are unaware that La Leche League was founded by 7 devoutly Catholic women and the internationally recognized Catholic physician, Dr. Herbert Ratner.  The article mentions that the organization was named for “a Roman Catholic shrine in Florida.”  What it doesn’t say is that that shrine is dedication to the Nursing Madonna, La Sonora de La Leche (Our Lady of the Milk).  Their love of natural parenting grew as a result of their dedication to both natural family planning and understanding of the importance of the Catholic natural law perspective.  Although today’s La Leche League tends to distance itself from its deeply Catholic roots, the original founders saw nursing as a powerful means of communicating the love of God to their children and to the world.

Proponents of attachment parenting, in particular owe a huge debt of gratitude to Mary White and her friends. They have made a huge impact on the world, transforming the face of parenting and infant healthcare.   I pray that her soul, along with all the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, would rest in peace.

MRI Shows Breastfed Babies’ Brains Develop Better/Faster than Formula or Mixed-Fed Infants

Support for the developing brain MRI images, taken while children were asleep, showed that infants who were exclusively breastfed for at least three months had enhanced development in key parts of the brain compared to children who were fed formula or a combination of formula and breastmilk. Images show development of myelization by age, left to right. Baby Imaging Lab/ Brown University

Support for the developing brain MRI images, taken while children were asleep, showed that infants who were exclusively breastfed for at least three months had enhanced development in key parts of the brain compared to children who were fed formula or a combination of formula and breastmilk. Images show development of myelization by age, left to right.
Baby Imaging Lab/ Brown University

Several weeks ago, I posted an article on how nursing facilitates the development of structures in the brain responsible for moral cognition, and a follow up article on how certain “high -touch” parenting practices (extended nursing, extravagant affection, skin-to-skin contact, “baby-wearing”, prompt response to cries) facilitate the development of the social brain.  In that latter article, I walked readers through how such parenting practices facilitate moral and social development.  This latest study from Brown University’s Baby Imaging Lab provides further, hard data exposing the myth that formula feeding is “just as good” as nursing or that short term nursing is “just as good” as extended breastfeeding.

A new study by researchers from Brown University finds more evidence that breastfeeding is good for babies’ brains.

The study made use of specialized, baby-friendly magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to look at the brain growth in a sample of children under the age of 4. The research found that by age 2, babies who had been breastfed exclusively for at least three months had enhanced development in key parts of the brain compared to children who were fed formula exclusively or who were fed a combination of formula and breastmilk. The extra growth was most pronounced in parts of the brain associated with language, emotional function, and cognition, the research showed.

…Deoni and his team looked at 133 babies ranging in ages from 10 months to four years. All of the babies had normal gestation times, and all came from families with similar socioeconomic statuses. The researchers split the babies into three groups: those whose mothers reported they exclusively breastfed for at least three months, those fed a combination of breastmilk and formula, and those fed formula alone. The researchers compared the older kids to the younger kids to establish growth trajectories in white matter for each group.

The study showed that the exclusively breastfed group had the fastest growth in myelinated white matter of the three groups, with the increase in white matter volume becoming substantial by age 2. The group fed both breastmilk and formula had more growth than the exclusively formula-fed group, but less than the breastmilk-only group.

“We’re finding the difference [in white matter growth] is on the order of 20 to 30 percent, comparing the breastfed and the non-breastfed kids,” said Deoni. “I think it’s astounding that you could have that much difference so early.”

Deoni and his team then backed up their imaging data with a set of basic cognitive tests on the older children. Those tests found increased language performance, visual reception, and motor control performance in the breastfed group.

The study also looked at the effects of the duration of breastfeeding. The researchers compared babies who were breastfed for more than a year with those breastfed less than a year, and found significantly enhanced brain growth in the babies who were breastfed longer — especially in areas of the brain dealing with motor function.  READ THE FULL ARTICLE HERE

Biology is theology.  God created our bodies in such a manner as to point to the fact that we were created for loving communion with him and one another.  Science consistently shows that when we cooperate with God’s plan for parenting by respecting the self-donative nature of the body and nursing babies through toddlerhood, we lay the groundwork for more effective social and moral reasoning.  To learn more about how the theology of the body reveals God’s plan for parenting, check our Parenting with Grace:The Catholic Guide to Raising (almost) Perfect Kids and Then Comes Baby: The Catholic Guide to Surviving and Thriving in the First Three Years of Parenthood.

Incidentally, I would like to offer my congratulations to Dr. Darcia Narvaez, the author of the original article I linked on nursing and moral cognition.  She was recently named a Fellow in the American Educational Research Association.  Congratulations Dr. Narvaez! And thank you for your excellent work promoting those parenting practices that are best at facilitating children’s moral and social development.

New Study: Extravagant Affection in Infancy Leads to Healthier, Happier, More Relational & Moral Adults

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From new study accepted for publication in the journal, Applied Developmental Science.

Notre Dame professor of psychology Darcia Narvaez and two colleagues surveyed more than 600 adults. They asked about their childhood experiences. Darvaez was interested in things like how much affectionate touch did the adult receive as a child, how much free play, and what was family togetherness was like. What she found was, the adults who had positive childhood experiences evolved into adults with less anxiety and better mental health.

“These things independently, but also added up together, predicted the adults’ mental health, so they were less depressed, less anxious, and their social capacities — they were more able to take other people’s perspective. They were better at getting along with others and being open-hearted,” says Narvaez.

So, what does this mean for today’s parents?

Narvaez says parents should hold, touch and rock their babies and children and be responsive to their needs.

“What parents do in those early months and years are really affecting the way the brain is going to grow the rest of their lives,” explains Narvaez, “so lots of holding, touching and rocking. that is what babies expect. They grow better that way. And keep them calm, because all sorts of systems are establishing the way they are going to work. If you let them cry a lot, those systems are going to be easily triggered into stress. We can see that in adult hood — that people that are not cared for well, tend to be more stress reactive and they have a hard time self calming.”

Narvaez say free play inside and outside is important. It is also important that children have a positive, warm environment inside the home.

“That they feel like they belong — they are part of the family unit or the neighborhood community and part of that is to have a lot of activities that you do together,” says Narvaez, who recommends going to the park or playing a game rather than spending time on a smartphone or in front of a TV.

And for those parents that need a break, Narvaez says a community of caregivers is important. That means grandparents, aunts and uncles and friends should play an active role.

“We need to, as a community support families so they can give children what they need,” says Narvaez, “we really didn’t evolve to parent alone. Our history is to have a community of caregivers to help — the village, so that when mom or dad needs a break, there is someone there who is ready to step in.”

The research also showed that when children weren’t given things like affection, free play and a warm home environment, they turned into adults with decreased social and moral capacities.

Narvaez says humans, have evolved to need these important things from birth. Which is why, she recommends parents follow their instincts.  READ MORE

But Why Does This Matter?

OK. Let’ s take this apart. What could affection (or, nursing, for that matter, as I mentioned in a blog last week) possibly have to with moral development?  As I explain in Beyond the Birds and the Bees, my book for parents on raising moral kids, brain research shows that affection facilitates moral development and overall relationship in four ways;

1) stimulating the “social brain”
2) facilitating the development of mirror neurons
3) facilitating self-regulation
4) facilitating communication between the higher and lower brain.

Before you learn any moral lessons OR before you can competently and consistently act on the moral lessons you’ve learned, these four functions have to be as fully developed as possible. Otherwise, we end up fighting against ourselves when it comes to putting other people first and making good (but hard) moral choices.  Here’s what each of these functions has to with both  good relational and moral reasoning and how affection, nursing and other high-touch parenting practices facilitate the development of these functions.

1. Stimulating the Social Brain

High touch parenting practices like baby-wearing, nursing, and responding promptly to fussing, help stimulate the so-called, “social brain”; that is, structures in the brain that help us pick up on other’s emotional cues and adjust our behavior based upon how we perceive our actions are coming across. The more the baby can be close to mom (especially) the more that the baby learns to read more and more subtle facial and body cues, understand their meaning, and adapt to them accordingly. The more attuned to other’s responses I am, the better I am able to make choices that foster relationship, express care, and avoid giving offense–all important skills for both good relational and moral decision making.

2.  Mirror Neurons

Mirror neurons are structures in the social brain that allow us to get a “taste” of what other people are feeling.  If I walk into a coffee table, you might wince because your mirror neurons let you feel a little bit of my pain so that you can empathize with me and be motivated to attend to my injury.  High-touch, hands on parenting practices seem to stimulate the development of mirror neurons.  This aids moral development by fostering empathy–the ability to literally feel the impact one’s actions have on another.

3.  Self-Regulation

In order to make healthy relationship choices, delay gratification, or avoid lashing out impulsively when I have strong emotions, I need good self-regulation.  Self-regulation is actually “taught” one body to another.  High touch parenting practices help stimulate the young child’s parasympathetic (i.e., “calm-down”) nervous system.  When an infant or toddler is overwrought, they don’t have an easy time getting themselves back under control because their calm-down nervous system isn’t fully developed.  Picking the baby up and holding her close allows your calmer body to communicate with the baby’s stressed-out body.  The baby’s “calm-down” systems automatically start to synch the baby’s heart rate, respiration, temperature and other stress signs to the parent’s calmer heart rate, respiration, temperature, etc.  Just like parents teach baby’s to walk by holding her hand while she does it, parents teach baby’s and toddler’s body the steps of calming down by letting the child’s body learn regulation from the parents’ more mature calm-down systems.  The more a child is left to cry it out, the harder it is for the child’s parasympathetic nervous system to master the art of self-regulation because it does not have a consistent model to lean on and follow.

4.  Communication between higher and lower brain.

Finally, making good moral and relationship choices requires me to have the fastest possible communication between my lower brain (the seat of my impulses) and my higher brain (the seat of decision making). The impulse to do something actually occurs before our higher brain even becomes aware of it.  Unless my higher brain can “catch up” with the impulse that shoots up from my lower brain and redirect it,  I will simply do what my lower brain tells me to do (e.g. make a selfish choice, yell at you, cheat) before I am even aware of it. High touch parenting practices facilitate communication between the higher and lower brain by stimulating the production of the waxy, myelin sheath around nerve cells that allow electrical impulses to “slide” faster down the neuron. The “slipperier” our nerves are (i.e., the more well-myelinated they are) the faster they are able to send messages around the brain (like a child whooshing down a well-waxed sliding board).  Affection facilitates good moral and relational decision making by stimulating the production of the very substance that allows our brains to “think fast”,  harness inappropriate impulses and transform them into more appropriate actions.

Doomed?

Is the research saying that if you let your kids cry it out and you don’t nurse them that they will grow up to be axe murderers? Of course not.  What the research does say is that the more hands-on and high touch you can be as a parent, the more you are actively growing your infant’s and toddler’s social and moral brain. This gives your child a neurological leg-up on using all the good moral and relational lessons you will teach him later on.  God created our bodies to cooperate with making good, moral choices.  Of course he did. This is what it means to speak of the theology of our bodies. The more we can give our child’s brain the things it needs to cooperate with grace and make good moral/relationship choices the happier everyone will be. For more ideas about how you can cooperate with God’s plan for helping parents raise healthy, happy, moral kids, check out Beyond the Birds and the Bees , Parenting with Grace: The Catholic Parents’ Guide to Raising (almost) Perfect Kids ,  Then Comes Baby:  The Catholic Guide to Surviving & Thriving in the First 3 Years of Parenthood, and Discovering God Together:  The Catholic Guide to Raising Faithful Kids.

 

Breastfeeding Could Save Lives of Over 800,000 Babies & 20,000 Moms Annually

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New report in the British Medical Journal The Lancet.  H/T HuffPo

New research highlights the economic advantages of exclusive and continued breastfeeding in rich and poor countries alike, and the enormous cost of failing to support it writes Dr Flavia Bustreo, WHO Assistant Director-General.

As a young doctor working with refugees in the former Yugoslavia and Iraq, I saw how breastfed babies can prosper even under such challenging circumstances, and even when they are sick or small. So I am delighted that new research published today in The Lancet again confirms the health benefits of breastfeeding.

The findings show that breastfed infants are more likely to thrive physically and mentally into adulthood. Breastfeeding should be exclusive for at least the first six months of life and then with a mix of other foods, ideally up to the age of two. The authors — a team of independent scientists, together with the World Health Organization and UNICEF — also conclude that the health benefits are as significant in rich countries as in poor ones.

Breast is best: benefits worldwide for moms and tots
The message that “breast is best” applies equally the world over, and to children as well as mothers. Longer durations of breastfeeding improve maternal health by increasing birth spacing, and saves thousands of lives every year from reducing the risk of breast and ovarian cancer.

According to The Lancet series, improved rates of exclusive and continued breastfeeding could prevent:

~820,000 deaths in children under 5 years annually

~20,000 additional deaths from breast cancer annually (even at current rates, 20,000 deaths are averted)

~Ovarian cancer and type 2 diabetes for some mothers.

 Economic dividends

A less familiar finding is that higher rates of breastfeeding could also pay enormous economic dividends. Purely in terms of reduced healthcare costs due to improved breastfeeding practices, the study projects total savings of more than US$300 million in the US, UK, Brazil and urban China alone. These add to the other economic benefits associated with breastfeeding, such as higher IQ, greater school attainment and higher salary in later years. These economic findings are yet another brick in the now imposing wall of evidence that supports the case for exclusive breastfeeding.   READ MORE

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The Theology of the Body points out that our bodies are given to us so that we can work for the good of others.  In order to be truly fulfilled in our life and relationships we need to ask God how he would want us to use our bodies to serve others.  God gives breastmilk to the mother to be held in trust for the baby.  When mothers faithfully respond to that trust, both mom and baby benefit on so many levels. In Parenting with Grace and Then Comes Baby, my wife and I offer ways moms can get the information and support they need to create a healthy and mutually nurturing breastfeeding relationship with their little ones.  Discover how breastfeeding isn’t an obligation or a cross, but a blessing for you and baby!