Modern parenting may hinder brain development, research shows

By Susan Guibert, reprinted with permission, Notre Dame News,

Social practices and cultural beliefs of modern life are preventing healthy brain and emotional development in children, according to an interdisciplinary body of research presented recently at a symposium at the University of Notre Dame.KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

“Life outcomes for American youth are worsening, especially in comparison to 50 years ago,” says Darcia Narvaez, Notre Dame professor of psychology who specializes in moral development in children and how early life experiences can influence brain development.

“Ill-advised practices and beliefs have become commonplace in our culture, such as the use of infant formula, the isolation of infants in their own rooms or the belief that responding too quickly to a fussing baby will ‘spoil’ it,” Narvaez says.

This new research links certain early, nurturing parenting practices — the kind common in foraging hunter-gatherer societies — to specific, healthy emotional outcomes in adulthood, and has many experts rethinking some of our modern, cultural child-rearing “norms.”

“Breast-feeding infants, responsiveness to crying, almost constant touch and having multiple adult caregivers are some of the nurturing ancestral parenting practices that are shown to positively impact the developing brain, which not only shapes personality, but also helps physical health and moral development,” says Narvaez.

Studies show that responding to a baby’s needs (not letting a baby “cry it out”) has been shown to influence the development of conscience; positive touch affects stress reactivity, impulse control and empathy; free play in nature influences social capacities and aggression; and a set of supportive caregivers (beyond the mother alone) predicts IQ and ego resilience as well as empathy.

The United States has been on a downward trajectory on all of these care characteristics, according to Narvaez. Instead of being held, infants spend much more time in carriers, car seats and strollers than they did in the past. Only about 15 percent of mothers are breast-feeding at all by 12 months, extended families are broken up and free play allowed by parents has decreased dramatically since 1970.

Whether the corollary to these modern practices or the result of other forces, an epidemic of anxiety and depression among all age groups, including young children; rising rates of aggressive behavior and delinquency in young children; and decreasing empathy, the backbone of compassionate, moral behavior, among college students, are shown in research.

According to Narvaez, however, other relatives and teachers also can have a beneficial impact when a child feels safe in their presence. Also, early deficits can be made up later, she says.

“The right brain, which governs much of our self-regulation, creativity and empathy, can grow throughout life. The right brain grows though full-body experience like rough-and-tumble play, dancing or freelance artistic creation. So at any point, a parent can take up a creative activity with a child and they can grow together.”

Contact: Darcia Narvaez, 574-631-7835,

8 thoughts on “Modern parenting may hinder brain development, research shows”

  1. I personally think that some of the other factors that are producing this type of aggressive and depressed behavior in adolescents is the lack of parenting for want of making sure to be the child’s friend. I am all for being kind and gentle and not scarring my child psychologically as they did in the not so olden days, but there is a happy medium and more people need to find it. Too many children get away with horrible behavior and then are pampered on top of that and have unreal expectations, and when those expectations aren’t met they become depressed and aggressive and demanding, because many times the parents give in and allow it after a certain amount of whining and crying and temper tantrums. Also, because things aren’t like pleasantville any longer, emotions aren’t kept in a box and behind closed doors, the freedom of speech that has run rampant on tv stations and out and about, children witness too much negative behavior and try to replicate that. That’s my personal opinion on other child rearing techniques that have changed over the years and caused this negative impact.

  2. I’m just wondering what other factors are take into consideration between infancy and adolescence. Between those age ranges a LOT of behavior is shaped. I sincerely doubt that all delinquency can be attributed to babies sitting in carriers or crying it out. Broken families, families who don’t eat together and talk or spend time together, or allow their kids to watch inappropriate or too much tv, or listen to inappropriate music, play video games and place more emphasis on technology than social interaction worry me more. And I am a mother of a 2-year-old and a 5-month-old who believes in attachment parenting to an extent. But I am practical. I exclusively breastfed my older son until he self-weaned at 10 months and plan to do the same with my youngest. I wear my baby when I can but sometimes he sits in his bouncer. He needs to learn to entertain himself, and I have responsibilities and a job, too. And we just started letting him cry at night. I’m curious what these researcher believe is an appropriate age to teach a baby to self-soothe? I think common sense goes a long way. Sure, be as natural as you possibly can. But when your baby is at risk of suffocation because he consistently squirms out of his swaddle and then cannot self-soothe back to sleep, realize that is a life skill he is ready for and teach it without feeling like you’re neglecting your baby. This isn’t black and white. It’s following your parental instincts an putting your child’s needs above your own.

  3. My question is why do we have to have studies to “discover” what every instinct a mother has as her baby is being created within is telling her. We need to listen to our heart and respond.

    Instead of joining with our own mothers when we give birth we are told to do it alone.

    Being a woman is an incredible gift, to ourselves and to our world. We know how to care for our children. We touch, we place our babies next to our skin and enjoy, our heart leads us to long to be with them. Yet people and other studies have told us NOT to do these things.

    Be silent, listen, be open to loving help. Rejoice in the gift of life, motherhood and family.

  4. Its wonderful to know that they are gathering so much evidence to confirm these observations and theories…..maybe one day the mainstream parenting world will catch on once they have it all Confirmed as Fact from the medical fraternities….

    What seems as natural instinct to some mothers, completely eludes others …..each to their own though I guess….

  5. I can AGREE with more with Darcia Narvaez. This has been the final conclusion of my analysis done through the last 15 years that I am living in the USA. Great article!

  6. I heard before my first was born that you can’t spoil a baby before 1 yr. old. I believe that completely! I didn’t let my girls cry and they were very happy & healthy. By 1 year they quit taking naps but slept from 7 p.m. – 7 a.m. no problem.

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