Skip main navigation

What the baby brings and needs

In this video Professor Jane Barlow explores what the baby brings in terms of social and perceptual capacities, and what she needs from the parent.
In the last section, we examined the way in which the environment plays a significant role in structuring the architecture of the developing brain. Research shows that babies need particular types of experiences with primary caregivers in order to promote optimal brain development. In order to promote this optimal development, babies are born ready to interact with their primary caregivers. This is the result of a number of innate, cognitive, and perceptual capacities in the infant, many of which are developing in utero. Hearing for example, is one of the first systems to develop, and by 26 weeks gestation, a baby will recognise their mother’s voice.
Innate social competencies in the newborn include a preference for and attention to human faces, interest in eye contact and following gaze changes, and imitation of human gestures. Infants are also born with a number of other innate systems that prepare them to interact and learn. These include genetically determined neural networks that enable the infant to map the changing physical states of the baby and to develop a sense of and coherence and agency that provides the basis for their latest social and emotional development. The baby also has a mirror neuron system in the brain that fires both when they observe other people performing an action, thereby enabling them to map both observed and executed actions and observed and experienced emotions and sensations.
This system enables the infant to recognise and map different states in others. Babies also have genetically programmed emotional neural networks. So although very young babies can’t yet distinguish between different emotions, they are nevertheless wired to experience core emotions such as anger, disgust, sadness, happiness, fear, and surprise. All of these innate capacities mean that babies are primed for interactions with their caregiver that will promote their brain development. The Centre for the Developing Child at Harvard have referred to the nature of the interactional experiences that are needed to promote this brain growth as serve and return exchanges.
These serve and return exchanges are characterised by the parent initiating an interaction with the baby, and the baby then responding to this, followed by a response from the parent. These turn-taking exchanges between the primary caregiver and the baby begin to take place from the second month of life when the visual ability of the infant is such that they’re able to really begin to focus on the parent’s face. These early interactional exchanges are very important in building the infant’s brain architecture. And the reason for this is that exchanges of this nature between the primary caregiver and the baby result in the release of both neuropeptides and hormones that play a key role in the neurodevelopment that we referred to earlier.
So in her book, Why Love Matters, Sue Gerhardt summarises the research about the way in which loving looks between a baby result in the release of neuropeptides such as dopamine. Dopamine is important because it increases the connections being developed in the baby’s brain during the early postnatal months. She also describes the way in which negative looks and exchanges from the caregiver to baby cause the release of a hormone known as cortisol. High levels of circulating cortisol is toxic to the baby’s brain because it disrupts the production of neural connections. High levels of circulating cortisol don’t only affect the developing architecture of the brain, they affect its functioning in terms of setting the baby’s stress thermostat.
So research shows that babies who are exposed to toxic stress, which is defined as strong, frequent, or prolonged activation of the stress response system in the absence of adult support to buffer that stress, results in their stress thermostat being set much lower than normal. One of the consequences of this flooding with cortisol is a reduced number of cortisol receptors in the hippocampus, and children being much more likely to be overwhelmed by stress in the future.
Watch the next two video clips, one of which depicts the importance of early serve and return interactions between the baby and their primary caregiver in terms of the baby’s developing brain, and the second which depicts the impact on the baby of interactions that do not conform to the serve and return pattern. Then watch the interview with Professor Lynne Murray, who describes the key developmental stages of infancy in terms of both the ability of the infant and their needs for interaction with their primary caregiver. You might also like to read the extract from her new book called Psychology of Babies.

In this video we explore what the baby brings in terms of innate social and perceptual capacities before going on to examine in more detail the particular aspects of environmental input that are important in terms of experience-dependent brain development. We examine the role of what have been described as ‘serve and return’ (Step 4.18: Glossary) exchanges, in which the parent initiates an interaction with the baby, and the baby then responds to this, followed by a response from the parent.

We examine what the research tells us about the impact of such ‘serve and return’ exchanges on both the architecture of the brain and its physiological functioning including the infant’s stress response, as a result of the way in which such exchanges affect the release of neurotransmitters (e.g. dopamine) and hormones (e.g. cortisol (Step 4.18: Glossary)) that influence the developing neural connections.

This article is from the free online

Babies in Mind: Why the Parent's Mind Matters

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Reach your personal and professional goals

Unlock access to hundreds of expert online courses and degrees from top universities and educators to gain accredited qualifications and professional CV-building certificates.

Join over 18 million learners to launch, switch or build upon your career, all at your own pace, across a wide range of topic areas.

Start Learning now