Baby Brains – Why Love Matters


I usually post about the world of writing and books, though on occasion my old pre-writing vocation pops up in my opinions and commentary. Since my previous post broached the topic of brains, I thought it might be easy fun to share something from my previous life – an article I wrote on Baby Brains, based partly on the wonderful book Why Love Matters by Sue Gerhardt.

Why Love Matters

Happy_babyPart One: The difference between a baby and a squirrel

In recent years, brain researchers have pretty much resolved the nature-nurture debate when it comes to human beings. They’ve concluded that we are influenced by both.

Most of us who are parents understand the contributions of “nature.” Our infants are born with their own little personalities and temperaments. BUT “nurture” plays a gigantic part in who we ultimately become. And that’s because there is a big difference between a baby and a squirrel.

A squirrel is a squirrel. A squirrel in China isn’t so different from a squirrel in England or Oregon. Squirrels can be depended on to do squirrelly things – raid bird feeders, climb trees, store food. They don’t need much training or feedback to be successful squirrels.

A human baby on the other hand has to be highly adaptable. We are the ultimate in social animals, born to particular parents, families, communities, and nations. Layer family expectations and parenting styles on top of economic, religious and cultural differences, and it’s no wonder we are all so unique!

Which brings me to the baby brain.

Our need to adapt at a very young age to different social expectations requires human baby brains to be the least “hard-wired” of all baby brains in the animal kingdom, including squirrels. Interestingly, this means that most of the brain’s cortex develops AFTER birth. The cerebral cortex is the part of the brain that controls little things like thinking and language! Here we make meaning of our personal experience of the world, enabling us to interact effectively with others.

It makes sense that this interactive part of our brain develops through social contact. Who we are as social and emotional beings progresses through our interaction with the people we encounter in our first 2-3 years of life. Therefore, our earliest experiences as babies have a much greater impact on who we are as adults than many realize. It is as babies that we first learn what do with our feelings and start to absorb our experiences in a way that will affect our later behavior and thinking.

9477327336_3264f050a6_bPart Two: Baby stress management

Early social experiences shape the developing brain and determine how stress will be responded to in the future. Life is full of stress, you might say, and shouldn’t infants and babies get the picture early?

A small amount of stress is normal and unavoidable, but babies aren’t born knowing how to manage stress, so expecting them to figure it out on their own is a little silly—like expecting someone to learn French without hearing the language. How to manage stress is one of those skills that we teach through social interaction with our infants.

Babies learn that they can tolerate a certain amount of stress once they are confident that an attentive adult is available to help them. Once a baby has repeatedly experienced care from a responsive caregiver, stress hormones are less likely to flood the brain when the baby experiences minor frustrations. The baby’s little brain says, “No big deal. I can handle this, because I know I will get help if I need it.”

download (2)Part Three: Why you never forget how to ride a bicycle.

Can you imagine what life would be like if every time you rode a bicycle, made a sandwich, or used your TV remote you had to learn how to do it all over again? We wouldn’t be able to function. The brain handles this by creating templates, an amazing library of billions of bits of information that we access constantly and at a moment’s notice.

Babies’ brains are primed to absorb information at an incredible rate. Their libraries collect important how-to guidelines such as how to pick up a Cheerio with two fingers or empty a bin of toys. The libraries also file away very subtle observations of facial expressions, tone of voice, body language, and the emotional meanings associated with them.

Every experience a baby has is stored in the huge warehouse of the brain and forms the basis for how baby perceives the world – as safe and loving, or as scary and unreliable. The more a baby has a particular experience the stronger the template becomes. That’s awesome when they are good experiences, terrible when they aren’t – because it takes ten times as many good experiences to create a happy template over an old crappy one.

Mother-Child_face_to_facePart Four: Why love matters.

Children need a satisfying experience of dependency before they can become truly independent and self-managing. This ability comes from having relationships with people who respond to their needs and help them handle their feelings.

Oh, Diana, you might say. We’re going to have all these spoiled children running around because their parents are trying to create happy brain templates! Don’t worry. Healthy emotional brain templates lead to healthy emotional and behavioral skills. Stressed emotional templates lead to difficulties handling feelings, which then can lead to difficulties with behavior. It’s all connected.

By 10 months of age, baby brains have the capacity to store lasting templates filled with emotion. These templates form the library for emotional regulation. At this age, baby is already observing how his parent or caregiver handles feelings and is making those strategies his own. He is already absorbing caregiver strategies for calming and self-soothing as well as absorbing negative experiences and expectations that trigger stress. These templates become a guide for behavior later when the caregiver is not available to help the child through the joys and struggles of growing up.

And that’s why love matters ❤

Here’s the Link to Sue Gerhardt’s book Why Love Matters on Amazon.

Image credits:
Sleeping father and baby:
Pink baby:
Smiling baby boy:
Mother and baby laughing:

61 thoughts on “Baby Brains – Why Love Matters

  1. […] (For more on baby-brains, here’s an old post called Why Love Matters). […]


  2. Nick Verron says:

    Very thought provoking. I thoroughly enjoyed this post!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. reocochran says:

    This was a good article full of reminders to show love to anyone, especially babies! ♡ It is not spoiling them if you help them to learn how to be happy. Time well spent. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • I agree. With babies it’s all about the love. ❤ As they grown love includes setting limits and helping children through the frustration of not getting their way. All easier said than done, but we do our best and that's usually good enough. 🙂


  4. Jed Jurchenko says:

    Yes, yes, yes…very well said! And now I’ve got another book to add to my list. Diana, have you seen the First Impressions video? It’s on the impact of exposure to domestic violence / parents arguing, on infants, and their brain development. It’s not nearly as fun to watch as this article is to read. But I mention it because it’s a powerful example of the other side of the picture and also dives into some similar research..

    Liked by 1 person

    • I don’t think I’ve seen that one, but I’ve seen similar. We tend to think of babies as “blobs,” but they are primed to pick up on social cues. That’s THE goal of the brain at this age. In the simplest terms, positive social contact releases glucose and glucose causes the brain to grow. Thanks for the comment, Jed. Definitely pick up the book – it’s worth the read.


  5. There was this nonsense, I think it was in the 1930’s, that the mother should leave a baby cry rather than spoil the baby. My mother wasn’t having any of it. She regarded a baby as a small person with certain needs and rights. Thanks goodness for my brother and me that she did. Good piece, Diana. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  6. What a great summary/explanation/call for love!

    Funny, I had a baby dream last night, and I hadn’t even read your post. I haven’t had a baby dream in ages, and I am beyond having a baby again myself.

    I was one of those babies who was permitted to scream herself to sleep on the advice of Dr. Spock. I have often wondered how my siblings and I were affected by that. Of course we screamed, we didn’t know how to soothe ourselves or ask for what we needed….

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s an urban legend that screaming improves baby’s lungs! No parent can be 100% attentive all the time, so we do the best we can. An exhausted, stressed-out parent isn’t good for baby either. So, it’s a balancing act. Awareness of the importance of attentive love is a great start for us all, at all ages. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Dalo 2013 says:

    This is something else – and I could not agree more. If you have a child and can provide them with the happiness life has available, it is the greatest gift of all. Letting them experience, learn and to always have love of the family to fall back upon ~

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks so much for the comment. An emotionally fluent family is pretty awesome, but families don’t have to be perfect either. Families should be safe places to make mistakes and amends, to work through conflicts, and experience forgiveness. Children will eventually experience the hardships of life, and you are so right that having the unconditional love of a family to fall back on is priceless. 🙂


  8. Rosanna says:

    Babies are such tender beings, but full of potential. This is a wonderful exploration of the growth arc of babies. I chose not to have children because parenting seems to be such a humongously delicate job. Parents like you are such brave souls!

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s a wonderful, stressful, and exhausting job, Rosanna. Parents by no means need to be perfect, and they only have so much control over the course of their childrens’ lives anyway. Whether we choose to be parents or not, love matters. Thanks so much for commenting. It’s nice to hear your “voice.” ❤


  9. Dawn D says:

    I think babies handle a lot of stresses that adults don’t or won’t realise. Hunger is a pretty big stressor. So is cold. Or heat. Or what’s this thing that wants me to close my eyes? Sleep? What for? I probably should fight it, so it’s safer. And pain. Did you realise how much easier it is to handle pain when you know what’s causing it? You can then just put it in the back ground of your brain and forget about it. Or maybe not forget, but ignore it. If you don’t know what’s causing the pain, you can’t file it away. All these stresses that babies have to handle, we don’t look at as stresses any more, because we have learnt and are able, physically and intellectually, to tame the hunger, the cold, the heat, the pain. Sleep? I’m still struggling with that one 😉
    I’m sorry about my earlier comments being a bit out of place, considering what you wrote. I am under the weather and hadn’t found the time yet to read your words and was reacting to comments. The good thing is, I realise that we are in agreement on many things 🙂
    And considering this used to be your occupation, it makes me feel like all the thinking I did was worth it 😉

    And by the way: I love your writing. I love how you put touches of humour in there, like that box of toys being emptied. It is indeed a skill and we need to remember that, as adults. If we look at it in that way, it helps us react in a calmer way 🙂

    Thank you for sharing 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    • Your comments and observations are always welcome and insightful, Dawn. I didn’t notice a thing out of place. 🙂 I’m certainly no expert on this and the world continues to study and learn about the brain. You are so right that baby’s experience is full of natural stress that parents do their best to relieve. Sometimes it seems like nothing works and that can be exhausting and frustrating for everyone. That’s life. It’s part of growth. Even if a parent can’t help with baby’s tummy cramps, being there as a nurturer is key. Even as an adult, I wouldn’t want to be closed in my room to “cry it out” alone.
      Of course, all this applies to babies. As they get older and their skills grow, new limits on behavior apply! 😀


  10. balroop2013 says:

    Hi Diana,

    I have read this post with great interest and really enjoyed it. It filled me with great pride that I have been taking care of my little grandchildren when their parents are at work. I also feel love really matters. The initial years of their growth are so important! Who can understand it better than grandparents?

    I can relate to many facts you have mentioned. My grandson really crawls towards me when he feels he is being pestered by his two and a half year sister as he knows I would handle the situation! So smart! whenever he has to do the forbidden prank, he moves his finger, giving a signal that he knows he can’t do that but he would love to and he smiles mischievously! His smile wins me over and I feel blessed to be around him.

    Thanks for such a lovely post.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It sounds like you have lots of fun with your grandchildren. I also love spending time with my grandson and then giving him back at the end of the day 🙂 They are way smarter than we think at manipulating grandparents. Thanks so much for reading and commenting ❤

      Liked by 1 person

  11. This is lovely, I have had 9 beautiful babies and it always just amazes me to see how they interact and learn! It is truly a miracle! Nice to hear all of the facts! Very interesting and a wonderful read!

    Liked by 1 person

  12. This is fascinating stuff, Diana, I am always amazed at how an infant evolves in the first year, and how the pace differs for each child. The human brain…amazingly complex. No machine can touch it…at least not in the real world. (maybe in sci fi ). 💕

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Heartafire says:

    A wonderful post Diana, lovely and sweet and encouraging! wonderful!

    Liked by 1 person

  14. ghostmmnc says:

    I love reading about this subject, too. It is amazing how babies learn so much so fast. Watching my grand-daughter, who just turned 2 has been fascinating. What I’ve always wondered about, is why don’t we remember most of the very early years?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Dawn D says:

      I think it has to do with the fact that the things we learn then become second nature, reflexes, so we don’t need to remember how we learnt them. On the other hand, there is still so much more learning to do, mostly intellectual, that requires a lot of brain capacity, so we erase what happened before, and put all the other things in place.
      That, plus we lack the vocabulary to express what happened in the first 2-3 years of life. So we can’t have memories. But we remember, subconsciously…

      Liked by 2 people

      • Language certainly organizes experience and such a giant step for little children. I agree. Dawn, that tons of information is assimilated into who we are…as social beings and as related to our skills. I love the idea of life-long learning, and why not? It’s one of the things that keeps us young. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

        • Dawn D says:

          Yes, I think all the information we learn in the early years becomes who we are without us even noticing. We walk, talk, go potty, recognise hunger, sleep, all those things that we didn’t know when we were born. This becomes us. The later stuff needs words to be put into memories…
          As for life long learning? Of course! A beautiful book on that subject is The brain that changes itself. Here is a link to something along the same lines.
          Sorry, I’m sick and haven’t taken the time to actually listen to it, but it’s by that same author.
          And yes, as long as we learn, we are still living. When we stop learning, we are only waiting for life to pass us by…

          Liked by 2 people

    • I have a 2 yr old grandson and you’re right, it’s amazing how quickly they learn! He tires me out 😀 Part of the answer to your question may be language development – the function of language in organizing experience. When I was working with little kids, one of the first things we did was give words to feelings, because without the words, it was difficult to differentiate between… mad and frustrated, for example. I wish I knew more about this stuff. It’s fascinating. Thanks so much for reading and commenting!

      Liked by 1 person

  15. Rajagopal says:

    A growing baby is a miracle of creation, just as birth itself. And your informative post underlines it most emphatically, Diana. A properly enabling environment is an invaluable component in the growth of a child…best wishes.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. Carrie Rubin says:

    No surprise that I love this post! Wonderful. It really is amazing to think of how much our cortex absorbs and develops and how it keeps doing so even into adulthood. The human brain doesn’t reach maturity until the mid-20s. Easy to see why some young adults can struggle with decision-making. Then again, some of us older ones can too!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m glad you enjoyed it, Carrie. I was writing primarily about early social development, but you are so right that the brain keeps developing into young adulthood. Teenage years are intense with all those hormones impacting the body and brain. I would like to think mine is still growing, but I think it stopped. Now it’s full and I have to forget something in order to add something new. 😀


  17. Dawn D says:

    This book is amazing! Amazing. Changed my life.
    I’ll come back to your post once the kids are in bed, but thank you for writing about this 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  18. Annika Perry says:

    What an interesting and thought-provoking post Diana. Absolutely fascinating and I have been re-reading this a few times. I never knew the babies brain template was formed so early on by 10 months. Wow! What a lot for the tiny baby to absorb and learn. No wonder they become frazzled at times. I believe you can never love a child too much and that this love gives them security and confidence in themselves. It enriches their lives by giving them both independence later when out in the world, but also trust and love in others. It has nothing to do with spoiling which I feel is object/money based and totally opposite of real love by trying to buy affection or ward off guilt.

    Liked by 1 person

  19. gillswriting says:

    This is so interesting and makes sense of so many things that I have often wondered about when I compare toddlers here in Tanzania to toddlers in “my world”. Now I get it, they have already made the adaptation to their surrounding environment etc. Thanks for a great post. xxx

    Liked by 1 person

  20. What a great post! But why is the title to Sue’s book at the end blank?

    Liked by 1 person

  21. Nurse Kelly says:

    Love this, Diana! Particularly part three because I’ve been reading a lot about plasticity lately. You sure are a versatile, accomplished writer!

    Liked by 1 person

  22. We “know” that love matters, but it’s great to read exactly why. Thanks for this!

    Liked by 1 person

Comments are warmly welcomed. Don't be shy .

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s