The experience of synchrony precedes and shapes all social skills
October 24, 2018 8:12 PM   Subscribe

One of Feldman’s first experiments involved 73 preemies born in Israel in the 30th week of pregnancy and weighing 1,270 grams on average. Every day for two weeks, the preemies received one hour of “kangaroo,” or skin-to-skin, care. They were removed from their incubators and placed naked between their mother’s breasts. A control group of the same size and medical condition only received contact through the incubator. Feldman and her staff tracked these children at seven junctures in time, over the next 10 years. The findings showed a dramatic impact on the children who had received the kangaroo care. “They had a better connection with their mother, better adjustment abilities, lower cortisol (stress hormone) levels and lower ADD rates throughout their entire development,” says Feldman. “Small differences, created at the start, amplified over the years.” The experiment was simple: Mothers of preemies were asked to hug them without clothes. The impact on their lives 20 years later was dramatic (SL Haaretz)

Videos with Dr. Ruth Feldman:
posted by beisny (9 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
How do I read this without creating an account?
posted by higginba at 8:40 PM on October 24, 2018

Yeah, that’s too bad. Paywalled.
posted by greermahoney at 9:00 PM on October 24, 2018 [1 favorite]

Archived version
posted by Joe in Australia at 10:49 PM on October 24, 2018 [6 favorites]

Thanks Joe for the archive link.

Some quotes I found interesting (I found the article itself quite long and wide-ranging, so I'm sort of zeroing in on topics I'd have loved to see discussed way more in-depth):

The mother is usually the main “attachment” figure for the development of synchrony. However, one of the studies by Feldman and her colleagues shows that, the brain basis of attachment in gay fathers who are the primary caregivers is no less active than that of mothers. That study looked at three groups of parents: straight mothers who were the primary caregivers, straight fathers who were the secondary caregivers, and gay fathers who were the primary caregivers. The researchers filmed the parents interacting with their infants at home. Later, the parents watched these films while undergoing a brain scan with an fMRI. Additionally, their oxytocin levels were measured before and after playing with their children.
The researchers found that while synchronizing with the infant, exceptionally high activity was observed in the mother’s brain – five times higher than among the straight fathers – in the center responsible for emotional processing. When the straight fathers synchronized with their offspring, brain activity in the mentalization center, which enables social understanding and empathy, and provides cognitive representation of the intentions of the infant, were measured as being four times higher than among the mothers. The gay fathers beat them both, with high activity in the emotional center, like the mothers, and high activity in the mentalization center, as among the straight fathers.
Feldman rejected out of hand my provocative attempt to characterize gay fathers as “super parents.”
“Our findings show, in my opinion, not the superiority but rather the plasticity of the parental brain,” she says. “Until 1850, one out of three mothers died in childbirth. Who raised the children? Neighbors and aunts; women who hadn’t given birth took in the children. Suddenly, the entire network responsible for attachment in their brains started to activate. This network is very flexible because it is critical for survival.”
Feldman adds that when a father spends a lot of time raising his child, the father’s emotional brain center becomes more active. “Gay fathers are the heralds of the ‘new dads’: When you are more involved raising your child, these two brain systems will activate and connect.” We’ll get back to this.


She says her findings indicate that mothers are biologically prepared to parent, while fathers have to invest. “The more a father invests in caregiving – feeding, bathing, playing – the better,” she observes. “The more you do earlier, the more your parental brain will be consolidated. Parenting can completely reorganize your brain. I had my first daughter at 22. I remember getting up in the morning, taking her for a walk and saying, ‘Wow, the whole world is colored differently.’ It has been that way ever since, and my daughter is grown up. Mothers get it for free. Fathers have to work for it. If you don’t do it, parenthood will pass you by.”
Feldman warns of “intrusiveness” – “a very damaging and prevalent component in relations between parents and children, and between people in general.” It is expressed in overstimulation of babies and lack of attention to moments when they avert their gaze or are tired. “Babies and mothers synchronize only a third of the time when they are in face-to-face communication,” she warns. “They are floating in space most of the time. To be in sync all the time is too intrusive, like a jazz band that plays in forte for two hours. It’s intolerable.”
Such overstimulation may negatively impact a baby’s neural development, adjustment and stress levels. By the same token, forcing your agenda on your partner, dominating the conversation and not paying attention are also forms of intrusiveness, which is problematic and damaging.
Good synchrony with the child is a necessary but insufficient condition for social development. The relationship between the parents themselves is also important.
“Our studies show that starting from the age of 4 months, babies also react within fractions of a second, to nonverbal signals between parents,” Feldman says. “If your wife makes a comment about you and you make a dismissive face, your daughter will notice.”
The oxytocin system is flexible “and it depends on your behavior,” she adds. “Hug, hug hug. When you leave home, hug your child, hug your partner. It will lower both side’s stress level, and raise the feeling of wellbeing and the ability to enjoy what you encounter during the day. It will also boost your immune system.”

When she returned from her post-doc in the United States in 1995, Feldman began research with Dr. Shafik Masalha on young families from Tel Aviv and Ramallah. “We thought if we’d understood the code of how children are programmed in their first experiences in both societies, perhaps we could contribute something to resolving the conflict,” Feldman recalled in a recent lecture.
Until the border was closed in 2000, when the intifada erupted, they filmed the parents with their children and discovered a substantial difference in their interactions. Israeli babies were raised with an emphasis on energetic communication based on eye-contact and verbal exchanges, while Palestinian babies were left more to sit on their parents’ laps, looking in the same direction, and the interaction between them was more regulated and subdued. When the babies became toddlers, the Israeli parents tended to negotiate more with them (for example, over TV time), while Palestinian parents tended to let children watch an extra few minutes and then sit next to them and ask them to come eat without too much discussion.
To Feldman and Masalha, it was clear that anyone wanting to understand why there are problems in dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians should return to the sandbox, where he can detect the differences in how the children from the two societies learn to create contact with other people. Oxytocin levels rise in parents and in children both in Tel Aviv and Ramallah after a successful interaction – but “successful interaction” means different things in the two cultures.
“The interesting thing in the oxytocin system is that it is very ancient,” Feldman explains. “It’s not a smart system because it allows us to immediately identify who is like us and to connect to him, but it also automatically identifies foreign patterns, and then our brain immediately activates all of its alarm systems.” When Jews and Arabs meet, so do their oxytocin systems, which warn them of the other because they have each learned that a personal connection means different things.
The good news is that Feldman and her colleagues showed, in a study published in June, that an intervention of just eight meetings at least partly helped a group of Israeli and Palestinian youths deal with the barrier between them. “The moment each teen talked about himself, his family and home experiences, and they engaged in one-on-one synchronized activity – oxytocin levels rose, cortisol levels dropped and empathic behavior among them strengthened,” she says.

posted by Cozybee at 11:12 PM on October 24, 2018 [18 favorites]

This also offers an explanation for the statements many parents give about how parenting altered the way they love and feel at a deep and primal level. I have also read studies that mothers who didn't attach well in infancy to their own mothers, or have a history of motherly absence or abuse more often had a harder time feeling instinctual parenting feelings and I wonder what the brain/oxytocin correlates of that would be. There are a whole lot of things that can disturb production of bonding hormones/chemistry and feelings including trauma, being overworked, lack of sleep etc- and I'm pretty sure I've read nursing and kangaroo care can help build and reinforce these emotions and likely the biology around it.

To me, knowing what it was like to feel forced toward early day care at 6 weeks will coping with single parenthood and trauma- it seems like a genuine liability issue that we are doing this to parents who need that bonding time for both the health and well being of themselves and their babies.

All the advice male dominated doctors have given ignoring women's sobs and please that they need to nurse and hug and love on their babies as overly emotional nonsense is of course not going to be challenged.


Yet the medical profession took over medical advice about parenting from women who were experiencing the instincts and wisdom of their children's needs and fed them garbage that hurt them and their babies and made a mockery of those who protested. This is STILL in our medical field and thinking about women's wisdom. My great grandmother was told holding her baby would spoil them, so my grandmother cried alone for hours at a time throughout the day. This is abuse. Forcing parents to use early daycare before they are ready is such also abuse, and failing to provide parental leave over the first year (or TWO) is really harmful to families.

To me, I also think there is discussion to be had about the fact that some of the advocacy being done that talks about trying to force families to split parenthood equally may be kind of cruel to the person who just gave birth to the baby and is already producing bonding processes and has been sharing intimacy with this tiny person for 9 months.

Ignoring all that and saying parents should split the time with the children evenly, and forcing fathers to take equal parental leave while pressuring mothers to go back to work earlier than they are ready does not feel particularly progressive to me. In divorced or never married families, to force nursing and recently birthed mothers to give up their babies for days or weeks at a time seems very harmful. I feel like it's been an uphill battle to talk about the trauma done to me by pressuring me to give up my child and the biological harms done to me because the progressive way of looking at birth is that it's no big deal and biology is nothing. I think this denies the reality of what we are doing to parents and is very abusive to parents lived experiences of birthing and nursing and bonding when we are forcing separations and saying it's no big deal, no harm done because birthing or not birthing is the same thing and both parents should be treated as exactly the same and any bond that exists between a parent who was pregnant and birthed and is nursing must be treated as exactly the same as a parent who just walks up to the situation demanding half and half time with the infant.
posted by xarnop at 4:59 AM on October 25, 2018 [17 favorites]

To me, I also think there is discussion to be had about the fact that some of the advocacy being done that talks about trying to force families to split parenthood equally may be kind of cruel to the person who just gave birth to the baby and is already producing bonding processes and has been sharing intimacy with this tiny person for 9 months.

Ignoring all that and saying parents should split the time with the children evenly, and forcing fathers to take equal parental leave while pressuring mothers to go back to work earlier than they are ready does not feel particularly progressive to me.

(1) I don't think forcing anyone to do anything is the right choice. The issue right now is that most men are forced to take *no* parental leave and *no* bonding time. That's equally harmful. Highlighting the fact that men can and do bond with their babies in important ways that can affect ongoing relationships and how they act as fathers, as this study does, is pretty important, and as a birth-giver myself I'm 100% on board with *offering* parental leave to fathers and *offering* the opportunities to be equal (or at least more equal) parents is critical.

(2) I don't see where giving parental leave to fathers forces mothers to go back to work earlier? Why can't both have healthy, meaningful parental leave?

(3) If you see slippery slope arguments in this direction, I worry about them in the other direction. With both my kids, I was *really* ready to go back to work at 3 months. I would be incredibly angry about being coerced into staying home longer because of some assumption that all mothers DO want to have their babies with them 24/7 for the first year or two.

I think the key takeway on this front here is that (1) yes, there are hormonal changes in a birth-giving parent's brain that are important, but ALSO that (2) turns out there are for men as well if they can bond early and often! and (3) it also works for a primary caregiver that did not carry and birth a child (which is an important thing for society to recognize for adoptive parents, users of surrogates, and same-sex parents)! Because yes, the hormones were INTENSE after having my kids, but I am really, really over people telling me that there's some underlying truth about my gender role here that this means I should feel bad about loving my job and wanting to do it instead of being home with my kids all day long. There has to be room for everyone here, not forcing anyone into *or* out of a caretaking role they feel deeply connected to.
posted by olinerd at 7:23 AM on October 25, 2018 [8 favorites]

I have to say, every doctor, nurse, midwife, and class teacher that we encountered in the UCSF system where we had our son nigh over a year ago, reiterated to both of us, multiple times, the importance of skin-to-skin between both mom and son and father and son. We were very blessed to both have ample time for doing this, and I cherish the memory of those times.
posted by allkindsoftime at 8:54 AM on October 25, 2018 [4 favorites]


Anecdotally. Or from a strong family or community. But knowledge can be lost or obscured, not always due to the patriarchy. The example (should save canned links) that I read about is mid1800's there was an upsurge of infant problems in urban areas. The young woman had moved to the city, broken links from the farm families and just did the wrong things for infants. Community education (pamphlets about diapers) helped. There are also wacko ideas that need a strong scientific response. (derail: college educated antivaxers... grrr...stampfoot)
posted by sammyo at 9:25 AM on October 25, 2018 [1 favorite]

right so before we turn this into a fight about long maternity leave, paternity leave etc, please note that the researcher, in the article, specifically says the study was done on preemies during a critical early window and that they have not yet done the research to establish all of these effects at later ages.

in addition, there is a huge gap in the research about bonding with other caretakers, and we all know this business of kids only having their parents as caretakers is a modern western development. there's insufficient research done on children bonding with other caregivers like those in a daycare.

finally, some groups have latched on to attachment theory, twisted the research as necessary, and used it to push very restrictive gender roles, there was a lot of christian fundamentalist involvement in the birth of the "attachment parenting" movement, which despite the scientific name makes claims way beyond those made by science. let's not run blindly willy-nilly into establishing too much policy on the basis of research still in effect.
posted by Cozybee at 9:23 PM on October 25, 2018 [2 favorites]

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