An­gela Mol­lard Go fig­ure, bubs re­ally do need mum

Ba­bies thrive when their moth­ers are around – and it’s a mat­ter of chem­istry, not just love

The Sunday Mail (Queensland) - - NEWS - an­ge­lam­ol­

FOR some­one who deals in words, more of­ten it’s num­bers that stop me in my tracks. The num­ber of week­ends I have left to en­joy if I live to 90 – just 2080.

The amount a share I’ve been eye­ing off has gone up since the end of Oc­to­ber when I ne­glected to buy it – 25 per cent.

The num­ber of hours snails can make sex last – 12, ap­par­ently.

But there’s one num­ber that’s been irk­ing me all week – 1000.

That’s the num­ber of days ba­bies need to be around their mum, ac­cord­ing to a new par­ent­ing book that claims moth­ers need to pri­ori­tise their chil­dren over their work.

I’m con­cerned by the premise of Erica Komisar’s new book and, along­side a lot of Amer­i­can com­men­ta­tors, I’m hes­i­tant to give it air­time be­cause its ideas could set women back decades.

Yet, I can’t get that num­ber out of my head – 1000 days. Less than three years.

In Be­ing There: Why Pri­or­i­tiz­ing Moth­er­hood in the First Three Years

Mat­ters, Komisar ar­gues that moth­ers need to be both phys­i­cally and emo­tion­ally avail­able for chil­dren in the first 1000 days be­cause they’re “much more neu­ro­log­i­cally frag­ile than we’ve ever un­der­stood”.

As a clin­i­cal so­cial worker and psy­cho­an­a­lyst, Komisar has be­come in­creas­ingly con­cerned that the de­valu­ing of moth­er­hood has led to an in­crease in boys be­ing di­ag­nosed with ADHD, girls suf­fer­ing with de­pres­sion, and an in­crease in “so­cial dis­or­ders” where chil­dren lack em­pa­thy and have trou­ble re­lat­ing to other chil­dren.

Yet, where oth­ers have based their view­points on in­tu­ition or ob­ser­va­tion, the cen­tral tenet of Komisar’s book is sci­en­tific. She ar­gues that moth­ers, more than fa­thers, are “bio- log­i­cally nec­es­sary” for ba­bies be­cause they pro­duce more oxy­tocin, the love hor­mone proven to be “a buf­fer against stress”.

Cit­ing a neu­ro­sci­en­tist, she says that through eye con­tact, touch and baby talk, moth­ers pro­duce more oxy­tocin and in turn this pro­duces the hor­mone in her baby.

“Ev­ery time a mother com­forts a baby in dis­tress, she’s ac­tu­ally reg­u­lat­ing that baby’s emo­tions from the out­side in,” she says. “After three years, the baby in­ter­nalises that abil­ity to reg­u­late their emo­tions, but not un­til then.”

Along­side mul­ti­ple stud­ies that show ba­bies suf­fer sep­a­ra­tion anx­i­ety when their moth­ers leave them, due to in­creased lev­els of the stress hor­mone cor­ti­sol, Komisar’s ar­gu­ment strikes at the heart of the mas­sive cul­tural change we’ve seen in the past 50 years. In­deed, should women re­turn to work soon after giv­ing birth? Is in­sti­tu­tional child care a good op­tion for ba­bies? Are fa­thers more suit­able care­givers once a child is older?

I don’t know the an­swers, but Komisar’s book has got un­der my skin.

Each week I write a par­ent­ing page for a mag­a­zine and in­creas­ingly the re­search shows a cor­re­la­tion be­tween qual­ity par­ent­ing and the well­be­ing of a child.

One study pub­lished last month ex­am­ined the con­nec­tion be­tween parental stress and child be­hav­iour prob­lems, con­clud­ing that hav­ing time and en­ergy for your chil­dren gen­uinely mat­ters.

Par­ents suf­fer­ing high stress demon­strated less warmth, lower lev­els of re­spon­sive­ness, less af­fec­tion and were more likely to be harsh or un­in­volved when it came to dis­ci­pline.

Par­ents with less stress use more pos­i­tive be­hav­iours in­clud­ing sen­si­tiv­ity, un­der­stand­ing, lis­ten­ing and “scaf­fold­ing” – a prac­tice of us­ing guid­ance, sup­port­ive com­mu­ni­ca­tion and trust to en­cour­age chil­dren to in­crease their com­pe­tency. An­other es­say, pub­lished in Psy

chol­ogy Today, ar­gued that chil­dren who did not have their emo­tional needs met in child­hood of­ten failed to sus­tain re­la­tion­ships in later life.

As the au­thor Peg Streep, points out, chil­dren who grow up with a se­cure style of at­tach­ment are more likely to en­joy adult re­la­tion­ships that are “durable and nur­tur­ing”.

What is in­dis­putable is that chil­dren need both love and time, and yet a Univer­sity of NSW study analysing Aus­tralian Bureau of Sta­tis­tics fig­ures re­veals par­ents spent four hours less each week with their chil­dren than they did a gen­er­a­tion ago.

So, where do we go from here? Hav­ing fi­nally secured some agency in the work­place, are women ex­pected to sim­ply down tools and re­turn to full-time par­ent­ing?

What about their own in­tel­lec­tual needs, their fi­nan­cial agency, their sense of pur­pose and achieve­ment?

And what about men – where do they fea­ture in the so­lu­tion?

It would’ve been sim­pler to ig­nore Komisar’s work – to dis­miss it as re­gres­sive twad­dle – but what if she is right? What if the alarm­ing growth in child men­tal health and be­havioural is­sues are in part due to a lack of early nur­tur­ing?

It’s a sub­ject even the Duchess of Cambridge is con­cerned about it. As pa­tron of the chil­dren’s men­tal health char­ity Place2Be, she told an au­di­ence last week: “We are all work­ing to give chil­dren the emo­tional strength they need to face their fu­ture lives and thrive.”

How­ever un­com­fort­able some re­search and view­points may be, we must take them on board as we de­velop new ways to both work and par­ent. Tech­nol­ogy, changes in at­ti­tude, longer life ex­pectancy, in­creased flex­i­bil­ity and a so­ci­ety that val­ues both par­ents and chil­dren of­fer up all man­ner of creative so­lu­tions.

Per­haps mums can be the pri­mary par­ent in the first three years and dads take over for the three after that. Per­haps both work part-time.

What­ever par­ents choose, it’s worth re­mem­ber­ing that 1000 days is just a frac­tion of the 30,000 most of us will en­joy in our life­times.

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