This blog post is an excerpt from our June 2011 Newsletter.
First, emerging consensus by the scientific community is that the brain is forever shaped by a baby’s in utero and early life experiences. Excessive stress in the mother raises levels of hormones in babies that literally change the architecture and function of their brains. Brain scientists believe that these early effects have lifelong consequences, affecting how people interpret and react to stress and form relationships in their later lives.
Secondly, we know that infants enter foster care at a high rate (4.1 infants per 1000 reported this year by Chapin Hall). Infants also have lower rates of reunification and longer lengths of stay in foster care. This is problematic because infants’ brains are so vulnerable, wired to connect with one stable caregiver. Without such an attachment relationship, children are greatly challenged to learn the intricacies of modulating their own emotions, reading faces accurately and acquiring language.
All of these underlie other cognitive gains a child is expected to make as part of normal development. Intervening early, as soon as a woman knows she is pregnant, allows Open Arms doulas to support women in working through stress and practicing self-care. Connecting new mothers with community resources and social support may decrease levels of cortisol, a hormone released in response to stress that is toxic to her fetus. Promoting breastfeeding also protects developing brains. In addition to supplying baby with nutrients and energy ideal for brain growth, breastfeeding increases oxytocin release by mother. Oxytocin is a protective hormone which stimulates attachment between mother and infant, decreases anxiety and protects against postpartum depression. Open Arms’ doulas and peer breastfeeding counselors influence brain development from the earliest moments of life, yet their efforts will last a lifetime.