How does the way we treat our children affect the makeup of their brains? And how can we use this knowledge to raise children in a style that optimizes their physical, emotional, and mental health?
That is precisely what Dr. Greer Kirshenbaum shares in her new book, The Nurture Revolution.
From exploring the neuroscience of nurturing to understanding how early caregiving experiences influence our relationships as adults, Dr. Kirshenbaum offers profound insights that can shape how we think about respectful parenting with children of any age.
I want to hear from you! Send me a topic you want me to cover or a question you want answered on the show!
Dr. Greer (00:00):
In infancy, the amygdala, if the baby receives responsive care, nurtured care, care towards a secure attachment, right? They kind of group together. The amygdala grows to have an adaptive response to stress for life.
Dr. Sarah (00:21):
Are there things we can do as parents to influence the way our child’s brains form when they’re young, to make them less susceptible to mental health struggles like depression, anxiety, or addiction? The answer is yes, and it’s simpler than you may think. Joining me today is Dr. Greer Kirschenbaum. Dr. Kirshenbaum is a neuroscientist, a doula, and the author of the book, The Nurture Revolution: Grow Your Baby’s Brain and Transform Their Mental Health Through the Art of Nurtured Parenting, which I absolutely recommend for any parents who want to learn more about how we can use nurturing to support our children’s mental and physical health. I had so much fun geeking out with Dr. Kirshenbaum about the brain and how we can use science and research to raise a new generation of children who are healthier, happier, and more resilient. So I cannot wait for you to hear this episode.
Hi, I’m Dr. Sarah Bren, a clinical psychologist and mom of two. In this podcast, I’ve taken all of my clinical experience, current research on brain science and child psychology, and the insights I’ve gained on my own parenting journey and distilled everything down into easy to understand and actionable parenting insights so you can tune out the noise and tune into your own authentic parenting voice with confidence and calm. This is Securely Attached.
Hello. Welcome back everyone. Today we have a really exciting guest. I’m like super excited about the conversation we are about to have. Dr. Greer Kirshenbaum is here. She is a neuroscientist, she’s a doula, and she has a new book out called The Nurture Revolution, and it’s all about growing our babies brains and the link between that and their mental health and this nurtured parenting approach. So welcome. I’m really, really excited to talk to you.
Dr. Greer (02:17):
Thank you. I’m so happy to be here.
Dr. Sarah (02:19):
Yeah, and before we record, I have to say, I was talking with Dr. Kirshenbaum about the fact that I was on Instagram last night scrolling, and I saw that Raffi posted about your book, and I was like, ah, that’s so exciting.
Dr. Greer (02:34):
Dr. Sarah (02:35):
That made me so happy.
Dr. Greer (02:36):
Yeah, it’s amazing. He’s been nurturing babies and children for decades. I grew up with him. I think I went to his concert when I was little. My friend was in one of the videos that we had at home. She was in the audience and she was famous in our school because of that. He’s still doing amazing work.
Dr. Sarah (03:01):
Yes, yes. I am a huge fan. As a kid, I was a huge fan and I’m still a fan of all the stuff he is doing now, so I just thought it was funny. I was like, I’m going to be talking to her tomorrow. That’s the best little fun connection
Dr. Greer (03:13):
That is. He’s awesome.
Dr. Sarah (03:17):
So tell us a little bit about your work. You have a lot of things that, a lot of hats that you wear and you do some cool stuff.
Dr. Greer (03:25):
I really mixed a lot of experience together and kind of developed a new kind of career for the past eight years or so, which is pretty exciting. But yeah, I think my book and my work is really a reflection of my entire life in a lot of ways. I was a really high needs baby growing up. I needed lots of holding, sleeping close. I breastfed for many years, slept in my parents’ bed and just cried a lot and didn’t sleep a lot. So me and my brother were both like this and we know a lot of highly sensitive babies that fall into this category. So I feel like speaking for the babies, I really, really am speaking for these babies, but all babies, having experienced that in combination with other things, I was always kind of really aware of everyone around me, everyone’s emotions, everyone’s kind of pain and struggles throughout my life.
I could see. And that drew me into neuroscience. I was like, I want to understand how does the mind work? How? Why are people wounded? What’s going on? And so I studied neuroscience in my undergrad, did a PhD and a postdoc, and was really drawn to the early life experience, combining the babies, the baby stuff with the mind. How does babies experience develop the mind and brain? And so over my years in neuroscience doing lots of research and hours and hours and hours of observing behavior, I observed a million hours of behavior, which I probably had already been doing my whole life. I was really good at it. I could see the research supporting that idea, that early life experience is incredibly important for our lifelong mental health. All over my 20 year career, all of that work had come out. It was just coming out, coming out, coming out.
I was saving all the studies. I was going to those posters at the conferences, and at the end of my postdoc, all my friends were having babies and then were not aware of any of this information and we’re actually engaging in practices for babies that went, were contraindicated, right, compared to the research. And I was like, I need to get this information out. So then I trained as a doula, worked as a birth and postpartum doula for many years to trying to understand families and how to bring this information to families. And so all of that experience is now finally in this book that I dreamed of for a decade. And I’m so happy that it’s finally, finally all together.
Dr. Sarah (06:29):
Oh, congratulations. And honestly, this idea that you bring up something that is top of mind for me all the time, which is like, okay, you and I have this sort of unique opportunity to have access to this research, but it’s so important that the absence of access to this research could literally shift the trajectory of a generation of children that are being raised right now, which is not to freak anyone out, but there’s some serious implications for that. And it’s new in the grand scheme of the timeline of psychological human research and research of development, we are really early on, I mean, like you said, in our career lifetimes, and we’re not that old. This is just coming out to the scientific level, to the doctoral level researchers, not to the mainstream. And I think now fast forward 10, 15, 20 years, we are seeing it get a little bit more, what’s the word, disseminated out into the lay work of people reading things and understanding this. And I do think we are actually a generation of parents currently who have way more access to information that is accurate about child development and brain development and that interplay of the parent and the child and that relational piece to development and how critical it is. So it’s a great time to be a parent actually, but there’s still a long way to go, I think, to get this information accurately translated out into the mainstream, which I feel like you are amazingly doing. So grateful for that.
Dr. Greer (08:22):
Yeah, I completely agree. And I also think it’s such an important place for parents to start knowing that this is brand new. We’re probably the first person in our family, in our ancestry lineage, at least a few back to be practicing this type of parenting. Some of us experienced it a little bit, but not really to that full extent. And so we’re going to have those influences that are probably lower nurturing, and we’re going to always be needing to do work to do our best to nurture. And for people who haven’t been, they can plea, have compassion you are doing following what our society has been guiding us to do. If it’s different.
Dr. Sarah (09:14):
And you bring up a really interesting point because yeah, we’re talking about, okay, ooh, this is the first generation of kids that are more, not globally unfortunately at all, but many, many kids that are being raised right now are being raised by parents who are influenced to some degree by this information. But those parents that are raising those kids when they were kids, were raised by parents who were not influenced by that information. So I, we talk a lot in this podcast about intergenerational transmission of trauma, of attachment styles, of parenting styles, all those things. And so we’re at this sort of unique cusp in the timeline, in the history where we have a group of parents raising a group of children in a way that is profoundly different probably than the way the last many, many, many generations of parents were raised themselves. Yeah, absolutely. So absolutely, we talk about cycle breaking. This is the time of the breaking of the cycles, which is profound moment in our history, which is kind of cool.
Dr. Greer (10:17):
It is. It’s amazing. It’s amazing. And it does take time. I think some people I work with are, they come to me knowing they had really, really difficult experiences as a baby, as a child with relationships with their parents, and they want to give something totally different to their children and know that how hard it is. They’re like, I can’t change all of it. That’s too much. And I’m always encouraging them, whatever we can change, if we change five things out of a hundred, you are breaking that cycle that much. And in order for your child to have a different modeling, different experiences, a different brain to pass on later. Yeah.
Dr. Sarah (11:04):
So can we talk about the brain science a little bit? I am a total brain nerd. I love it. And I would love to hear what the research is showing, what your book is talking about in terms of when you say we’re going to pass on a different brain, what kind of that brain is that? What changes would we expect to see in a brain that is raised in this sort of nurturing way? And perhaps we need to define too nurturing, nurtured parenting a bit as well.
Dr. Greer (11:35):
Yeah, for sure. So I’ll define nurtured parenting first. Everyone can have, there’s lots of different gen definitions. There’s gentle parenting, responsive parenting. My definition I’ve taken from the neuroscience. And in short, it’s a really intentional, conscious relationship where you’re in an emotional and physical relationship with your baby, where you’re responding to their needs, accepting their emotions, supporting them, supporting their behaviors, understanding what emotions and needs might be underneath their behaviors, and teaching them about their emotions starting from birth, which might sound bizarre.
Dr. Sarah (12:28):
Not if you’ve been listening to this podcast for a while, because people are like, I will tell parents I am, I’m very well known for telling parents: Speak to your infants because they might not know the words, but the tone, the facial expressions from birth, we should be having conversations.
Dr. Greer (12:44):
The second they’re born. Yeah, absolutely. So the communication is another part, right? Nurtured communication, making sure you’re having those conversations totally without distractions, without phones, without all the things going on. Just really having your presence be with your baby at regular times, starting from birth, supporting their play and exploration goes along with that. The next big part is nurturing stress. So accepting them regardless of the stress in their body and being there to lend them our mature brain to bring them from states of high stress to low stress in a reliable way. Similar to, we talked about this before. I think all a lot of the systems in the brain that develop secure attachment and develop this brain circuitry, this regulated stress brain circuitry that I talk about, they develop in parallel. They’re developing at the same time in different parts of the brain. In response to this kind of nurtured parenting.
Dr. Sarah (13:52):
Would you make the argument that the structures of the stress response in the brain and the structures of the brain that are being formed in the neural networks that represent that secure attachment relationship, would you say they inform the health of one another?
Dr. Greer (14:12):
I don’t know about that. I don’t know about that. I think as far as I’ve looked at it, they sort of seem to be developing at the same time. But yeah, if I think about, I don’t know if the areas connect necessarily, but…
Dr. Sarah (14:29):
No, but I’m thinking less about are they physiologically connected, but more correlation if one isn’t developing properly, can be other fully developed properly?
Dr. Greer (14:41):
Yeah, a hundred percent. Because I think when we are parenting towards a secure attachment and towards a nurtured brain, it’s essentially paying attention to the baby’s nervous system, paying attention to their stress buffering, their stress, being responsive, interacting with a baby. So the same kind of experience is building both, I think when if we’re avoiding our baby or their stress, ignoring it, dismissing it, which would lead to more of an avoidant attachment or we’re inconsistent responding, which could lead to an anxious attachment that’s stressful for the babies. And so that experience of stress, if it’s repeated, if it’s the norm experiencing daily, that’s going to influence the way that the brain develops for sure.
Dr. Sarah (15:39):
And the stress. Oh, interesting. Yeah. So can you talk a little bit about the stress response, the structural pieces that are being developed from birth and how they have an interplay with the way we’re kind of raising parenting the world?
Dr. Greer (15:53):
Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. I would say the last part of nurture in my model is also nurtured sleep. So presence, empathy, connection, stress, and sleep. Those are the five areas that I look at.
Dr. Sarah (16:08):
That makes sense.
Dr. Greer (16:10):
So yeah, so the brain science is incredible and fascinating. As I was writing my book and going through all the research, I remembered where I was when all these different pieces came out. And it’s so cool because it brings in so many aspects of biology. The way that we nurture babies is changing their DNA, their protein expression, the way that certain parts of their brain develop, the way their neurotransmitters develop, the way their gut microbes develop. It’s incredible the amount that it can do. And because it changes epigenetics, which are markers on DNA, the nurtured experience does get passed on to the next generation. So if your baby receives high nurturing their DNA changes, so they are going to tend to be a high nurturer if they become a parent. Same thing. If they’re have low nurturing their brain, and which is many, many of us coming into this, we might have epigenetic markers that make us tend to be low nurturers.
And so that’s another reason why it’s so much work to break these cycles, which we can. It’s just a challenge. So let’s talk about the brain areas. So the main areas of the brain in stress are amygdala, which is involved in detecting threats. So threats in a wild animal, there’s all kinds of threats for babies. Separation is a threat to a baby being hungry, uncomfortable, lonely. These are all ways that babies detect threats. They’re different than us. And then internal threats. So these might be more advanced that us adults have an email, a worry, a concern, but even things like that are acute threats, traffic incident or things like that. They essentially alert our brain and body to say, whoa, something scary is happening. There’s a threat here. Let’s get the body ready to respond. And so the next part of the brain that does that is called the hypothalamus, which is extremely complicated and interesting part of the brain. And it starts the stress cascade into our bodies. So mounts, cortisol, adrenaline, all of the stress hormones, we need to transform our brain and body into a state to respond to a stressor. And then the last part is a shutoff mechanism to turn off the stress. And so the breaks for the stress response are in the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex.
So in babies, they actually don’t have that last step that can function. They don’t have a break for their stress system. Their hippocampus is extremely immature in developing. And their prefrontal cortex, same thing.
Dr. Sarah (19:38):
What age does it start to become because the prefrontal cortex isn’t finished developing until early adulthood. So when does the hippocampus start to be able to link that prefrontal cortex activity enough that we can see reliable breaking break action for our kid stress system?
Dr. Greer (20:01):
So it’s about two to three years, which is why we define infancy as zero to three. Well, there’s a few reasons why we define it as zero to three, but one of the reasons is the amygdala, hippocampus and hippocampus take that whole amount of time to be developing, and there are sampling experience in order to build and develop throughout those first three years. So it’s built. Then the hippocampus continues to have new neurons added throughout our whole lives into adulthood through neurogenesis and so through neurogenesis. It’s one way that us as adults can optimize our stress system. So when we exercise, socialize, do all of these enriching things, the new neurons in our hippocampus can, they’re nourished to stay alive. It’s one of the mechanisms of antidepressants. It’s the reason why exercise is so important for our mood and our prefrontal cortex can also continue to be remodeled as adults. We can continue to actually grow connections into our stress system to make it a stronger stop signal.
Dr. Sarah (21:18):
So just to translate this in case people are like, what melting right now? So what I’m understanding is hopefully my listeners are aware the, I talk about that a lot. That’s the threat detector, right? Yeah. Always scanning the environment to see if we’re safe or not.
Usually when I talk about it, I bypass the limbic system stuff because it’s confusing. And I usually go straight to the, are we in fight or flight or are we in rest digest? Yeah. But what I’m hearing you say, if we’re going to get really granular about this, is one that there’s a series of steps that our brain goes through after we’ve detected a threat. And this is by the way, happening in milliseconds. I’m assuming that for a mature adult brain or even a brain of maybe a younger child, there’s a process in place just all inside the brain’s building blocks to sort of say, I see a threat. I recognize this as a threat. There’s that hippocampal response, that memory, oh, I’ve learned enough to know, yep, I’m correct here. And then there’s some communication between the thinking part of the brain, which is the prefrontal cortex and that memory system saying, do we need to react? Yes or no? Quick decide, hit the brakes or false alarm, hit the brakes, or No, no, no, no. This is for real. Get those sirens blaring. There’s a fire and we’re going, yes. Now babies don’t have any capacity to make that decision.
Dr. Greer (22:49):
Dr. Sarah (22:50):
That decision making skill gets better as they get a little bit past the sort of toddler stage like that three years plus. But my guess is since we know that the prefrontal cortex isn’t done cooking until like 26, that that’s going to get progressively better over time, probably still not perfectly grade at three or four, which is why we see kids from 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, even in adolescents not always turning off their stress response accurately.
Dr. Greer (23:21):
Yes, absolutely. And the ways we can help children pass through age three, the strategies we can teach them to help ’em with their stress, like movement, breathing, all the things we do that’s going through those brain areas as well.
Dr. Sarah (23:41):
And that’s the neurogenesis piece. So by neurogenesis you mean you’re growing new bits in this brain new connect, new neural connectivity in the brain so that when we’re learning, we’re actually changing the structure of the brain and the more we teach the right stuff, the stronger those breaks can be? Is that correct?
Dr. Greer (24:06):
Yep. Absolutely. So much of adult therapy and probably, and I’m sure child therapy and other kind of emotional regulation techniques and things we try, they’re acting there in the hippocampus, integrated into circuits there, into new neurons and also in a connection between the prefrontal cortex to the amygdala, right? Those inhibitory connections that can say, oh yeah, I’ve learned this thing. It’s actually not a threat. We can calm down. You don’t have to. Now the response. So I’m glad we talked about all that because understand the baby stuff even more so in babies, not only, so they’re not only when we provide co-regulation and our presence when our babies are stressed to be that break for them, they don’t have that break. They need us to go from a state of high stress to low stress. We help them in that moment because they’re unable to get from that high stress to low stress on their own.
But by doing that as well as all those other things, playing the positive brain states as well, the communication, the stress response to sleep, we’re building every single part of the brain that I just mentioned. So in infancy, the amygdala, if it receives the baby, receives responsive care and nurtured care care towards a secure attachment, they they’ll kind of group together. The amygdala grows to what I would call to have an adaptive response to stress for life. So it’s set, it’s like a sensitive period where the sort of strength of the alarm and the amygdala is built. So if a baby’s nurtured, their amygdala will grow up and tend to not get set off really, really easily, not be hypervigilant, not be set off by all kinds of unimportant things. It will grow up to have an adaptive response to be set off by really pertinent, real realistic threats.
Dr. Sarah (26:20):
So the filter by which it determines do I pull this alarm gets more fine tuned during the sensitive period.
Dr. Greer (26:32):
Then the hypothalamus also gets changed in a way. So the hypothalamus I mentioned is the part that releases the stress. It has hormones that trigger huge cascade that eventually releases cortisol into our bodies. And the hypothalamus is nurtured so that it also lets out an adaptive amount of stress like total cortisol with low nurture, the hypothalamus grows much denser stress producing cells. So the actual stress response is huge, is huge compared to high nurture. It even works in the brake system too. So the hippocampus will grow under high nurture, will grow a very high number of glucocorticoid receptors, which are stop receptors. So you imagine the stress is flowing through the body. If there’s lots of these stop signals in the hip and the hippocampus, they latch onto that stress hormone and they shut off the system when it’s appropriate. With lower nurture, there’s fewer glucocorticoid receptors there. So it’s much harder to actually stop the stress. So more in the prefrontal cortex. So the whole system under nurture grows to be adaptive. The whole system under lower nurture and a higher stress early life grows to make the amygdala higher, more active, leading to possibly more anxiety, more worry, more vigilance, less time in those creative, cognitive, flexible social states that we want ourselves to be in. The stress response is bigger and the shutoff is lower. So it’s very different brain under those two things.
Dr. Sarah (28:32):
Interesting. That’s so helpful to explain. I will say, I have a question for you about this thinking. I mean, I’m a psychologist. I work with families with kids who have a lot of anxiety or other maybe OCD or ADHD or where there’s some atypical, I would say, let’s just say to the brain, regardless of nurture, I have parents in my practice who are high nurturing parents, who have kids who have tremendous anxiety. And so I’m curious, I imagine there is also some research that talks about how much of this is due obviously in certain cases we can point to just the variable of nurture, high nurture, low nurture on impacting these systems being built inside the brain. What is the research there? How do you explain some of these other situations that aren’t maybe where you can control for the variable of nurturing and looking at other types of, whether it’s just genetics or traumatic experiences unrelated to nurture and things like that?
Dr. Greer (29:52):
Completely. So the outcome of mental health is a sort of dance between genetics and experience. They are both at play. So a lot of people who have extremely traumatic histories in their family, which most humans on earth do. We have pretty traumatic histories that’s inherited and through epigenetics. So if your ancestors were in war, famine, genocide, all had immigration in their history, any sort of really adverse experience that was encoded into their stress system in terms of epigenetic marks. So that means that in that family, that stress system would tend to be heightened, and that could be in any part of that stress system that I mentioned.
And so when we nurture it, so you imagine every baby is born somewhere along a stress, a spectrum of stress reactivity or mental health vulnerability to opposite vulnerability resilience. So imagine a child you just mentioned, perhaps their history, and we also have our genetic code, which can also influence mental health outcomes. So a child you just mentioned, they might be inheriting a genetic code that puts them towards that more susceptible end of mental health. They might be inheriting epigenetics that also put them towards that susceptible end, but nurture is still having an impact in that child.
So if that family is nurturing, let’s say that child’s at the far extreme end of susceptibility to mental health issues that nurture, that family did move them closer to resilience. And that doesn’t mean that the outcome is perfect mental health. I don’t think anyone would ever have that anyway, but it still matters. It still really important because that family, through nurture was also able to reverse a lot of those epigenetics that child had not fully take them all away, but it absolutely moves them towards resilience. And that’s unique for each person starting somewhere different on that spectrum.
Dr. Sarah (32:30):
I think a really helpful distinction and kind of a frame to look at, a lens to look at this through, because I do, I can, I can hear the parent listening to this podcast in my mind, who’s got, who is really done this work, right? Yeah, absolutely. Has really worked on becoming attuned and responsive and nurturing parent and still has a child who has exactly these things you’re describing really high reactivity, a really robust stress response that takes them a long time to come back down from and might be listening to this being like, but I’m doing all the things and it’s not making them not like this. Absolutely. What am I doing wrong? And I just want to make sure it’s really clear that you may actually be doing a lot to make it better and you’re just not seeing how bad it could be exactly. If you’ve not been able to provide that nurturing because this child may just be born with these biological markers that put them at high risk for becoming sort of high anxiety, high stress response, low regulation.
Dr. Greer (33:40):
And when we look at individuals that we all work with and know we’re probably almost nearly, all of us are probably born pretty susceptible these days, having inherited histories, the histories that we have, it’s all somewhere there. And the other thing, the other way is with low nurture, a baby who’s born really susceptible, they’re going to become more susceptible to issues. So really having compassion with these parents have compassion for yourself because you’ve done so much already. Like you said, it doesn’t mean that your child isn’t going to have any issues. I think it’s going to take several generations to change what’s already sort of been built into a lot of us.
Dr. Sarah (34:34):
Right? Yeah, no, that’s important. I think that’s and encouraging too, because it’s like don’t stop. Don’t stop what you’re doing. Yeah. Even if it doesn’t always feel like it’s working, the science says it’s working, it’s working.
Dr. Greer (34:47):
And it’s really a long game. Nurture is a long game. It’s not like you’re going to start some of these practices and then immediately see a difference. It’s like we’re talking like years, right? You’ve already mentioned it takes 25, at least 25 years for our brains to go through adolescence. The other thing that’s really interesting and cool about the development of these emotional systems, so my field is zero to three. This is a huge critical period sensitive period for the stress systems and mental health to form. There’s two others in life. One is adolescence, so nine to around nine to 14. And then the other is when we become parents, which I also talk about.
Dr. Sarah (35:40):
Matrescence is so something I’m super interested in. I feel like no one knows what it means. Can you talk about scent for a second? Can you define it for people?
Dr. Greer (35:48):
Yeah, absolutely. So matrescence, there’s also patrescence, it happens for…
Dr. Sarah (35:52):
Dr. Greer (35:55):
Yeah. It’s been studied really well in moms and dads, biological moms and dads, and also adoptive and biological gay dads. So it does, and there’s still more groups that we need to include because so many other people become parents. But it does seem like for everyone who becomes a parent, their brain undergoes huge reorganization, huge neuroplasticity, and many, and I highlight this in my book as well, almost all of those brain parts that I just mentioned, they become plastic again when we become parents.
Dr. Sarah (36:39):
So does that mean that by having an environment that is very high nurturing of parents could in theory reverse or structurally shift a person’s sort of hardwired stress response and vulnerability to mental health, poor mental health outcomes?
Dr. Greer (37:00):
Yeah. It’s a really incredible opportunity for parents to reshape their mental health in when they have a baby.
Dr. Sarah (37:10):
That is so exciting though.
Dr. Greer (37:12):
Yeah, it’s really incredible. That’s really incredible.
Dr. Sarah (37:14):
So if you’re listening to this and you have had mental health challenges in your life or any sort of traumatic experience or adverse experiences, whether they were in childhood or later in life, there’s this new kind of opening window of opportunity to do some serious healing of those literally healing those brain systems in this sensitive period of matrescenceor or patrescence.
Dr. Greer (37:38):
Dr. Sarah (37:38):
And if I’m not mistaken, you go through matrescenceor or patrescence with every child you have.
Dr. Greer (37:45):
Yes, you do. You do. Yeah. And that’s it. I think I met so many parents along my way that were like, what? I wish I had done way more therapy before I had a child. There’s so many more things I had to change, and I don’t think I was ready. And based on this work, I say to them, this is the perfect time to be healing. This is the time to be healing. Both the more, and the other thing that’s important about it for people to know is the more time we spend nurturing our babies, holding them, smelling them, feeding them, taking care of them, attuning to them, the more our brain changes through matrescenceor and patrescence.
Dr. Sarah (38:28):
So there is an interplay, a biological feedback that is occurring so that when we nurture our child, we are also receiving very similar effects.
Dr. Greer (38:39):
Yeah, yeah. Absolutely. Absolutely.
Dr. Sarah (38:43):
I Imagine this has impacts and implications for even the treatment of perinatal mood and anxiety disorders.
Dr. Greer (38:49):
Yes. Because in my experience working with many families as a doula, so often medical advice was get the baby away from them, let them heal, sleep, whatever, until they’re feeling better and medication is starting to work and all this kind of stuff. And really, if it’s possible with support, we actually want to keep the baby very close. Right.
Dr. Sarah (39:16):
And that’s why in our practice, we actually do a lot of parent infant didactic therapy when mostly with women, but we would do it with a dad too. But when a mom is having postpartum depression and is having that difficulty sort of feeling that bond with the baby, then parent infant didactic work can actually be really helpful because it is, it’s that sort of facilitated safe space to do that, have that nurturing experience, and so that can actually be really health helpful, which kind of totally makes sense when we’re talking about it in this context.
Dr. Greer (39:57):
Yeah, absolutely. The presence of the baby is going to be releasing oxytocin, dopamine, quieting the amygdala in the mom, which is so important. So then the opposite of that is you take the baby away for them to get better, and then their brain chemistry’s already changed. Their amygdala’s already changed, so they’re going to have heightened fear worry. They’re going to be lacking oxytocin and dopamine that way. It would be getting from the baby that’s all going to be beneficial towards healing. Yeah.
Dr. Sarah (40:28):
That’s so interesting and super encouraging, such a hopeful. Nothing is done, nothing is final. There’s always these opportunities to do something a little bit different and get a different effect. And it’s not like we hear, oh, there’s this critical period of zero to three. If I miss this window, I’ve totally messed up. I’ve missed it. And the reality is, no, you haven’t, and it’s never too late to start doing this sort of nurturing approach to parenting, and sounds like there’ll be another opportunity in adolescents for that brain to open back up and for these new sort of, and then again, for you as a parent, for you to be shifting the way that you approach your own mental health throughout every iteration of parenting multiple times, every time you have a kid, I have a parenting course for zero to one, and I was like, I’m, I’d love to get brand new parents into this course, and that’s great, but who likes to take my course more than the brand new parents are the second time parents.
I get so many second time parents taking this course. The ones that are actually like, oh, you know what? Now that I’ve gone through it once and I’m about to go through it again, I actually realize, okay, I want to do this a little bit more intentionally this time, or I have more awareness of how much support I need and want this time around, which speaks to this idea is it’s not too late. The second time you have a child is also a really great time to do this work because obviously it’s going to benefit your second child. It will benefit your first child, and it’s also going to benefit your brain that second time around because your brain is going through that resin sensitive period once again. Yeah, so cool.
Dr. Greer (42:18):
It is. It’s amazing. It’s amazing. Yeah, when you’re just talking about it not being too late. I wanted to add, there’s a study in a lot of the low nurture environments were studied in children who were raised in orphanages, and so there was a study done. So the earlier they’re adopted and nurtured, the better off they do for all social, emotional, cognitive measures as close to zero as possible. But even for children who were adopted out of that sensitive period of zero to three, they still might struggle with issues in their childhood, but if their adoptive family is highly nurturing through all of childhood and then through adolescence, then it does repair. It does repair, but it’s that long game. Again, you’re not right still. You have to remember how long the brain’s developing for.
Dr. Sarah (43:22):
Which is both frustrating and exhausting as a parent. Like, oh God, I’m going to have to be doing this very intentionally for 26 years. Dang, that’s a long time. But also, it’s very hopeful because it’s like if you’re coming into this information, because like we said at the beginning of this episode, this is all relatively new. Not everybody was informed of this. Yes, when they had their baby was in this sensitive period. It’s encouraging to know that you’ve got a long time to shift, and it definitely has the potential to shift the actual develop brain development of your child. Even if you are listening to this podcast and you have a seven year old, it’s not too late to make a, of course, we’re like, it’s not too late to change, but it’s not too late to make a structural change in your baby’s brain or your child older child’s brain.
Dr. Greer (44:17):
Dr. Sarah (44:19):
It’s good to, it’s encouraging.
Dr. Greer (44:21):
Yes, yes, completely.
Dr. Sarah (44:24):
I love this. So we were talking a little bit about strategy. If apply these approaches, can you briefly mention some of these approach? What would it look like? What are some of the actual things a parent might do that would help?
Dr. Greer (44:44):
Yeah, absolutely. So I think the f I sort to talk about the foundation of nurture is to have what I call a nurtured presence. And it’s hard to define, to have a presence. I remember the first time I heard this where I started as a doula and one of my classmates, I guess someone who I was training with, they were a craniosacral therapist, and I’m like, oh, what’s going on with you? What’s new? And they’re like this, I’m really, really working on developing my presence right now. And I was like, what the heck? I’ve never heard that before, but it’s really important. So our presence is how regulated we are, how able we are to regulate. It’s not about being never stressed out at all. It’s just about being aware of our nervous system and aware of having effort to return to regulation as much as we can and taking care of ourselves, but it’s also a mental stance that we communicate to other people. So for our babies, the presence they need is that they’re seen, accepted, that they matter and are important just the way they are. They don’t need to change to be loved and accepted by us, and that we’re really glad they’re here, that we’re really, really happy that they’re around. I think the older forms of parenting were not so.
Dr. Sarah (46:20):
It’s so funny when you say that last piece, it makes you think of delight, which is a variable. When we measure attachment security, one of the big predictors of attachment security is can a parent delight in their child? And that makes me think of delight from Mary Ainsworth’s work.
Dr. Greer (46:40):
Yes, absolutely. Absolutely. I think it’s so important to show our babies that all the time, and so in my parenting, I tried at least once a day to be in delight of my son and he loves it. We were in the pool the other day and I was just jumping up and down saying sweet things to him, and he’s like, do it again, more jumping. He was like, I love this so sweet. And also allows us as parents in that moment, I was so present, so anchored, so nurturing myself too. Yeah, so much gratitude.
Dr. Sarah (47:25):
There’s such a mutuality there. When we are delighting in our child, by nature of that delight, we are feeling good. It’s not performative. Real delight is delightful for us. It’s delightful. It feels really good. And to be fair, we do not need to delight in your children, and there’s no way we’ll ever delight in our children all the time. It’s like these are states that we move into and out of. We just want to make sure that they exist. Right, exactly. That they’re there. Sometimes probably daily, but not 24/7. That’s not realistic and not necessary either.
Dr. Greer (48:02):
No, no. That’s way too intensive and high pressure, and it just, yeah, not real. Not real.
Dr. Sarah (48:08):
Not delightful. You can’t be delightful 24/7. Nobody can, I don’t care how cute your baby is. No, no. Can’t be delightful all the time.
Dr. Greer (48:15):
It’s always going to be a challenge too. It’ll be challenging times. And so a huge part of that nurturing presence I think, is to also be understanding that our children are going to have huge ranges of emotions all day, every day, and we need to have that accepting presence in all of them, which is quite a lot of asking a lot. It’s asking a lot. We have to do a lot of learning in order to do that because probably many of us were not accepted when we had high stress in our bodies, when we were angry, sad, all of these big emotions that we have so often, we were told, I don’t want to see that. I don’t like that. Go into another room until you’re happy.
Things like that. And so switching that around to really be accepting of everything is really, really important, and they need to know that as well. So that’s a huge one. The next one is what I call nurtured empathy. And so this is helping our children understand their emotions really through empathy, through talking to ’em about their emotions, through linking their emotions to needs and meeting those needs in the literature. This is called reflective functioning or parental reflective functioning. I learned from Aria Dela all of this stuff. So important. So important. And I think both the presence and the empathy, I don’t think many of us received growing up. This is all brand new as well. I think myself and so many of my peers started to understand that we had emotions and we could express ’em probably closer to age 30 at age one or zero. So we’re kind of giving our kids a 30 year headstart to what many of us have, and I do.
Dr. Sarah (50:19):
It’s funny, I feel like some parents instinctively get this. You don’t have to be taught this by a neuroscientist and a psychologist. I do think when I think, and I’m very lucky when I look back at my parents, they were really attuned and I was allowed to have my emotions and they would help me name them when I was a kid, and perhaps that’s one of the reasons I ended up in the field that I am today and why I do think I have very high reflective functioning as a human being. But this isn’t to say that every single person that’s raised by someone of a much later gener earlier generation didn’t get any of this. Yeah. I think that it’s not as, it was not as common.
Dr. Greer (51:09):
It was not as common, and I think would’ve happened in different degrees. It might’ve happened, but it might’ve also been conditional, possibly. There’s all different mixes, right? Yeah.
Dr. Sarah (51:22):
Or it happened from your parents, but not your school teachers, not, you know what I’m saying? I don’t think you’re getting it from all the grownups in your life as a real kind of wide reaching, this is what I can expect from all people, kind of thing.
Dr. Greer (51:38):
Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. Yeah. We’ve had so much more work on how to translate it, how to help out. Yeah. And then, yes, the other parts are the connection part. I mentioned making sure you have undistracted, is that the right word? You know, have no distractions, and you’re intentionally in a back and forth conversation with your baby, and that can put that delight part, put that presence part in there. You want to have presence for that. Just letting your baby lead a conversation. This is brand new to many, many parents that babies can do this and they can do it from a couple hours old sometimes immediately when they’re born. They can mimic facial expressions, respond to sounds, really engage you in a conversation. Babies are really, really born, ready to communicate, and that goes all the way through that zero to three. I think a lot of, there’s a difference between attachment and bonding.
The attachment is baby led, where the baby’s like, I’m making a sound like I’m inviting you in, and you respond and then go back and forth and back and forth. And bonding is parent led where they’re like, I feel like playing with you, so let’s do this, and I’m kind of leading it. So babies do need that baby led back and forth that’s called serve and return. Those great videos people can look up to see that, and then stress, right? We need to be there for their stress. It’s that simple and that hard, as I always quote. I know, right?
Dr. Sarah (53:25):
Yeah. We have a lot of episodes on co-regulation and how to do it, so if people are curious on how do you actually respond to your child’s stress response, I would definitely go check out those episodes. I can link them in the show notes.
Dr. Greer (53:38):
So much work for us to be comfortable, right?
Dr. Sarah (53:42):
It is a lot I, it’s a lot of stuff we have to do. It’s a lot of stuff we have to do with our child. It’s not easy, no question that this nurtured parenting or one of the million other ways we want to describe it, but it is more work. It is, like you said, it’s the long game. It’s labor intensive, it’s emotionally demanding. It requires a lot of sort of work on our end self work and presence work, and it’s not easy. There’s no question. I think parents who recognize that the value of this and commit to showing up and trying their best at it need to recognize that it’s really, it’s hard and it’s worth it. It’s really worth it, but it’s really hard. So I don’t want people to come away from this thinking. The expectation is like, you should be able to do this, and it should be a breeze.
Dr. Greer (54:41):
Dr. Sarah (54:42):
It’s just when you ask parents what they really want for their kids, they say they want them to be happy, healthy, well adjusted, able to enjoy life and relationships, and this is how you really set them up for that. So if that’s what you really want, this might be more important than the piano lessons and the math tutor and all the other enrichment that we invest so heavily in. That’s great. Sure. But I actually think investing in this is more important if you’re going to pick one.
Dr. Greer (55:14):
Yeah, I agree. A million percent. Yeah. I say the exact same thing. Absolutely. Yeah. I also think it’s front loaded work, because when you are nurturing, right? We are bringing them towards resilience wherever they start, like we’ve mentioned. But we probably are avoiding, especially in the baby years, if we’re following as much nurture as we can, we’re probably avoiding a whole bunch of other work later on. The list of that is endless and both financial and time constraints that can come up totally from lower nurturing.
Dr. Sarah (55:59):
Dr. Greer (55:59):
So all parenting is a lot of work. I think it’s just front loading the work in the front, beginning.
Dr. Sarah (56:07):
Yeah, totally. Well, this is a great place to start, I think, and I really encourage anyone who found this stuff exciting, and even if you were like, oh my God, I’m overwhelmed, then go get this book because you explain it well and you break it down and it’s real. You have imagery, pictures, and illustrations that make it easy. This is a great book for parents who are like you. You’ve piqued my interest in why this is so important. So where can they find your book? Where can they get in touch with you if they are interested?
Dr. Greer (56:39):
Yeah, absolutely. My book is available online. I have a link on my website, which is nurtureneuroscience.com, but it’s available in all the online places and ask your local bookstore because great to get that in and support those businesses too. And yeah, you can find me on my website or on my Instagram account, which is Nurture_Neuroscience_Parenting.
Dr. Sarah (57:07):
Amazing. Thank you so much. Thanks for being here.
Dr. Greer (57:10):
Dr. Sarah (57:16):Thanks so much for listening. As Dr. Kirschenbaum and I were just discussing, many of the strategies we can use for creating healthy structures in our children’s brain are also the keys for helping them form a secure attachment, which is a huge factor in lifelong mental wellbeing. If you’re wondering what exactly you can do to help them establish that secure attachment bond, you’re going to want to check out my free guide, The Four Pillars of Fostering Secure Attachment. Parents have a lot on their plate. So in this free guide, I simplify the principles of attachment theory and give you four straightforward things that you can focus on that’s going to make the biggest impact on your child’s development. So just go to drsarahbren.com/secure to download it. I’ll be back for another Beyond the Sessions episode on Thursday. And until then, don’t be a stranger.
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