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How Nurturing Babies Cultivates Empathy

Sue Gerhardt, author of "Why Love Matters", illustrates the important connection between nurturing infants and the development of empathy.

By Erika MacLeod

Erika is a graduate of George Washington University with an M.A. in Global Communication. At GWU, Erika served as the communications and web manager for the Center for Civic Engagement and Public Service. During her high school years and undergraduate degree, Erika was invested in increasing accessibility of low-cost music lessons to local school children. While with the Ashoka USA and Empathy Initiative teams from 2012-2013, Erika used her communications skills and interests to contribute to fundraising initiatives, writing and online media.

November 8, 2012

Editor's Note: Erika had the opportunity to interview Sue Gerhardt, a British psychoanalytic psychotherapist and author of Why Love Matters: How Affection Shapes a Baby's Brain, as she shared her insights into how nurturing infants can positively impact their social, emotional and psychological well-being later in life.

How did you become interested in the importance of love and its development in infants?

Everyone’s interested in love! But I didn’t realise just how important our earliest experiences are until I studied early development and was trained in observing babies. I spent two years visiting two babies on a weekly basis just watching them grow. It soon became pretty obvious that the way they were being handled and responded to had a big impact on how they developed. One mum seemed to enjoy responding to her baby most of the time and spent a lot of time playing and chatting with her; the other made negative comments about her baby, left him alone a lot, and when she was feeding him was doing something else like making a phone call. The end results were predictable.

For someone who is not science-minded, can you explain how development during infanthood is so important for our emotional well-being later in life?

During infancy is when all sorts of emotional programmes are being set up – especially the brain systems that manage how we deal with stress, how we soothe ourselves, how much support we expect from the people close to us.  The brain is growing incredibly fast and is more open to influence during this time than ever again.

Why do you think empathy is important for children to develop?

Empathy is one of our highest human skills and holds families and societies together.  Feeling connected to other people is probably the deepest satisfaction we will ever know. How terrible for children who are being brought up without that capacity – and how risky for the future of the planet. I talk about some of these bigger issues in my book The Selfish Society: How We Forgot to Love Each Other and Made Money Instead (Simon and Schuster 2010).

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At what point do you think children who have been nurtured at a young age are able to behave with a spirit of empathy?

I think we’re all born with an ability to resonate with other people’s feelings, probably generated by our mirror neurons. A lot of this happens instinctively. We connect with people through our body language. We often let them know that we ‘get’ their feelings by matching their emotions in our own behaviour. For example, if someone walks slowly into a room looking sad, I might adjust my voice to a gentler, lower tone more in tune with his sad feeling.

Full-blown empathy builds on these non-verbal abilities but uses the higher levels of the brain to reach a more complex level of understanding about other people’s feelings. I doubt if this kind of empathy can happen until two things have developed:  first, a child needs to achieve some awareness of his own emotions as well as being able to manage and not get overwhelmed by them. Second, a child needs to have built up a mental library of personal memories and emotional experiences – then he can draw on them to imagine what someone else is feeling.  True empathy, I believe, involves a kind of juggling act – balancing an appreciation of the complexities of someone else’s experience and feeling with them, without losing your own sense of self.

How important is an infant’s environment in fostering social and emotional sensitivity? 

It’s all-important. We learn how to relate to others from direct experience with other people, not from books or even conversations. Emotional life is in some ways a very practical matter of coordinating ourselves with other people and learning to “read” their emotions so we can predict their behaviour. Every baby is a sponge unconsciously soaking up “how things are done” in this family or social group. In my work as a psychotherapist I have seen many, many people who have ended up treating themselves as they were treated by those important people in their early lives.

What kinds of things can parents do to develop the social and emotional brain systems of their newborns?

Parents can stimulate the parts of the brain that are active in social and emotional life – this helps those brain areas to connect up and develop. All pleasurable social give-and-take through games, fun and chat – as well as pleasurable emotional connection through touch and eye contact and talk about emotion – will build the social brain.

Basically, babies (and their brains) model themselves on us and how we do things as adults and parents. If you want a child who is comfortable with his feelings, you need to be interested in them and supportive of them. If you want a child with good self-control, you need to demonstrate it yourself.

My top tips for new parents would be: make your baby’s world manageable for him or her – pay attention to your baby’s feelings and acknowledge them, and give your baby lots of body contact. But above all, if you had a difficult start in life yourself and find it hard to relate to your baby – get expert help and support. It can make a big difference.

What can readers expect to gain through reading your book?

In Why Love Matters, I set out to make the complexities of neuroscience simple to understand using everyday language. My book uses in-depth scientific research to demonstrate something that doesn’t sound very scientific: why love and affection are central to our lives and our successful development. It shows how our earliest relationships shape the nervous system and lay the foundations of our future emotional life. It helps us understand the links between early stress in babyhood and the various ways this can play out in later life – with the development of conditions like anorexia, addiction, depression, personality disorders and antisocial behaviour. Many readers have written to let me know that this book has really helped them to make sense of their mental health difficulties, whilst others have contacted me to say how helpful it has been to them as new parents.