Behind the Blank Slate

“Let us then suppose the mind to be, as we say, white paper void of all characters, without any ideas. How comes it to be furnished?” (John Locke, 1690)

Watching that tiny, wise face, it is hard to believe that there was once a time when we thought of babies as ‘blank slates’ – little packages of nothingness ready to soak up experience only from birth. We now know that babies are learning almost from the moment of conception (as I touched upon here), using the information they receive in the womb to adapt to the world they are being born into.

Not only that, but the growing body of epigenetic research is proving the nature vs nurture debate is much more complicated than we ever thought, and changing the way we think about health and personality. This has shown us that the interaction between genes and environment is twofold – not only that the environment can influence the way genes are ‘switched on’ (or not), but also that our grandparents’ and even greatgrandparents’ environment may influence us now. (Here is a rather scary study linking asthma to grandparents’ nicotine ingestion….in rats, and here is a great article about epigenetic research findings – especially the last section). (Oh, and here is one to add to guilt about chocolate eating during pregnancy, as it turns out diet even before pregnancy can impact on our kids. Great).

And let’s add to that all that your baby brings to the equation. We talk a lot nowadays about parenting, but what about temperament? Spend time with enough newborns and it becomes clear that, far from being blank slates, these little bundles are a myriad of differing desires, emotions and expressions. While one baby can happily pass an hour staring at a shadow on a wall, another may go through the whole gamut of experience from exuberant joy to existential crisis in the same time. Thomas, Chess and Birch’s classic study, published in 1968, identified nine ‘characteristics’ of temperament, each of which exists on a continuum. While there is still disagreement about the amount and description of temperamental characteristics, and some researchers suggest its still just all about nurture (let’s go back to womb environment for one explanation), it’s worthwhile taking a look and thinking about where your baby might fit on such a continuum (have a look on p4 here). With dimensions including regularity (how much or little a child has a natural routine) and sensory threshold (how sensitive a child is to stimuli like noise, taste, touch), if nothing else it can be reassuring to see how little control we may have over our babies’ sleeping, eating and mood.

So behind that peachy smooth skin, along with the usual blood and organs and the like, is a veritable jumble of DNA, genetic history, social experience, temperamental characteristics, and oh so much more.

And yet.

When that tiny mouth emits a tiny squawk, it can be hard to remember that this really is a little person with a mind of their own. It can be easy to change a nappy without making eye contact (let alone thinking about whether that mat is a bit cold on their skin), to pass them around like a grizzly parcel, to tune out cries that have been going on a bit too long for your liking. But now we’re back to the nurture thing, because although your baby is bringing a whole host of things to your relationship, it’s up to you (and those around you) to determine how those things are managed, shaped and, well, nurtured. While later on your baby will become more and more able to communicate their experience, even now there are a whole range of tiny cues that can let you know when they are happy or sad, overstimulated or bored. And, yes, the way you respond to those experiences now will influence how, and whether, they learn to communicate them.

In talking about temperament, an important phrase is ‘goodness of fit’. That is, the compatibility of your child’s temperament to the family environment they land in. You can go back to that continuum of temperamental characteristics and have a think about where you sit to get some idea of this compatibility (a bit like those starsign romance predictions, is your baby the stormy Scorpio to your orderly Virgo?). Thomas, Chess and Birch summarised their findings by describing babies as easy, difficult or slow-to-warm-up – but actually one person’s ‘difficult’ may be another’s ‘exciting’. Thinking about where you and your baby might converge, and collide, can give you some clues about why you might find certain aspects of parenting particularly challenging. And that can make it that little bit easier to think about how to smooth the way for the aspects of your baby’s temperament which might cause them distress. For example, knowing that your baby seems particularly sensitive to noise may make the difference between you enjoying that Sunday pub lunch after a gradual entry, and you standing outside with a howling bag of nerves.

Anything else that could make it easier to read these little mysteries? In my last post, I talked about attachment and the importance of a ‘primary caregiver’. To take it a step further, attachment research since then, in looking at what determines a secure attachment, has focused on parental responses. It may seem obvious but actually just responding is a pretty good first step, and one which is often discouraged in our culture with its fear of ‘spoiling’ a baby. You can see how distressing it can be for a baby to be faced with a blank response by watching the still-face experiment.

But, it’s not just responding that’s important (“What? You mean a clean nappy and a full belly really isn’t enough??!”). The quality and type of response is important too. Here’s a bit of theory. The fantastically named DeWolff and van IJzendoorn (1997), collated 66 studies and found that sensitivity (responding efficiently to a baby’s signals) was an important (although not exclusive) precursor to secure attachment.  More recently, researchers have also explored particular types of response which might promote a secure attachment, such as the level of engagement a parent shows in an interaction with their baby, and the insight a parent might have into their baby’s inner world.

But the one I like the most, coined by Elizabeth Meins, is mind-mindedness. She found that babies with mothers who were able to make accurate interpretations of their infants’ mental states were more likely to be securely attached. In other words, getting right into the messy little head of your baby can only bring you closer. The importance of parental mind-mindedness in helping children understand both their own minds and the minds of others has influenced a whole body of psychological research and practice (you can read more if you fancy Googling Peter Fonagy and Mary Target, or you can have a scan through this).

And, going back to the nature/nurture thing, what’s even more incredible is that those responses can hugely influence the way our babies develop. Let’s take the concept of mirroring. You know that little thing you do when your baby starts to grizzle and you frown, turn down your mouth, hunch your shoulders? Or you catch a smile starting at your baby’s lips and realise you are grinning ear to ear and waggling your head around? Well, not only are you letting your baby know you understand how he or she feels, you’re also laying down the groundwork for them to understand and regulate their own emotions. And not only that, but those responses can even affect the way your baby’s brain develops. I know you’ve probably had enough theory by now but Sue Gerhardt’s ‘Why Love Matters’ and Margot Sunderland’s ‘The Science of Parenting’ are both fascinating books exploring just this.

So now you’re supposed to not only feed, clothe, clean and soothe your baby, you’ve also got to assess their temperament, read their cues accurately, get into their heads and influence their frigging BRAINS???!

Well, the beauty of it is you’re most likely doing it all already. Have a think about it next time you’re having a chat with your baby. How do you know they are ready to chat, want a bit more or have had enough? And take a deep breath and tune into that invisible cord we talked about last time. It isn’t long since you and your baby were physically connected, and when you quiet all the voices telling you differently, it’s not so hard to get into the mind of that wise little soul. Of course you’ll get it wrong sometimes. I mean, you’re not a bloody mind reader.