Detained Children: Part IV

Jul 16, 2018

Interruptions in Nursing and Bonding During Early Development

In this fourth contribution prepared by clinical faculty members who specialize in early development of young children, the effects of disruption and separation in infants and toddlers are discussed.

Emily Zeman, OTD MS, OTR/L, Department of Occupational Therapy
and Lesley Maxwell, MS, CCC-SLP, Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders

Regarding the news of infants being torn away from their nursing mothers, and family separation in general:

An infant's development is dependent on the information they obtain from the environment. Infants and newborns rely heavily on oral-motor, scent, taste, and touch sensory experiences in the context of the parent-infant and family bonds and daily routines in all environments. A sudden change in the social and physical context, accompanied by negative experiences, may interfere with typical developmental trajectory.

Overstimulated, neglected, and abused infants, resulting from sudden family separation, may present with negative behavioral traits later in development (Cronin & Mandich, 2016). A sudden removal of the nursing or caregiving parent may significantly endanger the rich environmental context of the parent-child bond, ideal for stimulating neuronal connections and supporting healthy socio-emotional development. Such separation becomes an adverse childhood experience (ACE). As infants are dependent, high quality and positive child-parent interactions are vital for healthy socioemotional development and a sense of security.

Infants require attentive parental attention and presence to ensure safety and adherence to a feeding schedule that promotes physical growth and typical attachment bonding patterns, all setting the stage for successful emotional development. However, the stressful and sudden removal of a parent or parents from an infant may trigger an association of new feeding routines or format (to bottle), with strangers, as traumatic, and thus, not a positive experience. Feeding and eating routines, as disrupted, may then alter not only the bonding process, but the infants typical progression in feeding milestones and expectations for nourishment.

All of this could lead to failure to thrive, a myriad of health concerns, and changed emotional affect in the child. Even with return to parents at some point in the future, the infant will be forever changed by the stress caused by the separation.


Young Develop in an Environment of Relationships

“An 'environment of relationships' is crucial for the development of a child’s brain architecture, which lays the foundation for later outcomes such as academic performance, mental health, and interpersonal skills. However, many of our nation’s policies fail to consider the importance of adult-child relationships for child well-being. This working paper from the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child explains how these relationships shape child development, and identifies ways to strengthen policies that affect those relationships in the early childhood years.”
National Scientific Council on the Developing Child: Young Children Develop in an Environment of Relationships: Working Paper No. 1.

The Science of Neglect

"Young children who experience severe deprivation or neglect can experience a range of negative consequences. Neglect can delay brain development, impair executive function skills, and disrupt the body’s stress response. This working paper from the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child explains why neglect is so harmful in the earliest years of life, and why effective interventions can improve long-term outcomes in learning, health, and the parenting of 'the next generation.'"
Harvard University Center on the Developing Child: The Science of Neglect: The Persistent Absence of Responsive Care Disrupts the Developing Brain: Working Paper No. 12. 

Toxic Stress

“Toxic stress response can occur when a child experiences strong, frequent, and/or prolonged adversity—such as physical or emotional abuse, chronic neglect, caregiver substance abuse or mental illness, exposure to violence, and/or the accumulated burdens of family economic hardship—without adequate adult support. This kind of prolonged activation of the stress response systems can disrupt the development of brain architecture and other organ systems, and increase the risk for stress-related disease and cognitive impairment, well into the adult years. When toxic stress response occurs continually, or is triggered by multiple sources, it can have a cumulative toll on an individual’s physical and mental health—for a lifetime. The more adverse experiences in childhood, the greater the likelihood of developmental delays and later health problems, including heart disease, diabetes, substance abuse, and depression. Research also indicates that supportive, responsive relationships with caring adults as early in life as possible can prevent or reverse the damaging effects of toxic stress response.”
Toxic Stress. Harvard University Center on the Developing Child.

The Importance of Serve and Return Between Parent and Child

“Because responsive relationships are both expected and essential, their absence is a serious threat to a child’s development and well-being. Healthy brain architecture depends on a sturdy foundation built by appropriate input from a child’s senses and stable, responsive relationships with caring adults. If an adult’s responses to a child are unreliable, inappropriate, or simply absent, the developing architecture of the brain may be disrupted, and subsequent physical, mental, and emotional health may be impaired. The persistent absence of serve and return interaction acts as a 'double whammy' for healthy development: not only does the brain not receive the positive stimulation it needs, but the body’s stress response is activated, flooding the developing brain with potentially harmful stress hormones.”
Serve and Return. Harvard University Center on the Developing Child.

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