Section 1, Article 3 - While biological and genetic factors are important, a child’s development is also affected by the environment in which they are raised. Three environmental factors to consider are sleep, nutrition, and stress. Newborn babies are not physiologically capable of sleeping for long periods of time. Most infants are not born with an established sleep-wake cycle. Frequent need for feeding is another factor. Most children begin to settle into a routine within about 10-12 weeks in which they sleep more at night than during the day (). On average, a newborn sleeps 15-17 hours each day for one to three hours at a time (Berger, 2014). The amount of sleep required decreases very quickly; by the time a child is six months old they may need just over 12 hours (). Of course there is wide variation in sleep patterns. Some newborns (one in twenty) sleeps nine hours or less each day; others (also one in twenty) reportedly sleep 19 or more hours each day ().
Beliefs about what is the best sleeping option for a baby has strong cultural roots. Some cultures overwhelmingly opt for separation during sleep (Europe and North America) while other cultures tend to choose some form of co-sleeping (Africa, Asia, Central and South America). The American Academy of Pediatrics strongly recommends that parents NOT share a bed with their baby because of the risk of suffocation or SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome). It is interesting to note, however, that cultures where bed-sharing is routinely practiced typically have lower rates of SIDS (; ; ). For all cultures, there are specific conditions under which bed-sharing should never be practiced. If a parent is under the influence of drugs or alcohol, or if the mother is a smoker ().
One of the questions young parents must answer very soon after birth is whether their baby will be breastfed or bottle fed? Although controversy seems a part of every decision related to the care and development of newborns, this is one area where most experts agree. Breastfeeding is the clear winner. The benefits to both Mom, baby, and the family are many ().
Developmental research reveals that babies do experience stress, and that the impact can be long-lasting. What are the things that might cause stress to an infant? Essentially, many of the same things that are stressful to an adult are also stressful for infants: maltreatment, deprivation, abuse, and neglect are unfortunately stressors that impact humans of all ages. Humans have an inborn system for dealing with stress. Located deep in the brain, the limbic system functions as the body’s first responder to stress. It controls the “fight or flight” mechanism we are all born with. The limbic system is activated when the body senses a stressful event (sees, hears, tastes, touches, or smells something stressful). The sight of a lunging dog, the sound of an explosion, feeling pain, or smelling smoke might all set off the limbic system. One of the many things the body does to facilitate its own defense in a stressful situation is to release cortisol. This is helpful when a true danger exists, but damaging when released in excessive amounts or over a long period of time.
An infant’s brain is particularly vulnerable. Excessive cortisol may impact structural growth, may create a decreased ability to respond to stress throughout the lifespan, and may even result in PTSD, depression, and other mental health issues later in life ().
Stress may also impact the process of bonding/attachment (; ). While this information is sobering for new parents to consider, it is comforting to know that humans enjoy an in-born benefit called self-righting. This is a mechanism that allows the child to overcome deficits that may occur in their environment. If a child is exposed to infrequent stressors, it is not likely to have a long-term damaging impact on his or her development.