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Children's Needs

by Catherine H. Myers

Children have essential needs for nurturing care and time with their parents. Unfortunately, many aspects of mainstream culture create barriers to meeting children’s needs. Scientific studies are providing abundant proof of children’s needs—but it is difficult to change cultural practices, attitudes and policies.

“Nothing is more important in the world today than the nurturing that children receive in the first three years of life, for it is in these earliest years that the capacities for trust, empathy, and affection originate,” said Dr. Elliott Barker in the mid-1980s. Dr. Barker came to his understanding of the importance of nurturing in early childhood through his experiences as a psychiatrist interviewing criminal psychopaths. He is the founder of the Canadian Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.1

In 1997, at a White House Conference on Infant and Child Development, none of the assembled experts answered the President's question: "What specific types of experiences are most important and how much of each of them is necessary?" In 2000, renowned children's doctors and researchers T. Berry Brazelton and Stanley I. Greenspan responded with their book, The Irreducible Needs of Children: What Every Child Must Have to Grow, Learn and Flourish. The first of the seven needs described by Brazelton and Greenspan—the need for ongoing, nurturing relationships—has enormous effects on emotional, social, cognitive and physical development.2

Brazelton and Greenspan point to nurturing's essential role in human evolution: "We often associate human evolution with survival of the fittest, species competing with one another for survival. However, there is another trend, one that doesn't often get associated with evolution per se, but may be a very important component of our development as human beings. This aspect of evolution has to do with the human being's capacity to form families and co-operate in larger social organizations. ...Advanced societies, in order to compete economically and militarily and through stable government structures, require nurturing care for the children who will become the adults. In essence behind the competitive advantage in evolution, lies nurturing care."3 (For more on nurturing and evolution, please see the 2004 book by Dr. Greenspan and philosopher Stuart G. Shanker, The First Idea: How Symbols, Language, and Intelligence Evolved from our Primate Ancestors to Modern Humans.)4

A huge and rapidly growing body of scientific evidence documents the importance of the first three years of life, and the significance of the quality of the intimate, two-way communicative relationship between mother and infant. Large-scale population studies led by Vincent A. Felitti, M.D. and Robert F. Anda, M.D. show that adverse experiences in childhood are associated with serious mental and physical health problems in adulthood.5

Researchers' empirical evidence shows the influence of the mother-infant relationship on mental and physiological traits in the infant.6 Here are a few examples of this research:

  • By observing the behavior of mothers interacting with their six-month-old infants, researchers can predict children’s aggressive behavior at age two-and-a-half.7
  • Maternal behavior affects the expression of genes in the infant: although it was once thought that infants were born with a certain temperament, recent research shows that a mother’s behavior can influence her child’s temperament.8
  • A mother’s behavior has a strong influence on an infant’s physiological response to stress and novelty. Our bodies' response to stress (heart rate and respiration) is not set at birth, but it settles into a life-long pattern by the age of one year.9

Researchers’ understandings are moving from a view of temperament as inborn and relatively stable to a view of temperament as much more fluid, influenced in utero by mother’s biological state, shaped by the experience of intimate relationships and subject to change throughout early childhood. And studies of the interactions between children’s genes and parenting have demonstrated that some children’s genetic inheritance makes them more susceptible to the behavior of their parents. This higher sensitivity can turn out to be beneficial, or it can be harmful, depending on the quality of the parenting the child receives. This research also helps to explain some confusing results from prior research: some children manage to develop into reasonably health adults in spite of their parents' poor behavior, while other children develop serious problems. Researchers speculate that high susceptibility to parental influence is an evolutionary advantage to societies, so that some people are quicker to adapt their behavior while the majority is less easily influenced.10

In 1977, psychologists Andrew Meltzoff and M. Keith Moore described neonates’ imitation of facial expressions.11  Since then, many researchers have gathered evidence of a wide range of imitative behaviors carried out by infants and young children. But it wasn’t until the 1990s that researchers discovered a system of interconnected neurons involved in imitation. First discovered in monkeys, mirror neurons in humans have now been examined with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) technology. Mirror neurons are found in the inferior frontal cortex, the insula and the amygdala. The mirror neuron system has been shown to help people imitate the actions of others and to understand others’ feelings; this system is also involved in the ability to understand the actions of others and to predict the intentions of others. The mirror neuron system is a likely explanation of the physiological mechanism involved in infant’s imitative behavior, including imitation involved in the development of language and empathy.12

The human capacity to conceptualize abstract and complex thoughts, and to relate to others with empathy only develops fully if an infant is given adequate nurturing.  What exactly is “adequate” – and what does “nurturing” mean? One way to understand the need for adequate nurturing is to observe what happens when there is a lack of nurturing. Scientists studying the effects of too-little nurturing are illuminating the need for this hard-to-observe, hard-to-measure, hard even to define, element of our humanity.  

Robert Sapolsky, drawing on his decades of experience researching stress, says, “Something roughly akin to love is needed for proper biological development, and its absence is among the most aching, distorting stressors that we can suffer.”13

Developmental scientist Hanus Papousek, analyzing fractions of seconds of mother-infant interaction captured on videotapes, documented intricate emotional exchanges that operated at parents’ subconscious levels. These mother-infant communications, which Hanus and Mechthild Papousek called “intuitive parenting,” included elements of play and music. They theorized that these behaviors were selected through evolution, aiming “not only at the hygienic, autonomic, and emotional needs of infants, but also at the needs to be together with someone, to share experience, to acquire adequate means of communication, and to create novel symbols—needs that seldom appear in the literature on children.” Another term the Papouseks use in describing mother-infant behavior is “intimate, two-way communicative musicality.”14

Human infants are born with the “expectation of being loved and lovingly cared for” writes psychoanalyst Elisabeth Young-Bruehl. She notes the Japanese word amae, “the expectation to be sweetly and indulgently loved” and suggests as the closest English equivalent the phrase “the need for cherishment.”  Denying this need "in children and in ourselves as adults who continue to feel that elemental need" leads to what Young-Bruehl terms "childism," a violation of human rights.15

As Drs. Brazelton and Greenspan assert, meeting children's need for “ongoing nurturing relationships,” is essential “to build capacities for trust, empathy, and compassion.” Greenspan writes, “… we can't experience the consistency and intimacy of ongoing love unless we've had that experience with someone in our lives. …This basic feature of caring relationships between a baby and a caregiver who really knows her over the long haul is responsible for a surprisingly large number of vital mental capacities. The interactions that are necessary [to regulate behavior, moods, feelings, and intellectual development] can take place in full measure only with a loving caregiver who has lots of time to devote to a child.”

Brazelton and Greenspan note that spending time together benefits not only infants, but parents too. Parents need time to learn about their infants, and as they learn they gain confidence in their own abilities. Acknowledging that non-parental care may be highly desirable or absolutely necessary in some circumstances, the doctors insist, "In the first three years, every child needs one or two primary caregivers who remain in a steady, intimate relationship with that child." And concerning daycare the doctors say, "We do not recommend full-time day care, 30 or more hours of care [per week] by nonparents, for infants and toddlers if the parents are able to provide high-quality care themselves and if the parents have reasonable options." Brazelton and Greenspan express confidence in parents' ability to make good decisions about time and caregiving, once they have reliable information about children's needs.

Looking at the big picture and citing the urgent need for international cooperation and interdependency across national boundaries, the doctors remind us that "in order to protect the future for one child, we must protect it for all." As they point out, "Only secure, well-nurtured individuals are capable of joining together and embracing a broader ethic of shared humanity."16

Love, cherishment and intimate two-way communication are essential elements of intimate, nurturing relationships. In order to establish and maintain these relationships, parents and infants need generous amounts of time together.


© by Catherine H. Myers