A child’s brain is an incredible thing. In the first year of life, the brain doubles in size. By age 3, a child’s brain has reached 80% of its adult size. Synapses form rapidly during this time, creating way more than are needed in the adult brain. Because so much of this growth and development happens quickly after birth, some pediatricians refer to a baby’s first three months as the fourth trimester. After all, babies are incredible sponges, constantly learning from their environment. They’re resilient, but also fragile and need fostering. Which is why it’s strange that our government, support systems, and even parenting styles aren’t built around these facts. Instead, rugged individualism and freedom to parent is the U.S. ethos.
Cochlear implant surgeon at the University of Chicago, Dana Suskind, M.D., thinks this is strange. She has seen firsthand the neurological and developmental needs of children going unmet on a wide scale in the United States. Some parents have to work two jobs and have little time to spend with their baby. Paid parental leave is a luxury rather than a right. And even when it’s offered, taking it is stigmatized.
Too many parents lack the support necessary on a societal level to maintain a home environment conducive to growth. So, she took a hard look at what needs to change, and how we as a country could get there, weaving together the latest science on brain development with stories from diverse families in her new book Parent Nation: Unlocking Every Child's Potential, Fulfilling Society's Promise.
Fatherly recently sat down with Suskind to talk about the brilliance of baby’s brains, and how society can better support these brains through nurturing interactions like cuddling and speaking to a baby and protection from toxic stress.
In Parent Nation, you identify that young kids need nurturing interactions. That makes sense on its face. But why are nurturing interactions so key to neurological development?
The first years of life are critical for healthy brain development. I always think of those first three years of life as an evolutionary gift, because basically humans are born way too early. If our brains and our heads were as big as was needed for us to be as smart and creative as we are as a human species, we wouldn't fit through the mother's pelvis. So the universe made a trade-off where those first years of life are sort of like a fourth or fifth trimester, with the understanding that the completion of this brain will be finished by parents and caregivers.
As the brain increases in size in the first years of life, what neurological growth processes are facilitated by nurturing interactions?
People are born with billions of neurons that are not totally connected. And through nurturing interaction — everything from talking and cooing to cuddling and singing and looking in their eyes — you're helping give the instruction guide for the brain that allows it to understand how it should be wired. In that same way, there's an understanding that the brain will be protected from toxic stress, which is bad for the brain.
In those first three years of life, 85% of the physical brain is developed, and it forms the foundation for all thinking and learning. So, nurturing interaction results in a million new neural connections every second while building the foundation for life and educational trajectory.
How does being under-resourced affect the nurture parents can give their children?
In my work as a pediatric cochlear implant surgeon, I saw big differences in the outcomes of my patients after implantation. Wondering why this was, and more importantly, what I could do about it, I fell into this incredible science that shows how important interactions are during the first years of life. Differences in input are often the beginnings of differences in educational trajectories and are really the root cause of the opportunity gap.
I saw that parents from under-resourced communities faced barriers to having enough interactions with their kids, as well as protecting them from toxic stress. It was never an issue of a lack of love or not wanting what was best for their children. Because at the end of the day, every parent wants to give their children the best possible first start. But society puts hurdle after hurdle in front of parents. Some parents have to work two jobs and have less than 30 minutes a day with their children. Some of the families we work with have issues of the carceral state and parents being forcibly separated from their children.
The barriers are differences of degree, but the fact is that this country makes it incredibly hard on all parents — and almost impossible for some.
What prompted you to apply what you were seeing in your academic work into the broader advocacy that’s at the heart of Parent Nation?
Parenting and building your child's brain doesn't happen in a vacuum. And while we saw all of these different barriers to healthy development over the years, COVID has made it even clearer. COVID has shined a light on just how poor our nation's infrastructure and support for parents — and therefore children — really is. There's a growing recognition of the fact that none of us can parent alone. But in this country, we act like it's a go-it-alone scenario that requires no support.
Which barriers to infant brain development do you see as the most urgent to address? And which ones would be easiest to remove? Because sometimes it’s best to grab for the most attainable fruit rather than the highest quality one that may not be possible to reach.
Building a society that actually values the labor of love required to raise the next generation isn't just a policy play. Every sector of society has a role to play. We need policymakers, employers, healthcare providers, and parents themselves to all step up and contribute. And while there are a lot of policy changes that I hope will happen, paid family and medical leave have enough bipartisan support to be attainable. The United States is one of the only developed nations that doesn’t provide this support for parents.
What kinds of freedoms or options does something like paid parental leave open up for parents?
In the United States, parenting is sacrosanct. We don't want anybody else telling us how to parent our kids. With that being said, I don't think people realize that in this vacuum of support, instead of giving parents options, it actually gives no one options. For Parent Nation, I talked to parents from all different backgrounds. Some wanted to be stay-at-home moms but had to work to help support their families. Other parents were forced to leave the workforce because they couldn't afford childcare. Here we had two theoretically opposite ends of the spectrum of how people want to raise their children, and neither could make their desired choice.
Increasing societal support broadens the opportunity for parents to parent and raise the next generation in the way they see best. So when you ask about paid leave, the fact that one in four mothers go back to work within two weeks of giving birth, or the fact that less than 5% of fathers are able or do take paid leave, you see most people don't have choices. I don't think paid leave should be ideological where you get a year of paid leave and everybody has to take it. But you should have the option to take it.
Earlier you pointed out that building a society that supports parents requires effort from different sectors. This sounds like a place where employers can help create more options for parents.
Yes. So many fathers say that they have wished that they had more time with their children. But even if they're provided paid family and medical leave, they often don't take it because there’s a stigma attached to actually utilizing the benefit. So this is a point where it's not just about having a needed policy but also shifting the norm.
How does all of this come together? What do you see as the path toward building a parent nation?
The truth is, we as a country are capable of sweeping, positive change. We just have to strategically bring together all of our voices instead of hammering away in different silos. That's why I think using neuroscience and using the lens of child development to see the entirety of a just society can be so powerful. Because otherwise, if you just focus on it from the parent or the labor issue, you miss out on what children need. When you look at all the gender equity and civil rights issues separated from the nexus of our future generation, you don't get the entirety of what needs to happen.
What we can do now is look at how half a century ago, the poorest, most underserved and politically voiceless segment of society was the elderly. And through the work of the AARP, which really brought their voices together, now no age demographic is better cared for. Their poverty rates fell by 70%. They continue to make gains, and they are unified across the political spectrum by focusing on the things that help all of them.
I think parents and caregivers can be that for each other if they start elevating their expectations and finding their collective voice. Because right now, when we think about parents, we don't think about a unified coalition. And that's why lawmakers and society haven't felt like they need to answer to us and make the necessary changes in society. But I'm hoping this changes, and that parents can find a unified voice to get our lawmakers and employers to support families.