She doesn’t even know my name, but Eden Snell lights up my life. Born to Pastor Nick and his wife Deanne, who happens to be my office manager, she’s the newest addition to the REACH church plant here in Philadelphia. The juxtaposition of Eden’s baby chub against her mother’s über-slender build makes me think of the little chub-a-lubs I once toted around. People asked if Alison stored oranges in her cheeks; they called Kimmy the Michelin tire baby. I wasn’t insulted in the least, because babies should be chubby. They’re so small! It only takes one prolonged fever to reduce them by one-third. God packs on the pounds to help them start strong.
In preparation for a sequel to my last book, I’ve been studying bonding—human relationships. Specifically this week I’ve studied the mysterious and sobering topic of attachment, particularly attachment early in life and how it impacts the entire life span. I have realized as never before how essential it is to love babies. In His plan, God packs on the pounds in more ways than one. In those early years, He provides emotional calories to the tiny members of the human family as a means of literally building their brains, and to a greater or less extent, their futures.
In the mid 1900s, attachment theory revolutionized the field of psychology, which theretofore had tended to short-change the issue of intimate bonds formation. Now the importance and long-term effect of bonding in childhood became better known. We saw that in the first three years of life in particular, the attachment of infant to mother “provides the working framework for all subsequent relationships that the child will develop.” Attachment theory author John Bowlby studied World War II orphans and noticed the social and cognitive problems they manifested as a result of lack of this infant bonding. He learned that a child must develop a relationship with at least one primary caregiver for social and emotional development to occur normally. Neuroscience has since shown actual black holes in brain tissue that develop as a result of lack of touch stimulation in infancy. The loving interaction of the child with the caregiver literally grows the relational genius of the brain, the pre-frontal cortex, from almost nothing in infancy to a vibrant mass of sizzling connections in adulthood. The healthy growth of this part of the brain is not automatic—it requires a rich and stimulating environment. Affection shown to baby releases growth hormones that swell the brain to its true capacity. Subtract that affection and the brain remains a shadow of its potential.
The effects of deprivation cover a devastating spectrum that features on one end difficulty trusting, lack of empathy, and poor impulse control, to, on the extreme end, serious developmental delays and even sociopathy. One expert said, “Children without touch, stimulation, and nurturing can literally lose the capacity to form any meaningful relationships for the rest of their lives.” It’s no wonder Ellen White said, “The first three years is the time in which to bend the tiny twig. Mothers should understand the importance attaching to this period. It is then that the foundation is laid.
Think about it. Why else did God make babies squeezably soft and cute? Why else did He program into mother a flood of post-partum oxytocin, adding more to mother’s milk to help the love flow both ways? My titular imperative “Love Babies” seems unnecessary given that it’s hard not to. But even the powerful momentum built into nature can be interrupted by addiction, abuse, mental illness, and just plain sin.
Right about now you may be palpating your skull for evidence of black holes. You may be reflecting on the lack of childhood nurture and bonding that perhaps delivered you to where you are today—someone who struggles with relationships. You might connect the dots between home of origin love-deficiency and your own character deficits, but find that your set of crayons just can’t color in the gaps. I want to inject a little hope. The shadows exist because of light. Every sad consequence of a violated design reveals a Designer. And we have a merciful Designer, a resourceful Designer. He can rebuild our brains and show us how to love. Begin with Him, because learning to trust Him who is 100 percent trustworthy is the best place to start.
Go now. Pray as He taught us to pray, “Our Father which art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name.” This can be paraphrased, “Loving Father, you’re different than anyone I’ve ever known.” Let your connection to God become a new beginning. It’s no mystery that Jesus described this as being “born again.” Could it be that He will re-parent those of us who didn’t have Eden (the garden or the baby)? Could it be that He can fill in the black holes with His own luminous love? Could it be that He knows how to love babies?
Jennifer Jill Schwirzer is a practicing mental health counselor, author, and musician based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.