The Budapest Early Intervention Project (BEIP), a project that examined the health and development of children in Romanian orphanages, found startling evidence that when infants and children are starved of love and affection, their bodies do not grow as they should.
In fact, for every 3 months in an institution, a child loses an average of one month of growth.
One piece of good news from the project is that when children are adopted or fostered from such institutions, growth returns to normal, providing the child is removed before the age of 2. They often quickly adjust emotionally too. After this time, hope is not gone. It merely seems to require more skilled (perhaps experienced) foster or adoptive parents to help the child to adjust.
Much of the reason for this seems to lie in the development of the brain. The brain grows rapidly in the first few years after birth but, contrary to most people’s assumptions, this is not entirely according to a genetic program. The program runs in the context of the child’s environment. If the environment is rich in love, affection, attention and positive emotion, then the brain receives the emotional nourishment it needs and grows according to plan. But where the child doesn’t receive this emotional nourishment, the program runs differently and brain growth in some key areas (as well as whole-body growth) slows down.
There is a wealth of research now accumulating in this area. Some even suggests that a parent’s love can have health effects later in life. This makes sense, especially if part of the brain’s growth is laid down in early infanthood. Thus, the way the child (and eventually, adult) responds to life situations, particularly stressful ones, will be linked with this. It seems like emotional deprivation as an infant can leave the adult less able to deal with stress, like love is the vital nutrient required to build parts of the nervous system.
Some of this research has found that children growing up in poor areas have a higher risk of illnesses like high blood pressure, stroke, or diabetes in later life, which in part is likely linked with knowledge and access to healthier lifestyle choices. But recent research by scientists at the University of British Columbia and Brandeis University in Massachusetts found that, even within such areas, adults who grew up in loving households seemed to buck the trend.
One of the study authors, Gregory Miller, of the University of British Columbia, said, “Those greater risks later in life seems to be offset if the mom paid careful attention to the children’s emotional wellbeing, had time for them, and showed affection and caring.”
Love in early childhood seemed to confer some sort of resistance to these typically lifestyle associated conditions. Love aids the building of healthy biology.
And, of course, we should bear this in mind not only in how we care for our children but in how we treat each other all of the time.
Love and kindness do more for our own selves and for others than we can possibly imagine. As I have written in other blogs (and in my book, ‘Why Kindness is Good for You), kindness is actually good for the heart – an effect facilitated, in part, by the effects of oxytocin (the love hormone).
So with that in mind, I’d like to leave you with one of my favourite quotes. It’s by Mother Theresa. She said, “Spread love everywhere you go. Let no one ever come to you without leaving happier.”
1) Click here for information on the Bucharest Early Intervention Project
2) Click here for a link to the University of British Columbia research.
3) More research on why babies need love can be found in a chapter 10 of my book, ‘Why Kindness is Good for You‘.