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Raising babies

Photograph of baby by Rebecca LawsonPhotograph of baby by Rebecca Lawson

In summary:

  • Professors Cathrine Fowler and Maralyn Foureur of UTS Nursing, Midwifery and Health explore how pram designs impact babies' development

“Parents often say to me, ‘I wish babies came with a manual!’ Well, they do! They are the manual,” says Professor Cathrine Fowler. “You just need to understand how to read their body language and the signals they send their parents. Children’s brains are sculpted by the experiences they have; it’s not just nature, it really is nurture as well.”

Fowler and her colleague, Professor Maralyn Foureur from UTS’s Faculty of Nursing, Midwifery and Health, have been involved in essential research over the last few decades. Together they’re providing would-be parents and the early-childhood community with a deeper understanding of the lasting effects of periconception, pregnancy and birth experiences, as well as a child’s first-year of development. 

“There is now so much more knowledge about the early years, including those in utero, and their importance. These early stages really do influence a child’s wellbeing,” says Fowler.

For this reason, Fowler and Foureur believe now, more than ever, is the right time for this month’s UTSpeaks public lecture on how to raise babies.

The core of Fowler and Foureur’s discussion focuses on the need for parents, especially new parents, to learn from the available research about pregnancy and parenting. “Much of my nursing and research career has been about supporting parents as they learn about their children,” Fowler says.

Research shows that a fetus is sensitive to its mother’s stress from the moment it is conceived. “The critical issue is that too much stress in childbearing women potentially affects every cell of their developing baby. We are now becoming increasingly aware that too much stress can even switch on and off parts of the human genome,” explains Foureur.

“Emotions are translated into chemical messages that flood the mother’s body and brain, and in turn the baby’s. If the mother is stressed, anxious, frightened, depressed – or relaxed and happy – those emotions are also experienced by the baby.”

While this new research seems to prove parenting begins before the baby is even born, Fowler believes a new approach to parenting post-birth is also needed. She explains parents need to become more sensitive to a baby’s perspective and tailor their parenting approach to this.

“We often parent for ourselves and not for our children,” she says. “The experiences we give them are often for us. They don’t need to be rushed around on overseas trips or to the zoo or theme parks. They still haven’t experienced normal life; what they really need is to go down to the local park and inspect the leaves or watch the clouds.”

Fowler continues, “My concern is that in not considering our baby’s perspective we are inadvertently quite cruel to children. In the first year of life, babies learn to regulate their emotions by looking at their parents’ face, but we have adopted behaviours that stop them doing this. For example, outward facing baby carriers and prams. These give babies a bombardment of stimulus while also cutting off their means to process things, creating an incredibly stressful situation for a baby.” 

However, Fowler also believes first-time parents spend so much of the first year trying to get everything right, they often make things far more complicated than they need to be.

“We all make errors,” she says. “Mothers need to realise it’s important not to be perfect, because that in itself would be imperfect. This really is an important concept. Often, the most important thing we can teach our children is how to foster relationships and how to repair them. If a child learns these skills, all other achievements will follow.”

UTSpeaks: Raising babies was held on 23 August. Read more about the event.

Or read Fowler's article on The Conversation responding to recent media coverage of the research.

Rebecca Lawson
Marketing and Communication Unit

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