baby brain diaper changing

How Diaper Changing Affects Babies’ Brains

Babies’ brains grow more rapidly during the period of life during which they need their diapers changed than will ever be the case again. Approximately 1000 synaptic connections are formed every second during this period. Astounding. And it is the emotional experiences that babies have over and over again that build the most robust neural pathways.

Diaper changing is undoubtedly an activity that babies encounter repeatedly. Indeed, over just the first six months, there are approximately 10 changes per day, each lasting, say, 5 minutes. That’s 9000 minutes or 540,000 seconds, and thus half a billion synapses.

So diaper changing isn’t quite as inconsequential as we might at first have thought. It has an impact on babies’ brain development. More specifically, the emotional experiences that caretakers give babies whilst changing their nappies are being built into babies’ brains.

 

Babies are born with a connected brain. That means they are already aware of and attuned to and reading other people’s emotions, facial expressions and behaviour. Babies learn about themselves by the way we treat them.

This includes the way we treat them during activities as ‘inconsequential’ as diaper changing. If we react often enough to babies’ bodies with disgust, then they start to see themselves as disgusting.

It is fascinating to realise that we can build a sense of shame into our child’s brain by the way we treat them during diaper changing. As parents, we can do that without ever realizing or intending to. And modern society makes it more, not less, likely that we will do just that.

Screen Shot 2016-04-18 at 11.09.21What’s another message that we get in today’s world about diaper changing? How about this one: the less it happens, the better. Pampers and Huggies make disposable nappies designed to last 12 hours without the need for a change.

The idea is that parents don’t have to be interrupted in the midst of other activities with their wee ones. Babies can remain strapped into car seats and strollers and carry cots. They don’t have to risk being woken at night.

Modern society creates more and more devices that reduce babies’ opportunities to feel their parents’ touch. Of all the senses, touch is the most important for babies. It is the first sense to develop in the womb and the most developed at birth.

Skin is our largest organ, and the sensations that skin sends to the brain are so powerful that they act as pain relief. In our evolutionary history, babies spent much more time experiencing touch, strapped as they were to a parent’s body during the day and sleeping next to a parent’s body at night. Modern babies experience an extremely different type of infancy than did our forebears.

Yes, babies adapt to the modern world. Skeptics will reply that babies are clearly surviving in today’s world of diapers, transport devices and sleeping arrangements. I agree, they are.

But I also know that without sufficient touch and physical attention, babies die. That was one of the points to come out of studies of Romanian orphans. Infant humans depend on the physical presence of another human being in order to survive.

Could the decreasing amount of touch that modern babies receive be one of the reasons that our society is witnessing an increase in behavioural problems associated with emotional regulation?

The most fundamental pathways that the brain is forming during the early years are the ones that enable us to cope with – that is, regulate – our emotions.

So maybe it would be better if disposable diapers weren’t quite so efficient? Maybe it would be better for babies’ emotional health if diaper companies could find ways to inform parents about the crucial importance of touch and cuddling and feeling Mom’s warm fingers on your skin — even while they search for ways to keep urine from reaching a baby’s skin.