The first thousand days of a child's life are crucial to ensure healthy, balanced physical and mental development, a fact that is well-known by those who work in the world of childcare, but also in biology, psychology, medicine and sociology. The reason is simple: health is not merely the absence of disease, so it is not to be intended as "I am fine because I do not have this
or that symptom". Instead, health can be associated with a complete perception of personal wellbeing, which is not just physical, but also mental and social.
Those who work in epigenetics and nutrigenomics, scientific fields that show how the environment can affect the actual expression of our genetic heritage and, as a result, our individual growth and development, claim that the programming of a human being's health begins in the womb, because of the mother’s constant relationship with all the environmental stimuli throughout her pregnancy (diet, relationships with her partner and family members, work and life situations). What does this mean? It means that we are all born with a base decided by the genetic code inherited from our parents, but that this alone is not enough to establish who or what we will become; it is not enough to predetermine our personality or our character. A founding, fundamental role is also played by our environment and our first relationships.
First relationships and bonding
When we come into the world, we are very immature and we have a physiological need to be fed, covered or uncovered depending on the temperature, washed, changed and cared for. These are our most basic needs that must be met, so that if even just one of them were to be neglected, we would certainly be in grave danger. In the same way and just as importantly, there is another need, a physiological predisposition dictated by our biological nature, and that is the need to be protected, loved, cuddled, considered and caressed right from birth. Indeed, in order to survive, newborns need to be nourished not just with milk, but they also need “mental nourishment" in the form of care and attention from their mother or primary caregiver. This "emotional nourishment" will lead the child to develop a warm, affectionate and comfortable relationship with their caregiver and will enable them to form a strong bond that will provide the relationship template for all future interpersonal relations. The earliest relationships not only influence future ones, but also affect the child’s physical and brain development. We should bear in mind that although children’s brains at birth are fully formed from a structural point of view, they are very plastic, meaning they are constantly building and refining those neuronal circuits that will help them to adapt to their environment. This means that if children encounter a warm, loving family system that is ready to meet all their basic needs, they will manage to form secure, meaningful primary relationships that will in turn lead their brains to develop functional adaptation systems.
This is therefore a question of survival: nature, in all its wisdom, decided that newborn human beings cannot survive and thrive on their own. Instead, they need someone to look after their physical and psychological needs, precisely because, as we said above, right from when we are born, health extends to every aspect of being human and the relational aspect is also of crucial importance.
When are the first relationships formed?
Experts believe that the first meaningful relationships are formed from the moment we are born. Without doubt, holding our newborn baby in a skin-to-skin embrace after giving birth allows us to put a face, a smell and a physiognomy to someone who until moments before was just a baby bump, and whom we had only pictured in our mind’s eye. This first embrace represents a compelling stimulus to form a bond, as the mother finally cradles in her arms the baby that she has felt so close to for nine months, yet at the same time there is so much to discover; parents, therefore, feel a profound need to get to know their child and form a real connection with their newborn. Thus, this is the start of an enthralling journey of discovery, a journey rich in nuanced emotions that will lead parents and child alike to get to know each other and adapt more and more each day to the family environment that they are building together.
In truth, however, the journey begins much earlier.
It really starts as soon the parents start thinking about having a baby. Thoughts, expectations, desires and fears are all part of the important baggage parents carry around with them, from the start of the pregnancy to post-partum. Thus, from conception onwards, with the "threads" of their thoughts and emotions, parents-to-be start to weave a precious fabric which, after their baby is born, will be the fabric of their relationship; it is almost as if they were preparing fertile terrain in which to nurture those first meaningful relationships.
When a child comes into the world, they "feel" if they were thought of and imagined while they were growing in their mother's womb, as they immediately encounter an external environment that is ready to welcome them and care for them, happy to meet all their needs, and this marks the start of the fantastic adventure which is the profound and meaningful parent-child relationship.
How can parents foster a meaningful and positive relationship with their child?
- Parents-to-be first of all need to have the chance, over the course of the pregnancy, to have a meaningful conversation about one another’s expectations, doubts and thoughts regarding the impending new arrival.
- Not so long ago, it was thought that babies in the womb were passive, but in actual fact they are very active and interact a great deal with their mother's body and auditory stimuli from the world outside the womb, so as parents you can happily "talk" to them
- After the birth, imagine that your baby is just as eager to get to know you as you are eager to get to know them, but at the start you have to learn how to decipher their signals and needs. Also, remember that there is no such thing as perfect children or parents, so creating a good relationship does not depend on how closely you resemble the image of the "ideal parent who never makes a mistake", but on how close, affectionate, empathic and sensitive you are regarding your child.