The Importance Of Prioritizing Motherhood In Your Child’s First 3 Years

Written by Katie Hintz-Zambrano
10:30 am

A-Lan Holt, Photographed by Maria Del Rio

It’s an issue that every mother grapples with: being present for your child, both emotionally and physically. In her new book Being There: Why Prioritizing Motherhood In The First Three Years Matters, psychoanalyst, social worker, and parenting guidance expert Erica Komisar makes a compelling, research-backed case for a renewed focus on the mother-child connection in those early years, which are critical for brain development and attachment bonding. Of course, for mothers working outside the home—often starting just weeks after welcoming a brand-new baby—a book insisting on the importance of your physical presence in years 0-3 might feel daunting. Personally, as a multi-tasking “working mom,” we read the book with our defenses slightly raised. But, we were also open to receiving the information, which at first glance might seem at odds with women’s lib, but, as the feminist author (and “working mother” of 3) explains below, is surely not.

Tell us about why you wrote the book.
“I got interested in this topic because I’ve been treating parents, particularly mothers, for the last 30 years and doing parenting seminars. What I’ve been seeing over the last 15-20 years was an increase in children being diagnosed at a younger age with things like ADHD, early signs of aggression, and behavioral problems. They were being diagnosed earlier, labeled earlier, and also being medicated earlier. Children as young as 2-3 years old. And you’d be shocked to hear suicide rates of children under 5 have gone up. I started looking at the research since the Nineties—the decade of the brain—and I looked at the neuroscience research about things like ADHD and aggression. What I found was what I was finding to also be true in my own practice: mothers are really critical to children’s brain development, particularly between the ages of 0 and 3. Meaning, a mother’s presence is important—her physical and emotional presence. What the research showed is that more is more. The more a mother can be emotionally and physically present for the first three years, the first critical window of the right brain development, the better the chance the child has to be mentally healthy and emotionally well.”

How is a mother’s presence linked to a child’s development?
“First of all, it’s not about blaming mothers, but understanding the connection between things. What the research shows is that children need mothers. In those first three years, mothers provide two very important biological functions. One is that they buffer them from stress moment to moment. Some theories say babies come into this world 9 months too early and 9 months premature from a neurological perspective. So, for those first 9 months, the mother is the baby’s central nervous system, outside of their body. The noise, the exposure to the environment, the frustration—mothers protect babies and that protection is internalized after three years. Then, going forward the child is more resilient towards stress. A lot of the disorders we’re seeing is babies not being able to cope with the stress in their environment. The second biological function mothers provide is emotional regulation. In the first three years, every time a mother comforts her baby moment to moment, she’s regulating that baby’s emotions from the outside in. She’s the external regulator. We don’t come into the world with the ability to regulate our emotions. It’s not until our mothers provide that for us that we actually internalize that ability after three years. So, a lot of the disorders I see—ADHD and aggression—they are responses to stress and they have to do with very young children not being able to regulate emotions. The mother is like the digestive system for a baby. A mother digests a baby’s emotions, then the baby can tolerate whatever is around them and take the emotions in in a way that they are already digested. The mother is the filter and the protection and emotional digestion mothers provide is key. We’ve seen children forced to be much too self-sufficient and independent and it backfires. They develop calluses for their emotions too early, before they’ve internalized that resilience that mothers provide. They develop defenses. These babies hold it together the first three years, when their mothers aren’t there either emotionally or physically, and then they are breaking down after around 3. They are breaking down in school when the stress becomes great. It’s like The Three Little Pigs. If you build a house with bricks, when the storm comes, it doesn’t blow the house down. If you build a house with straw, at the first sign of a storm, the house blows down. Mothers being there, both emotionally and physically, builds a house of bricks.”

What about fathers?
“There’s some good research on fathers, too. The research shows that fathers are not interchangeable with mothers, but they also serve a critical function with babies in the first five years. Mothers produce oxytocin—the love and bonding hormone—in great amounts when they are healthy and when they nurture. It makes mothers more sensitive nurturers. If a baby is in pain, a mother will lean into that distress and comfort the distress. Fathers have more vasopressin, it’s the protective and aggressive hormone. Fathers tend to be more resilience building. If a baby falls down, he’s more likely to say, ‘Oh, you’re okay, get up, let’s get back to playing,’ because that’s what a father’s instincts tell him to do. What the research shows is that when mothers are absent from a child’s life, children don’t develop the ability to regulate certain emotions: distress, sadness, and fear. Whereas, with fathers being absent, children don’t learn to regulate aggression, with little boys in particular. We also find that fathers who are more emotionally connected to their children spend more time with their children, which is a win-win.”

How can a book suggesting that women ideally be with their children—physically—for the first three years of life co-exist with progressive, feminist principles?
“In an ideal world, women would be able to, allowed to, and encouraged to stay with their babies for the first year. And then for those next two years, we would encourage women to have flexible and part-time work schedules that enable us to still prioritize our children. If we had real maternity leave policies that respect and understand the biological connection between mothers and babies, then we would have policies that support all mothers, whether they are rich or poor, to be with their babies during the first year if possible. I’m a feminist, and to me feminism is about choice. You should have a choice whether to have children or not have children, you should have a choice to go back to work, versus our country that forces women to go back prematurely. I believe in choice. I also believe our choices as women can’t usurp the needs of the children we bring into this world. There’s only a couple critical brain development windows, one is 0-3, one is adolescence (9-29 by today’s definition). The book is not about working vs. non-working mothers. It’s about whether you work or don’t work, that you prioritize your children. And the reality is, some work allows you to prioritize your children more than others.”

What are some tips for “working mothers” who just can’t be there physically as much as they might like?
“There’s a lot of really important behavioral advice in the book for women who work, to keep that line of attachment to their children. One piece of advice is going out once, and coming in once. Some women think it’s better to pop in to see your baby during the day and then leave again. The truth is, if you think of separation as a mini-trauma to a child, you want to think about going out once and getting home as quickly as possible. Pay attention to transitions. Be present for at least two of the big transitions during the day—like waking up and going to sleep. I encourage women who work to not put their babies to bed early, but to let them stay up longer to have more time with them. Put your technology and distractions away when you’re with your children—put your iPhone and computer and iPad at a basket at the door and don’t touch it until your children go to sleep. It’s not easy and it takes a lot of discipline. The only way you can give your full attention to your children is if you’re not distracted. It’s about setting clear boundaries for yourself and for your colleagues. Even something as simple as cradling your baby on the left side, which increases the neurological connection of the right brain of the child to the right brain of the mother. The way you choose childcare is also key, and I provide tips on how to interview a caregiver and choose wisely.”

What can women do beyond the tips in the books to support this idea of “being there”?
“I wrote the book because as a society I think we’ve really devalued mothering. Even as women. We’ve seen men devalue motherhood because they aren’t mothers. But when women start to devalue mothering and start to think of it as less important work or unimportant work or something to be delegated to another for very low pay, when we as women devalue something as critical to society as mothering our children, we’re in trouble. We need to start to feel good self-esteem around what we do, and feel that what we do as mothers is incredibly valuable to society. What we do is probably more important than the neurophysicist who is getting the Nobel Prize. Along with having better self-esteem about motherhing, we can all get involved in organizations that support flexibility. For example, I’m a member of 1 Million For Work Flexibility. You should also write your congressman, congresswoman, or senator and tell them you want paid maternity leave and paternity leave so that parents can stay home with their children. I would encourage all women to advocate for themselves starting right now.”

Interested in learning more? Scoop up Being There: Why Prioritizing Motherhood In The First Three Years Matters.

For more related articles on Mother, check out 20 Family Fun Ideas That Foster Connection, What Danish Parents Know About Teaching Empathy To Children, and The Power Of Play Based Education.

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