It’s common sense that babies need plenty of attention and loving care to thrive. But new risks have been uncovered that relate to infant care, and they apply specifically to baby boys.
A new review of empirical research by Allan N. Schore posits that the developing brain of infant males is not able to regulate as well as the female brain, leaving baby boys more vulnerable to environmental stresses, and ultimately, to neuropsychiatric disorders including autism spectrum disorders. In “All our sons: The developmental neurobiology and neuroendocrinology of boys at risk,” Schore writes that research “indicates that the stress-regulating circuits of the male brain mature more slowly than those of the female…” He concludes that due to this delay, males are more vulnerable to “stressors in the social environment (attachment trauma) and toxins in the physical environment (endocrine disruptors) that negatively impact right-brain development.” Which can mean that baby boys are may be more susceptible to “autism, early onset schizophrenia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and conduct disorders” than girls.
In Psychology Today, Darcia Narvaez, Ph.D., summarizes that these neuropsychiatric disorders related to brain development “have been increasing in recent decades (interestingly, as more babies have been put into daycare settings, nearly all of which provide inadequate care for babies).”
Basically, infant day care attendance could be one factor related to the rise in disorders that skew heavily male, like autism spectrum disorders.
But should we panic about day care? Elizabeth Mack, a psychotherapist in private practice in LA and a mother of two boys, says “These findings are alarming, particularly for parents of boys. And while we should not ignore the correlation between greater numbers of boys diagnosed with disorders such as autism and ADHD as more and more babies enter day care, we must not forget that there are several factors that may account for higher rates of diagnosis, including the fact that there is more testing for these disorders going on than ever before.” So although more babies are in day care, more testing is going on, which naturally leads to more diagnoses. Correlation, in other words, does not equal causation.
“There is indeed evidence that boys are more vulnerable than girls to certain childhood problems (specifically, ADHD, conduct disorders and autism spectrum disorders),” says USC assistant professor of psychology Darby Saxbe, but she notes that starting in adolescence, girls become more vulnerable to other problems, like anxiety and depression. “So it's not necessarily the case that males are much more psychologically vulnerable than females across all domains, but it is the case that everyone — male or female — needs extra love and attention in infancy and early childhood because it is such a critical time for brain development.”
Saxbe takes issue with the idea that all day cares provide inadequate infant care, leading to problems for boys. “There is no evidence that children who spend time in child care outside the home do worse than children who stay at home,” she says. “It's also very controversial to say that day care contributes to autism when we know that in fact autism is very linked with genetics and with other known risk factors, including advanced maternal/paternal age and pregnancy/birth complications.”
Rather than fearing day care — when, for many parents, it’s a necessity — parents should focus on finding a facility that will help their child grow. “What we do know is that the quality of the day care or child care environment matters and that low-quality day cares are associated with more developmental problems for kids,” Saxbe says.
Here are Saxbe’s tips for finding a high-quality child care environment:
- A high-quality day care has a high ratio of caregivers to children, low staff turnover and caregivers who are warm and nurturing.
- The most important thing for young children is getting lots of love, and that starts with security and trust — having a stable base that you can form an attachment with. So you want a caregiver who is consistent and caring and dependable.
- Ideally, kids also need a caregiver who talks and sings to them and encourages them to use their words.
- The day care/caregiver should strictly limit screen time, which can be overstimulating for young kids.
Summed up: “Kids need attention, bonding and communication to thrive, so whether your child is in the home or at day care, you want a caregiver who focuses on all three things.”
As we learn more about increasingly prevalent neuropsychiatric disorders like autism, it’s natural to feel anxious about our boys. But as long as our babies are receiving high-quality, loving care, we’re doing just fine.