Ever been told “happy mum, happy baby”? Or the even more devastating version, “anxious mum, anxious baby”?
Aaah, that well known adage that has been uttered to every mum at some point and resulted in her feeling completely inept as a mother. There is nothing quite like trying to calm your crying child and having some kind, well-meaning relative telling you that you need to calm down first.
The assumption is that we are solely responsible for our children’s ease or disease and if we have anxious, stressed children, well then mamas, you need to take a good hard look at yourself. Shaming a mother into feeling responsible is never a formula that will lead to happy mum or happy baby.
That being said, as with most of these little ditties and sayings, there is a little bit of truth in there somewhere but a few of the finer points have been lost along the way. So, let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater on this one, and please bear with me as I talk you through why, prioritizing your own regulation is paramount to your child’s regulation.
As humans, we are herd animals. We live in herds. We are gregarious. And much of our safety and security relies on the herd and the safety of the herd. This makes it hardwired into our neuroscience to seek safety first from how those around us respond. If this is bringing up images in your mind of wildebeest stampeding through the Serengeti, it should be, because it turns out that as humans, we aren’t all that different.
We’ve all heard of the fight or flight response. We all know what it feels like; the racing heart, the tensing muscles, the quickening breath. Our body in a state of stress. There is something threatening out there, and we are getting ready to deal with it.
Interestingly enough, very few of us have heard about the social engagement response. Evolutionary wise, this is a far more advanced pathway, and one that is only present in mammals. And as such, should actually be our primary pathway of use to reference our safety and security. As babies and children, how do we know if there is something threating out there? We don’t even know what threats are. So instead of looking for threats, we look to those that we can trust, those that we have bonded with, to know if we are safe or not.
In his work on neuroception, Stephen Porges talks about how our brains and nervous systems are wired to first check in with the herd to know if we are safe. After that, if the herd tells us we are unsafe, we go into a fight or flight response. When this fails, we shut down completely and hope the danger passes. It’s all about survival. Neuroception is the brain and body’s ongoing subconscious surveillance of safety and threat in our environment. It is a process that is critical to our regulation and our safe engagement in the world.
As mothers, we are most often the primary carer for our children. And with that, we become the primary anchor point for their neuroception. They check in with us first to know if things are safe or not. If when they reference us, the environment does not feel safe, they can rely on the other two pathways with a physiological response of how to deal with it.
At birth, a baby can typically see the distance from the mother’s nipple to her eyes. And there is good reason for it. From the moment we enter this world, we are fixing on our mother’s eyes, more specifically, on the tension in the muscles around her eyes, to know that we are safe. The eyes don’t lie. They are windows to the soul. Clearly we know this intrinsically as a society.
As we get older, and develop language, an understanding of tone and tempo, and the ability to read body language we use all of these cues to know if we are safe. What does my mother tell me? Is this safe or not? Does my stress response need to be triggered or not?
Unfortunately, in our very fast paced, high stressed modern world, many of the stressors that mothers face have very little to do with their babies or children. Being a mother is worrisome enough but add on all the other financial, work and societal pressures that women carry and bearing the neuroscience in mind, you can understand the rising rates of anxiety in children. Their neuroception is simply not telling them they are safe.
So, “happy mum, happy baby,” is not entirely accurate but mum being regulated and feeling safe as a precursor to baby being regulated and feeling safe, definitely so.
Now as I said, shaming and self-flagellation never helped any mum feel happier or more regulated but an understanding of the need to prioritize your own self-care without feeling selfish for doing it, well that certainly does the trick.
As mothers, decreasing our own levels of stress and anxiety is vitally important to our children developing a strong and reliable neuroception. How do we go about doing this? Well it all comes down to the hormones and neurotransmitters pulsing through our bodies and brains.
Typically our stress hormones are cortisol, adrenaline, and norepinephrine. When these are pumping through our systems, our fight or flight is activated, and no matter how hard we try to put on a smiley face, our children are wired to read it.
Serotonin, oxytocin, dopamine and endorphins are our common happy hormones. They are involved in us feeling good, in being relaxed, in feeling reward or accomplishment, and in our human bonding processes – in short, they are the hormones that tell our children that everything little thing, is gonna be alright.
And it just so happens that when the one cocktail is up, the other one is generally down. So the more of those stress hormones you’ve got going around, the less of the happy ones there are going to be and vise versa.
Sadly, we can’t remove all the stressors we have in our lives, so those stress hormones are going to be there. But we can limit the effect that they have on us by taking proper care of ourselves and by making it a priority to keep ourselves as regulated as possible.
So, in the never-ceasing, unrelenting, constant role of motherhood, what does that look like?
It looks like making the time to go for a walk.
It looks like being outside in green spaces.
It looks like mindfulness, prayer and meditation.
It looks like yoga.
It looks like making that exercise class that is fun for you even though it is time away from your children.
It looks like understanding that time for your creativity is a gift to your children too.
It looks like the effort to feed yourself good quality, nutritional food.
It looks like asking for help.
Help from your partner.
Help from your family.
Help from your friends.
And help from your doctor.
And the asking for help, well, I can’t emphasis that one enough. Because the truth is, sometimes you can be doing your whole-hearted best to get those happy chemicals up but the wakeful nights, and the work deadlines, and the postpartum hormones, and the stress of school fees, or the feeling of a loss of identity in motherhood – those things all add up and stack against you.
So talk to your tribe. Talk to your people. Talk to your doctor or health professional. There are a range of options for treatment of anxiety and other mood disorders. Anti-depressants are one of them. But they are certainly not the only one. Alternative natural, evidence-based supplements like CBD oil show clinically significant potential for treatment of a range of anxiety-related disorders.
Taking ownership of your own emotional well-being and regulation should be a primary concern for you and the whole family because remember; mum being regulated and feeling safe as a precursor to baby being regulated and feeling safe, well, that’s a real thing.
It’s not all about the mamas. Dads have a vitally important role too. Join me for my next post as we explore the power of showing up for our children and how focusing on being in the present could be the single most important and influential gift that we can give them.
Rachel Carey is a qualified children's occupational therapist with a special interest in developmental neuroscience, neurodiversity, and relational models of intervention and parenting. She is the mother of two boys and the creator of the online profile rachie_ot_mom