Book Review: Why Loves Matters – how affection shapes a baby’s brain. By Sue Gerhardt

Review by David Lane:

In reviewing this book for the Guardian, Rebecca Abrams says that the book is “hugely important” which I would endorse, but she commits the sin of omission in saying that it should be “mandatory reading for all parents, teachers and politicians”, as she should have included child care workers of all types.The book brings together all the most recent research from a wide range of fields of study in a readable text, and it creates an eye-opening perspective which was impossible only a few years ago. Much of the research is very recent, and Sue identifies areas where the picture is still unclear as further research is still required. Nonetheless, the picture is now clear: people’s brains and their physical health as adults are demonstrably affected by the way they were treated as foetuses, babies and toddlers.

We have known this to some extent for some time, which is why pregnant women have been advised not to drink excessively or to smoke during pregnancy, but it is only in recent years that the detailed ways in which the brain develops – or is hampered in doing so – have become clear.

Sue Gerhardt takes the reader through the stages of pregnancy, babyhood and toddler time, spelling out how the different parts of the brain grow.

She puts great emphasis on the importance of touch and facial recognition, and spells out how good parenting triggers chemical reactions which foster growth in the baby’s brain. Until I read this book I had been unaware that at birth some parts of the brain are still virtually undeveloped, and they grow in response to the baby’s need to socialise, especially in the type of relationship they have with their others. Sue sees the process as the baby adapting in order to survive, responding to the type of parenting which it experiences.

This means that if the parenting experience is poor, the child’s brain may be seriously damaged, creating lifelong difficulties in forming relationships and rendering the person liable to depression and ill-health later in life. It is a frightening prospect, though there are opportunities to retrieve the situation in some cases later in life.

The book brings together research in many fields. We tend too often to work in specialist silos; this book knits together findings from developmental psychology, neuroscience, medicine, genetics, psychotherapy,   Sue Gerhardt herself is a psychoanalytic psychotherapist at the Tavistock Clinic, but she is exceptionally well read in many professional fields.

Grumbles about the book? I have two.

I would like to have seen a chapter – or perhaps another book? – on adolescence, as that is a time when the brain reshapes itself and is offered a chance to put some things right, and because it is the period when most young people requiring serious child care intervention enter children’s homes and special residential schools. To be fair, the primary focus of the book is on a child’s early years, but from a professional child care viewpoint it would be helpful to know what research is telling us about ways to retrieve the situation when dealing with children whose brains have been affected by unsatisfactory early upbringing.

Secondly, fathers only get a relatively brief mention in a late chapter; the book focuses on mothers for about 98 per cent of the time. I realise, of course, that mothers play the key role in bearing and bringing up little children, but fathers should surely be more than non-entities. There is the question of the way they support mothers who are struggling with their maternal role, especially if the fathers need to take over the main parenting role from their partners, and then there are the later stages when family relationships become more complex as families grow.

These grumbles should not put the reader off. The book is fascinating. It is one of those which gives readers a new understanding and makes sense of the bits of disparate knowledge we had before. We are privileged to have this opportunity, which was not available only a couple of decades ago, and we are indebted to Sue Gerhardt for making sense of all the research with such clarity.

Gerhardt, Sue Why Loves Matters: how affection shapes a baby’s brain (2015)
Routledge, London
ISBN 978-0-425-87053-5

Buy the book here