For centuries, there has been a debate about ‘Nature or Nurture’, with each side having an equal number of loyal adherents. During the last few decades however, there has been a tendency to see them as complementing rather than mutually exclusive theories. The notion of brain plasticity even proves that training can often bring about change, even in cases of certain congenital limitations. Norman Doidge’s book The brain that changes itself provides numerous examples of this.

In the Child’Space Training in Amsterdam we often see that the parents’ mindsets strongly influence the baby’s development from a young age. Due to the parents’ thoughts, beliefs and experiences, the baby’s brain often does not receive the stimuli it naturally seeks. A good example of this is the following story about a baby who took part in the first training segment with Chava Shelhav, founder of the Child’Space Method.

Baby Jenny is eight weeks old. She’s lying on her back, her hands and arms almost motionless, while she’s clearly trying out all kinds of movements with her legs. While she’s lying on her stomach, lifting her head, her arms stay down as well; they’re even held a bit backward, almost like a pair of wings. One would expect her to put them forward and lean on the floor to help balance her head.

Jenny soon tires from lifting her head and lays her head down, twisted sideways. Chava Shelhav puts Jenny’s hand in front of her mouth so she can suck on it and explore it using the mouth’s highly investigative nature. Jenny’s mother reacts by fetching Jenny’s pacifier. Chava asks why she’s doing that. Jenny’s mother would rather not have Jenny put her hand in her mouth because she is afraid Jenny might start sucking her thumb later in life. Chava reassures her, telling her putting a fist in the mouth doesn’t mean she’ll suck her thumb later. Also, putting Jenny’s hand in her mouth gives her something to play with.

A child starts exploring the world by using the mouth, sucking on things – in the first place on their hands. Children don’t have any notion yet of what hands are, or even of those protruding things being a part of them. By sucking on their hands, a child can start feeling them more and more. In the brain, the map for the hand area is formed by touch. Accidentally hitting something in uncoordinated movements can play a part in this process. However, the sensations experienced while sucking on the hands last much longer and therefore have a lot more effect on forming this map in the brain. It’s the start of being able to use the hands for grabbing and manipulating things. Chava calls it ‘mapping the brain’. The better and more detailed the map, the easier a child will be able to perform deliberate, intentional movements.

If you’re afraid your child will start sucking their thumb later in life, perhaps because you yourself did so in your childhood and had a difficult time breaking the habit, you might interrupt, disrupt or delay this whole process. You’ll keep interrupting your child and, like Jenny’s mother, put a pacifier in their mouth instead of their hand. Yet it’s wonderful to see time and again how the Child’Space program can reverse this disruption with only a little help.

Another example is my visit to Evelien, a baby who had been in surgery and had a drip attached to her arm. To make sure the drip would stay in place, the whole hand had been bandaged. After a while, the drip was transferred to the other hand. In effect, both arms were artificially taken off the radar, which immediately resulted in a pattern like Jenny’s: the arms were no longer moved. I taught the parents how to tap and squeeze, two Child’Space techniques that stimulate the connection between body part and brain. Evelien was also given a rattler to hold in her hand. The rattler’s weight ensures that movements are noticed more, producing more connections to the brain and activating muscles. The rattling sound also encourages the child to move again. It wasn’t long before the free arm was actively moved again. When the other arm was also free from the drip and the bandages a few days later, the parents helped to also reactivate this arm in the brain so it could be included in movements again.

Both examples are about how nurture can help the development of the brain and how important a little help in the development can be for the baby. If you also have an example about the influence of nature or nurture on the development of a child, you are invited to share it in the comment area below.