Raising Babies to Be Mentally, Emotionally, and Behaviorally Healthy

December 22, 2017

Morning Zen Guest Blog Post ~ Dennis D. Embry, Ph.D. ~

In my first year of graduate school, I worked in famous Infant Laboratory run by Frances Degan Horowitz. She’s the person who exploded our scientific understanding of infant intelligence and learning.  As an observer, I learned to code infant behavior accurately using keyboard deflect a moving pen on a rolling event pen recorder. With that rather ancient technology, we documented that newborn babies can recognize their mother’s voice in two hours of birth, a triumph of measurement ingenuity.

For hundreds thousand years, our ancestral and modern human babies learned everything about the world by being held, spoken to, and interacting with real, live humans for hours on end. In America, that is less and less so—with adverse developmental effects.

If nothing else as a scientist and child psychologist, I’ve learned that tiny, everyday interactions have large, evolutionary consequences in child development for good or harm. The best example that many readers may know about also happened while I was a grad student with Todd Risley on my committee. Betty Hart and Todd Risley where the heroes of  The Meaningful Differences Study [1-3] that changed everything about the understanding of child development and social determinants.  Just examine the figure of the estimated difference words spoken to children based on social class, and those verbal interactions also involve physical and emotional tone—praise, reprimands, etc. The frequency and valence of these interactions have lifetime impact on child behavior, socials skills, mental health, and intelligence. 



A number of years ago, I spent two weeks in Bali. Several things are interesting about Bali, one of which was that we almost never saw or heard children cry or child punished. This became very evident when we among tens of thousands of people waiting for the start of gigantic festival parade, delayed for three hours because of travel by the president of Indonesia who was to lead the parade. There was virtually no fussing and crying by babies and young children. Babies, under one year of age, in Bali are constantly held, and not allowed to touch the ground for the first year of life. That is part of their religious practice.


The Balinese baby in the picture was in front of us for those three hours. And this little girl never cried or fussed. Her parents never negatively reacted while the baby touched my face all over and my husband’s face, because we were different.  This little girl was sublimely, securely attached, as we say in developmental psychology.  Every child we met in Bali seemed likewise. I began to wonder if we, in America, made an error by putting children in containers for most of the day, with no human interaction.

During consultations for the U.S. Military home visitors and home visitors in Canada and Ireland, the home visitors told me that they see children in car seats all day, often parked in front of TV’s and now being given tablets to play with.  Adults are not touching, interacting, playing and teaching children in the way evolution engineered human development.

One day, I saw the picture of the baby completely covered in a sterile cocoon of pink fake fur, belted in a stroller for life. Can an iPad in the hands of toddler replace nurturing humans? I doubt it.

All this made me wonder: Has modern culture created sterile, non-responsive human learning environments that hijack the reward circuits with fake dopamine from blips on a screen [4], creating ineptness in social intelligence, emotional regulation and behavior [5, 6]? I fear so.  If so, that in turn, has many adverse effects on children’s lifetime mental health, and may well be part of the rise in both internalizing and externalizing disorders.  


1. Hart B, Risley TR: Meaningful differences in the everyday experience of young American children: Paul H Brookes Publishing: Baltimore; 1995.
2. Hart B, Risley TR: American parenting of language-learning children: Persisting differences in family-child interactions observed in natural home environments. Developmental Psychology 1992, 28(6):1096-1105.
3. Hart B, Risley TR: The longitudinal study of interactive systems. Education & Treatment of Children 1989, 12(4):347-358.
4. Koepp MJ, Gunn RN, Lawrence AD, Cunningham VJ, Dagher A, Jones T, Brooks DJ, Bench CJ, Grasby PM: Evidence for striatal dopamine release during a video game. Nature 1998, 393(6682):266-268.
5. Wang BQ, Yao NQ, Zhou X, Liu J, Lv ZT: The association between attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder and internet addiction: a systematic review and meta-analysis. BMC psychiatry 2017, 17(1):260.
6. Zhang JT, Yao YW, Potenza MN, Xia CC, Lan J, Liu L, Wang LJ, Liu B, Ma SS, Fang XY: Effects of craving behavioral intervention on neural substrates of cue-induced craving in Internet gaming disorder. NeuroImage Clinical 2016, 12:591-599.

embryDennis Embry, President/Senior Scientist at PAXIS Institute – Dennis D. Embry is a prominent prevention scientist in the United States and Canada, trained as clinician and developmental and child psychologist. He is president/senior scientist at PAXIS Institute in Tucson, Arizona. Dennis Embry serves on the scientific advisory board for the Children’s Mental Health Network and the U.S. Center for Mental Health Services Advisory Council. 

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