Laundry, diapering, feeding, laundry… this is the work of a new parent, and much of it can feel rather tedious. Unfortunately, boredom can sometimes slip into darker feelings of disconnection.
In this episode, Jessica Rolph is accompanied by Erica Komisar, who suggests that one way to stay engaged is to take an interest in your baby’s brain development. Erica Komisar is a psychoanalyst and parent coach based out of New York City.
[1:26] Erica Komisar talks about her clinical work with patients who are experiencing boredom.
[3:05] Interest in child development as a possible solution for a parent’s boredom.
[4:45] Erica explains how to ignite a sense of wonder around your baby’s development.
[6:35] Recognizing the immense value of nurturing your baby.
[7:14] Possible cues of postpartum depression.
[8:30] Skin-to-skin contact lays the foundation for emotional security.
[9:16] Breast feeding, in light of the skin-to-skin contact, has neurological benefits. If you are bottle feeding, consider taking off your shirt.
[12:18] Advice to mothers who have been separated from their babies.
[14:05] Tips to spark the connection between you and your baby.
[14:59] Mirroring your baby is about reflecting how your baby feels; as a result, your baby feels understood.
[16:53] The perils of idealizing parenthood.
[19:11] Does COVID-19 bring more risk of depression?
[20:45] When is the best time to seek professional health?
Mentioned in this episode:
Don’t dismiss a new mom’s boredom. It could be a sign of something more serious.TheWashington Post, Erica Komisar
Struggling with your new role as a parent
Jessica: Hello, Erica.
Erica: Hi, thank you for having me on your show.
Jessica: Thank you so much for being with us. We are so excited to hear from you. Wanted to start with how often do you see new patients in your office who are experiencing feelings of boredom?
Erica: Well, frequently. I’m a parent guidance expert, which means that parents of everything from newborns through adolescents come to see me in my office to talk about issues they’re starting to see with their children. Or in the case of new mothers, things like postpartum depression and feelings of dissatisfaction.
Mothers who come in who have had very intense professional jobs, whether it’s being lawyers or doctors or being in finance, and they are struggling with their new role. Many of them have taken off some time, they’ve had a new baby and they’ve taken off some time, and they’re struggling with the mundane tasks that are involved in, one would say, the boring moments and the tiring moments of having a new baby. And often they come in because they’re starting to feel resentful or depressed and become worried about those feelings.
Boredom and the lack of oxytocin
Jessica: And I think we can feel them no matter what our pre-baby life was. It’s such a big life change whether you are working in Wall Street or helping a family business or having an Etsy shop or being a dedicated spouse or partner, it’s just such a huge life change to have a child, so I can really imagine that and experience that. One of the things I find so fascinating about your work is that you’ve actually linked an interest in brain development, in a child’s development, with being a solution for this boredom. Can you talk about this a little bit more?
Erica: Well, what’s interesting is that a boredom is connected to… What we know is the boredom or feelings of boredom are connected to a lack of what we call oxytocin, which is a nurturing hormone. And it’s a hormone that’s produced… From a neuroscience perspective, it’s a hormone that’s produced in mothers during childbirth, during breastfeeding, and when they nurture their children. Meaning the more a mother nurtures and is securely attached, has healthy emotional attachment to her child, the more she produces oxytocin and that oxytocin is then produced in the baby’s brain as well. And so what we know is that oxytocin, when you feel fully securely attached, you don’t necessarily feel bored, you might have boring moments, but you don’t feel bored, you actually feel quite interested. I would say you have a sense of wonder about the baby.
Engage both sides of your brain
Jessica: Interesting. I actually did feel lost before I had discovered learning that there was this whole world of child development out there, and that there was so much research that was done, and there were so many ways that I could engage. And I had a new sense of purpose, not only as the sense of purpose that I had before of being a professional and all the roles that I had in life, but then I had this new sense of purpose around being a parent and really teaching my child about how the world works and showing them everything there was to learn. And so how can you… What suggestions do you have to help ignite that sense of wonder for new parents and that shift in purpose?
Erica: Well, again, it’s engaging. I think one of the reasons that you were finding it stimulating, and many mothers find it stimulating, to learn about the brain development, and the neuroscience behind what they’re doing, because not only does it give a greater sense of value to what they’re doing, but it engages their left brain. We say your right brain is your social-emotional brain, your left brain is the cognitive parts of your brain. And we’re used to, for the most part, in most of the jobs that we’re doing out in the world, we’re used to engaging our left brain. And so what it does is it brings together… Learning about why being with your baby and prioritizing your baby in those years is so important from what we say a neuro-biological perspective, it both engages your right brain, which is the attachment part of your brain, and it engages your left brain, which is you’re used to using out in the world in whatever jobs you are doing. So I do encourage mothers to learn, to engage the intellectual parts of their brain as well as the social-emotional parts of the brain. I think that’s why you’re saying, and many mothers find, it gives more of a sense of value to what they’re doing.
Society is also to blame for a lot of this, in that young women are taught from a very young age to go to school, get good grades, go to a good college, get a great job, make lots of money, be out in the professional world. And that’s what gives them value, and that’s what gives the purpose, and that’s what gives them identity. How much money they make, how successful they are, how highly professionally achieving they are. I don’t think there is enough information out there, so I admire what you’re doing because I don’t think there’s enough information out there about how valuable the work that mothers, the nurturing that mothers do is in terms of the biology of a child’s brain.
Mothering and cues for attachment
Jessica: Fascinating. I totally agree and I never feel like I had words for that feeling before. I felt like I had this really important new role, but that society does value so many other aspects of ourselves. And I think that in modern feminism, we often push that core piece of biology aside. So what are the frameworks that you like to see around enhancing a child’s development or brain development?
‘Motherese’ and baby talking
Erica: Well, a lot of the physical cues or the cues for attachment are what I look for in terms of mothering. So meaning skin-to-skin contact, eye contact with the baby, being able to vocalize with the baby. So some of the cues we look for to see whether a mother might have postpartum depression is if they talk to their baby in an adult-like manner, as opposed to Motherese. Motherese is the cooing, the reflective cooing and the sound making that mothers do that reflects their baby sounds. And even the high pitch tones that a mother will make like, “Hi, sweetie, how are you?” there’s actually purpose to that. Actually those undulating high pitch sounds that we call Motherese actually help grow their baby’s right brain. So when I hear a mother is talking in an adult-like manner to a child, I know something might be a little off. If I see that a mother might struggle with touching her baby or holding her baby, or she might have difficulty with breast-feeding because it makes her uncomfortable, the physical intimacy. So we know that skin-to-skin contact, particularly in the first 12 months, is critical to laying down the foundation, first of all, to promote oxytocin but also laying down the foundation of emotional security and growing that right brain, what we call the pre-frontal cortex.
Importance of skin to skin
Jessica: I’m so fascinated about the research that shows that babies’ brains actually are lit up when they have skin-to-skin connection. It’s actually really healthy for brain development and brain growth to have skin on skin. Can talk to that a little bit more?
Erica: It’s absolutely right. Again, it’s a marker for us. It’s a cue for the mother and the baby and it stimulates that. So what I say about breastfeeding is breastfeeding is not… I know that pediatricians and lactation specialists, they make a lot of the nutritional value of breast milk and it certainly does have a lot of nutritional value, but I think they make more of the nutritional value than what I think is the absolute most important value, which is how it affects the baby’s neurology, how it really impacts emotional security and attachment. Meaning because breastfeeding is uniquely set up in a way that, for the most part, the baby has to have some skin-to-skin contact. Although all these funky bras that they have now, I tell mothers, “Take off those bras, don’t have a breastfeeding bra, take off the bra when you’re feeding that baby and let that baby touch you and fondle you and have skin-to-skin contact.”
If you’re bottle feeding because you can’t breastfeed, then I say to mother’s, “Bottle feed as if your breastfeeding. Meaning take off your shirt and let them have that skin-to-skin contact to create that attachment and get the oxytocin flowing between the mother and the baby.” The way I describe oxytocin and what you said, stimulating that part of the brain, is that it’s like a baseball game. There’s a pitcher and a catcher. Think about the mother as the pitcher. The baby has what we call oxytocin receptors which catches the oxytocin and then throws it back to the mother. So it’s this reciprocal relationship with this nurturing hormone, which gives both the mother and the baby a terrific sense of safety, happiness and well-being.
And what we know is that when mothers have a skin-to-skin contact, they increase the activation of the receptors in the baby, so the baby has more ability to catch the oxytocin, if that makes sense. You can’t have a ball thrown if you don’t have a catcher catching the ball. So that’s my simplest analogy, is that mothers when they have skin-to-skin contact, they’re actually stimulating the development of those oxytocin receptors in the baby so the baby can absorb more of the oxytocin.
Reconnecting with your baby
Jessica: And I think I intuitively knew this because I would always feel so much better after I had skin-on-skin contact with my baby. Honestly, even still when I have a bad day, I will look to have skin-on-skin with my toddler. She’ll have her shirt off, I’ll have my shirt off and we’ll cuddle. And it does really seem to help, it helps my mood, it helps me calm down, it helps me feel more optimistic.
I think we’re told is that skin on skin happens in the hospital, and then we get home and we just have so many clothes on, it’s really inconvenient to do skin-on-skin time. So I think that there are a lot of wisdom in taking your bra off when you’re breastfeeding or bottle feeding, being able to take the time to put a shawl over your shoulders and have that skin on skin with your six-month-old, with your nine-month-old, with your 12-month-old. It can actually really help both you and your baby.
Erica: I often tell mothers who are separated from their babies either during the day because they’re working or they have to work, or mothers who… I treated a mother who had to go into the hospital with mastitis, and she was in the hospital for three days and she was separated from her newborn, and she was on lots of the antibiotics that they put you on, it was a very bad case of mastitis. And when she came back, she was very worried that the baby wouldn’t attach to her. And in fact, the baby did have a reaction because when a mother disappears, babies get very disoriented, and they actually are greatly impacted by it. So what we did is we had the mother lie in bed with the baby naked, so the mother and baby could re-bond. And that skin-to-skin contact is not to be underestimated as an incredible source of bonding between mothers and babies.
Jessica: That’s a great tip if you happen to have to travel to see, I don’t know, a sick family member or travel for work or just travel in general and you are away from your baby and you come back and you can reunite. I always loved also taking baths with my baby. I don’t know if it’s something that a lot of people do, but it’s a great way to get that skin-on-skin contact in a really warm place and feel really connected.
Erica: It is, it’s like both of you being in the womb together. So yeah, it’s a wonderful way to connect with your baby.
Tips for connecting with your baby
Jessica: I think that oftentimes at Lovevery we focus on the benefits to the child of all of this engagement and support and focus on child development. But what I’m hearing so clearly is that it’s so healthy for us as parents. It actually helps our cognition, it helps our sense of well-being and our emotional state to be so engaged with our children. So I love hearing this. What other tips do you have when you see a client… We talked about skin on skin, and we talked about eye contact and conversations. What other tips do you have that will help spark that connection and be able to get parents on a path of learning about their child’s development?
Erica: Yeah, well, in terms of other ways to connect with the baby: Music, singing. Babies don’t care what their parents sound like. You can have the worst singing voice in the world, but to your baby, it’s the sweetest voice ever. So any kind of music, music that you love, it doesn’t have to be baby music, it can be Grateful Dead, it doesn’t matter what it is. But the idea of talking to your baby, and being aware that motherese and that vocalizing that I talked about, making sounds when they make sounds, and mirroring your baby. So the word mirroring is basically just as it sounds, it is reflecting how your baby feels which helps you to connect with your baby. We’re all born with something called mirror neurons, which is that we’re born with the ability to mimic our mother. So a newborn will look at a mother’s face and will see a smile and will smile back. So we’re all born with these mirror neurons. But then if we… You say, if we cultivate them as a mother, what ends up happening meaning if the baby is sad, we then look sad. Our face gets sad. If the baby is happy, we get happy, so we follow suit by mirroring the baby. The baby mirrors us, and we mirror the baby.
And as a result of that, the baby feels understood. And there’s a very deep connection between the mother and the baby in this mirroring process. Where we see a problem is when we see what we call discrepant emotions, meaning if the baby is crying and sad, and the mother is uncomfortable with the baby’s sad feelings, and she tries to cheer the baby up and she puts a big smile on her face and starts.
What I call discrepant emotions. Which confuse the baby, create a disconnect between the mother and the baby, and also the baby doesn’t feel understood by the mother. So the baby will then retreat from the mother. So really trying to focus on mirroring. And mirroring, just like it sounds, holding a mirror up to the baby. If the baby is sad, allowing the baby to have some sad feelings, and maybe your own face expresses empathy with that sadness. If the baby is happy then you can be happy and smile. So mirroring is another very important thing.
New dads and postpartum depression
Jessica: Can postpartum impact dads? And if so, what kind of recommendations do you have for fathers? Do they differ from what you recommend for mothers?
Erica: Well, we don’t call it postpartum but we probably should when it comes to dads. As you said earlier on, it’s a major change in your life. And I also don’t think that we talk enough about that change, instead we idealize mothering. With young mothers who are either thinking about getting pregnant or are just newly pregnant, we idealize it and we don’t really talk about the whole picture. That in fact it is a major life change, meaning the fantasy that many young women and young men have is that their lives will go back to exactly the way their lives were before they had the baby. And I think society again is to blame for that. It promotes this idea that if you get enough help, you can keep your 18-hour-a-day job and you can keep the same lifestyle and keep doing everything the same and have a nanny raise your… There’s this fantasy that you can have a life with a newborn that is… Nothing’s changed. When in fact, once you have a baby everything changes, and that means for fathers too.
It may not change to the same degree as it does for mothers who are staying home with their babies, because mothers are primary caregivers and fathers are still getting to go off to work. But it changes because there’s a loss of the same kind of freedom that you had when you were married without children. Think about being married without children as still being two individuals. I was going to say single people. Two single people that are together, because being married without children, you still have, today in modern times, a lot of independence, and you don’t really need each other so much. You might need each other but you don’t need each other the way you do when you have a baby. So this dramatic life change causes a lot of fathers to react, because again fathers have the same kinds of fantasies that mothers do, that they will have a baby and nothing will change. So when that change hits, it’s like a huge tidal wave for a lot of fathers who then react to it sometimes with depression, sometimes with anger, sometimes with resentment, sometimes with withdrawal. So fathers can suffer a kind of postpartum depression as well.
Risks of depression during COVID
Jessica: And these times that we’re in are so unusual, I think, with COVID, stay-at-home ordinances and really trying to… Whole lives have been overturned. Do you feel like we have more of a risk of depression or maybe less at this time?
Erica: So, it’s a good question, and I would say that it depends on what you came into this lockdown or quarantine with, meaning if you had any underlying vulnerabilities, emotional vulnerabilities, that you may not have been aware of, meaning mild depression, mild anxiety that you may not have been conscious of, or if you had any kinds of postpartum depression or attachment issues with your baby to begin with, basically this lockdown is going to enhance. It’s like a magnifier, if you will, of feelings and what you came into it with. For instance, if you were a mother or father who were feeling very sad and conflicted about spending so much time away from your children and COVID happened and now you’re with your children all the time, you’d say this COVID’s almost like a blessing for those families because they’re getting to stay home with their children and intermingle their work and their experience of having a family. Probably in a better way, balance it better, because they’re physically around more for their children. So again, it depends on what you came into this experience with emotionally.
Seek help sooner than later
Jessica: That’s a great perspective. And so, if somebody has a concern, how can they seek professional help and when should they do that?
Erica: I always say the sooner you can get to an issue or problem, the easier it is to tackle that problem. So the best time to go is when you first start to be aware that something doesn’t feel right, when you’re starting to have any of these symptoms that we talked about in terms of not feeling pleasure from activities, or fatigue and listlessness or resentment towards your baby, or a restlessness or desire to escape, or boredom. When you start to feel these feelings, better that you reach out sooner than later. and the good news is that there are so many therapists that are working remotely now. In some ways, people have more time and it’s easier for them to reach out now than when they were in their busy lives.
Jessica: That’s a great suggestion. It’s been so wonderful being here with you, Erica. Thank you so much for sharing your wisdom with all of us.
Erica: Thank you for having me.
Engaging with our babies is healthy for us as parents too — this is good news! Here are some of my takeaways from the conversation with Erica.
Take interest in your child’s brain development
Cultivate a sense of wonder about your baby by taking an interest in your child’s brain development. This will engage the left (intellectual) and right (social and emotional) sides of YOUR brain! 👍
Skin to skin contact is crucial
Skin to skin contact, particularly in the first 12 months, is crucial for laying down the foundation for emotional security. Babies’ brains are stimulated by this contact. It releases oxytocin and deepens the sense of connection for both you and your baby. If you are bottle feeding, bottle feed as if you are breastfeeding – consider taking off your shirt. This can work for both moms and dads.
Lay the foundation for empathy through mirroring
We are born with mirror neurons, which give us the ability to mimic Mom or Dad’s expressions. Putting on a happy face to soothe your infant might confuse them. These are called “discrepant” emotions. Focus instead on mirroring your baby’s mood, which will help lay the foundation for empathy.
You can learn more on Lovevery’s blog, “Here With You.”
12 - 48 Months
0 - 12 Months
Lovevery for Target
Experience our new Target stage-based play essentials, as well as familiar favorites like The Play Gym and The Block Set, straight from your local Target location.
12 - 48 Months
18 - 48 Months+
0 - 12 Months
8 ways to celebrate Earth Day as a family
Earth Day is a time to celebrate nature and the environment. Teach your children how to take care of the Earth with these fun activities, crafts, and books.
0 - 12 Weeks
3 - 4 Months
5 - 6 Months
7 - 8 Months
9 - 10 Months
11 - 12 Months
0 - 12 Months
The complete guide to baby development milestones
We compiled this expert guide to help you know what to expect for your baby's growth and month-by-month development.
12 - 48 Months
13 - 15 Months
0 - 12 Months
Celebrating Black History Month with babies and young children
Children of all races are never too young to take part in Black History Month. Here are ideas on how celebrate with your child, along with a list of books that center Black people and culture.
12 - 48 Months
0 - 12 Months
What are Montessori toys?
Some toys have characteristics that are aligned with Montessori principles. Learn what they are, why they can benefit your child, and how to introduce them.
12 - 48 Months
0 - 12 Months
You can’t balance work and parenting during Covid. That’s OK.
As we continue to adjust to new normals, some things have stayed the same: working while caring for young children during a pandemic is really hard. Here are a few ways to ease the burden.
0 - 12 Months
Diaper bag must-haves from real parents (and yes, all 30 are essential)
We talked to real parents about their must-have diaper bag essentials and on-the-go hacks. The list is extensive but ensures you won't be caught unprepared.
12 - 48 Months
0 - 12 Months
This powerful activity can change your child’s brain
Back-and-forth conversations with your baby have a significant impact on language development and are important for social, emotional, and cognitive growth.