Baby boys don’t need to be “toughened up” by letting them cry or intentionally withholding your affection. In fact, doing so can lead to harmful consequences, says a recently published research review.
According to the research review published in Infant Mental Health Journal, baby boys are more vulnerable to stress due to “significant gender differences…between male and female social and emotional functions in the earliest stages of development.”
What does this mean exactly? It’s all down to maturity. Boys socially, physically, and linguistically mature at a slower pace than girls. This then leaves them exposed to social and physical stress for a longer period of time compared to girls, says research author Dr. Allan Schore, a highly regarded psychologist with an extensive body of work (the American Psychoanalytic Association has described him as “a monumental figure in psychoanalytic and neuropsychoanalytic studies.”)
In fact, the stress-regulating region of a boy's brain matures slower that, “at six months, boys show more frustration than girls do. At 12 months, boys show a greater reaction to negative stimuli,” says Dr. Darcia Narvaez, professor of psychology at the University of Notre Dame, in a Psychology Today report on Dr. Schore’s research.
While "girls have more built-in mechanisms that foster resiliency against stress," boys are affected more negatively. "Boys are more vulnerable to maternal stress and depression in the womb, birth trauma (e.g., separation from the mother), and unresponsive caregiving (caregiving that leaves them in distress)," says Dr. Narvaez.
Such "attachment trauma" can cause a significant impact on the development of the right brain hemisphere, the part that regulates our self-control and sociality functions. What kind of impact? It puts boys at a higher risk for "neuropsychiatric disorders that appear developmentally (girls are more vulnerable to disorders that appear later)." These include autism, early onset schizophrenia, ADHD, and conduct disorders.
How do we veer away from the tough love mentality (“para lumaking lalaki”)?
1. Be responsive. Boys do not need less love and affection than girls, according to Dr. Narvaez. Further proof that you shouldn’t hold back: previous studies show that infants need all the physical contact they can get, and it’s almost impossible to spoil a baby.
2. Insist on Unang Yakap “Exposing newborn male to separation stress causes an acute strong increase of cortisol and can, therefore, be regarded as a severe stressor,” says Dr. Schore. The Department of Health’s Unang Yakap (First Embrace) campaign puts importance on immediate skin-to-skin contact of mother and newborn after birth. This ensures that mom and child are together right after delivery. Skin-to-skin contact is also recommended by the World Health Organization as part of a simple, essential newborn care that has proven to be life-saving. Aside from preventing separation stress, placing the naked baby on the mother’s bare chest transfers warmth, placental blood and protective bacteria, and promotes exclusive breastfeeding.
3. Watch out for environmental toxins. Developing brains should be kept away from harmful chemicals that can affect growth, says Dr. Narvaez, citing the study. This includes those found in plastics like BPA (bis-phenol-A). When buying baby plastic items like bottles, nipples, utensils, bowls and toys, make sure you read the packaging. Your best option is to look for the “100% PVC-free” label or to check if the item has the numbers 1, 2 or 4 as this means the plastic product is not made with BPA, according to WebMD.
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Of course, these tips are not exclusive to boys. All babies need love and support for optimal development and to be able to reach their potential. Parents are the primary caregivers, so don’t hold back!