Turbo-Charge Your Infant’s Brain Development With The Mommy Mind Meld (Guest Post by Marcy Axness, PhD)

“It was my four years of RIE classes (two with each of my two children) that set me on the path culminating in what I’m writing you about today. I’m struck by the deep similarities in our stories.”

This was my introduction to Marcy Axness, Ph.D., a professor of prenatal development, “parents-in-progress” coach and popular international speaker who trains childcare, adoption, education and mental health professionals about the latest findings in the science of human thriving. Marcy is the author of a critically acclaimed new book Parenting For Peace: Raising The Next Generation of Peacemakers. She is guest posting here today and tomorrow and will be available all week to respond to your questions and comments.

First, please enjoy this excerpt from Parenting For Peace

“When our first child was born, long before I learned most of what I’m writing about here, I was determined to do everything I could to maximize his development. My devotion to Ian’s betterment had begun during pregnancy, when I listened to my favorite classical music, took lots of walks, thought lots of good thoughts. This was a good start, mainly because these were all activities that inspired me.

But once he was here, a certain frenzied insecurity set in about making sure I was doing enough to stimulate his development. I promptly bought a book on baby exercise – yes, baby exercise! I dutifully followed the prescribed twice-a-day regimen of moving his various tiny limbs around and about, folding and stretching his new little body this way and that. It was supposed to get his sensory-motor development off to a head start, which sounded good to me.

As luck and fate would have it, just a couple weeks into our training plan, I attended my first RIE class and what I heard there that very first day carried the blessed ring of truth. Actually, more like the booming clang of truth. And I got it.

I could relax – I didn’t have to improve upon or optimize anything! My child had an innate intelligence that knew exactly how to unfold the unique body that was his. He didn’t need me to pose it, bend it, or prop it into positions that were not yet natural for him.

A basic tenet of the RIE approach is “non-interference in gross motor development” – we allow the innate intelligence of the baby’s developing body to determine when he first rolls over, sits up, stands, walks, and so on. This autonomy of movement fosters important integrative development between various brain areas that end up impacting later capacities for far more than just movement…”


Turbo-Charge Your Infant’s Brain Development With The Mommy Mind-Meld ~ The Power of Parental Example

Imitation is the young child’s primary form of learning, which is why one of my first bits of guidance to parents coming to me for counseling is to cut down by at least 50% the sheer number of words they say to their young child. Children learn from who we are and what we do far more than from what we say. And credible leaders don’t yammer on and on. There is a wonderful balance that can be found along these lines within a RIE context: offering authentic respect and respectfully limited choices while exercising restraint over extraneous chatter, which so often (as it did with me in my early mother days) finds its roots in parental insecurities. Addressing those inner issues is really what this discussion is about!

So let’s get to this exciting topic of…

The Mommy Mind Meld

One of the most powerful ways in which this parent-as-model process shapes your child’s optimal wellbeing is in the realm of actual brain development: the relatively new field of attachment neurobiology has revealed that our babies and children actually piggyback on the self-regulation capacities of the limbic systems in our own brain! When you hold a distressed infant in your arms, the soothing she experiences doesn’t just come from your secure embrace, but also from the actual regulation and modulation of her aroused nervous system that happens when her immature social-emotional brain actually links up with your more mature one!

While the researchers use such terms as “biological synchronicity”[i] and “limbic resonance,”[ii] the sci-fi image of “mind-melding” captures it well. Writes one researcher, in evident awe, “It is a biologically based communication system that involves individual organisms directly with one another: the individuals in spontaneous communication constitute literally a biological unit.”[iii]

But it gets even wilder than that, and has more far-reaching implications for your child’s lifelong wellbeing and success: over the days and months and years of such attuned, connected encounters, the circuitry of your baby’s social brain wires up to emulate yours! Attachment neurobiology pioneer Allan Schore puts it bluntly: “The mother is downloading emotion programs into the infant’s right brain. The child is using the output of the mother’s right hemisphere as a template for the imprinting, the hard wiring, of circuits in his own right hemisphere that will come to mediate his expanding affective capacities, an essential element of his emerging personality.”[iv]

What that means in plain English is that engaged, attuned, playful interactions with us are a basic and essential form of nourishment for our babies. Bruce Perry points out that developing brains require human interaction as fervently as caloric nutrition for their healthy growth! (For more on this, read the Mommy Mind Meld excerpt from “Parenting for Peace”.)

What is NOT nourishing to the developing brain (this will come as no surprise to RIE-savvy parents) is “electronic engagement” — which is largely an oxymoron, as far as the social brain is concerned. I’m referring to Baby Einstein and other info-tainment, as well as data on the screens of iPhones, iPads, and lapware computers designed for babies. The Baby Einstein juggernaut bears commenting on, just in case you feel like the mom who said, “You want to make sure you’re doing everything you can for your child, and you know everyone else uses Baby Einstein, so you feel guilty if you don’t.” In case you missed it, in 2007 Baby Einstein, along with all other so-called educational screened programming, was found to be associated with delayed language development; television or video watching at this age, said an American Academy of Pediatrics spokesperson, “probably interferes with the crucial wiring being laid down in their brains during early development.”[v]

The take-away is, our children wire up to be us ourselves, from the very beginning; this foundation then serves as their launching pad, at the most basic level of brain structure, for surpassing us into higher realms of accomplishment, social intelligence, and joyous self-mastery.

The Power of Example (With a Miraculous Twist)

For this and many other reasons related to the potent teaching power of models, a fruitful question to ask yourself, ideally beginning even before you have a child, is “Am I worthy of my child’s unquestioning imitation?” Daunting, yes. But it’s best to realize early on that whether or not you can answer “Yes” to this question, what you see in the mirror is to a great extent what you will see in your child. And, most likely in your child as an adult.

But don’t despair: Nature seems to have built in a special mechanism that allows us to give our children a fighting chance to surpass us. If our children’s potential was constrained by the limitations of our own accomplishment, we’d be doomed! We’d have to wait until our sixties, seventies, eighties — or maybe never — before we’d feel prepared to be parents. Nature has brilliantly built into the system that our children most powerfully respond to our inner life; thus, it is the ideals, aspirations and earnest striving we engage in that greatly shapes them — our upward striving that helps Life, in theologian John Cobb’s words, to “exert its gentle pressure everywhere, encouraging each thing to become more than it is.”[vi]

Indeed, as I look back into my own history as a new mother, I recognize it quite starkly: if this mommy mind meld deal were merely a copy-and-paste situation, my son and my daughter wouldn’t have had much hope. Motherhood brought me to my knees, and it was many years before I recognized that I had suffered from what I’ve come to call CCPD — Chronic Covert Postpartum Depression. I had grief and rage bubbling up all over. It was really hard for me to be present. RIE classes quite possibly saved me, as well as my children! For one thing, the power of example was at work: my RIE teacher Liz Memel provided me an invaluable model of the simple presence I was struggling to give Ian. And she also gave me the gift of seeing me: just as RIE promotes respect of an infant or a toddler’s true experience, RIE gave me permission to be exactly who I was, complete with my imperfect experience of motherhood.

So here’s the thing I have learned about us as models, including those of us (which is pretty much all of us??) hoping our children don’t emulate us completely. I have learned the power of striving. Through all my struggles with mothering, I never stopped striving — for insight, for healing, for wholeness. And that changed everything, and I believe it is why my son and daughter have both flourished into their early adulthood.

What does this miraculous striving look like day to day? Presence. Mindfulness. Renouncing multi-tasking in favor of uni-tasking. Being fully engaged with all of you in whatever you’re doing. (RIE parents have an advantage, since RIE practice is essentially mindfulness!)

(To be continued)

 Please share your thoughts with Marcy. I know she’d love to hear them!

[i] Schore, A. N. “Attachment and the Regulation of the Right Brain.” Attachment and Human Development 2, no. 1 (2000): 23-47.

[ii] Lewis, Thomas et al. A General Theory of Love. New York: Random House, 2000.

[iii] Buck, R. “The Neuropsychology of Communication: Spontaneous and Symbolic Aspects.” Journal of Pragmatics 22 (1994): 265-78, quoted in Schore, Allan N. “The Neurobiology of Attachment and Early Personality Organization.” Journal of Prenatal and Perinatal Psychology and Health 16, no. 3 (2002): 249-63; italics added for emphasis.

[iv] Schore, Allan N. “The Neurobiology of Attachment and Early Personality Organization.” Journal of Prenatal and Perinatal Psychology and Health 16, no. 3 (2002), pg. 258.

[v] Christakis, Dominic A. “The Effects of Infant Media Usage:  What Do We Know and What Should We Learn?” Acta Paediactrica 98 (2009): 8-16. The researchers put so fine a point on the infant media debacle as to declare, “Parents hoping to raise baby Einsteins by using infant educational videos are actually creating baby Homer Simpsons.” My contempt knows no bounds for an enterprise that leverages parents’ insecurities and fears (Will my child have what it takes to succeed in this ever more complicated world?) into a frantic market for baby-improvement “infotainment” that flies in the face of everything science knows about what infants and young children need for healthy development. They even thumbed their nose at the American Pediatric Association’s guideline that children under two shouldn’t watch any television.

[vi] Quoted in Cobb, J.J. Cybergrace: The Search for God in the Digital World. New York: Crown, 1998, pg. 56.


Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. This is awesome! Thank you for sharing. Just to know that you have experienced depression and your kids are thriving brings a much needed sense of peace to my mind 🙂

  2. I’m glad to know it is helpful to you, Sarah. What is it they say in 12-step? Sharing our experience, hope and strength. Certainly depression is nothing I’d wish on anyone, and while I don’t really engage in regret, oh how I would love to be able to revisit those days in a more tranquil and centered mode. But that is life, eh? Spirals of experience, growth… and sharing that.

    I go into more depth about depression in the book, including some practical and very effective (unconventional) interventions. The mindfulness, respect and community at the heart of RIE is certainly so very helpful and healing!

    1. Marcy, thank you again for sharing your wisdom! I just want to mention that I had depression after my first baby, too. Some of it might have been due to the fact that I had a retained placenta… and my hormones were all over the place. I can totally relate to “how I would love to be able to revisit those days in a more tranquil and centered mode.”

      Another big reason I was depressed was that I thought being a parent would be joyful and easy and I was shocked when it was really, really hard and confusing. Like you, Marcy, I found clarity and healing when I discovered the RIE approach. It changed everything for me. When we are in big transitions (like becoming a mom), I believe that our needs become similar to those of our toddlers…clarity, clarity, clarity.

  3. You’re so right, Janet. Postpartum depression is such a complex tapestry (and why writing about it with such brevity can be frustrating, simply because it’s hard to give that blessed clarity AND a full picture). So many ingredients, I believe, including several others I delve into in the book.

    I believe a huge one is that when we have our baby in our arms, the baby *we* once were is right there, too, with whatever unhealed stuff… unmet needs… griefs, rages, etc. were true for us then. It can really be blindsiding! This is a huge issue for fathers as well, a topic that Jack Travis has been writing about for years, under the umbrella title of “Why Men Leave.” Tough stuff, but healing always there for the finding!

    1. I had a profound experience with “the baby *we* once were being there” years ago when I was working with a mom (who also happened to be a psychotherapist). When her daughter was 7 months old, the mom began feeling exceedingly anxious and depressed. She shared with me that when she was 7 months old, her parents had left her for 6 weeks while they traveled abroad. She relived this trauma through her baby, finding her parents’ actions incomprehensible… “How could they leave me for so long when I was this small?”

      1. Yes, I see that so often. And of course experienced it myself. Not only are we apt to re-experience the *feelings* we had with whatever less-than-nurturing situations we were in… but we also get the double-whammy of now being parents and not being able to IMAGINE doing that (or *not* doing that, as the case may be) to our own child at the age we experienced that. (Did that make sense…??) Exactly as you put it: “How could that when I was that age??”

  4. Very interesting theories! They are quite inspiring. I find it intriguing that you would advise to cut down words by 50%. I have never really talked a lot to my daughter (2 1/2) and have felt bad about that and even self-concious in front of family and friends because I don’t know what to say to my baby.

    Our circumstances are also a little different, in that we’re raising her biligually. My husband speaks German with her, I speak as much German with her as I can, but really I mix and go back and forth between Enlish (my first language) and German. So hearing her speak less than her peers (which is perfectly normal) makes me feel nervous because I know that I’m not talking with her all day long at home. After reading this I feel a sense of calm knowing that communication is more than just talking and I can tell she is mirroring me as she plays.

  5. Jolanda Corbijn says:

    I was just wondering if you are aware of the continuuim concept by Jean Liedloff. It has been helpful for me. She was a social antropologist and psycologist.

  6. A great article thank you! I too am so pleased and relieved to hear your suggestion of talking less. My husband and I, when our son was born, swore we would not be one of those couples that never stopped chatting to their child! The running commentry of the sports announcer parent. It just felt so wrong, we would see them at the playground and just want to shout “shut up and leave them alone!” it also feels very false and insecure to us. Our son is now 2 years and 4 months and for the past 6 months I have been feeling under a huge pressure to talk constantly because of his speech delays. I’ve been questioning my parenting a lot. Of course we DO talk to him and I hate the assumption that it’s our fault because we don’t talk enough (for instance very well meaning friends who say useful things like “we read books to her, that’s why her speech is so advanced” (as if we don’t!). But I can see that a lot of these friends with 2 year olds who speak fluently, also have 2 year olds that are virtually incapable of playing alone, never really having been given the opportunity. Our sons speech is slowly coming along and I’m sure (I hope!) he will arrive at fluent speech eventually. I don’t need him to hurry for my sake but it is sometimes hard when you parent a bit differently to those around you!!

  7. Thank you all for these juicy comments! I think one keynote to keep in mind is AUTHENTICITY in our communication. If we’re talking because we’re “supposed” to, the communication BEHIND the words isn’t really going to be of the caliber that we probably want, yes? Remember, children emulate pretty much everything about us, including possibly “forced and contrived” communication!

    Yes, there is research about the number of words used in a day in the home of a child correlating with speech development, and delays in such… but I have to believe (and let me disclaim that I am NOT expert in this particular area) that it is similar to reading and so many other developmental milestones and processes: the early and the late bloomers all tend to even out in the end (if that makes sense in the not-very-elegant way I wrote that!).

    But what I see as one risk factor for the late bloomers is them picking up on and internalizing the parents’ worries that there is something wrong… with them. Principle #6 of the 7 principles upon which “Parenting for Peace” is based is TRUST — in a child’s own time table, in the wisdom of a child’s unfolding intelligence(s), in so many of the things going on that are outside our perception and control!

    Now, I should at this point clarify my opening statement about talking less. I was referring to the young child (who’s already verbal). In fact it’s sort of been my rule of thumb to talk all you want until they can “understand” you, and then dial it way back. (Don’t know if this makes ANY sense…?) Yes, it’s good for baby’s to hear language, for sure (that’s one of the myriad reasons babies of depressed mothers show various delays–depressed mothers say fewer words, and the words they do say are often drained of affect)… but I SO agree with you, Penny, about the sports announcer thing! I think we want to avoid ESPN Parenting, eh?! (And re: your mention of it seeming “insecure”–be sure to read my long comment after Pt. II about that.)

    I think the magic word here (together with authenticity) is BALANCE. Ultimately it has to feel right to you; and sure, sometimes we have to stretch ourselves so it might not feel right right away. Just like some of the “RIE-speak” didn’t necessarily feel natural at first, simply because it was so at odd with our cultural programming, i.e., actually addressing a baby as if he or she was present and aware…??!! Heavens!!

    Penny & Rebecca, Einstein was a “late speaker” and evidently didn’t really speak fluently until age nine! So… trust.

    And yes, Jolanda, Jean and I became phone friends near the end of her life, when I contacted her for permission to use an excerpt from one of her articles in my book. In fact, we had planned for me to drop by her houseboat for lunch early March of last year. I wasn’t ultimately able to make it, and just days later she passed. I’m glad we had had our lively chats on the phone at least.

    Thanks, all, for chiming in!

  8. Hi Janet and Marcey, there is such a great amount of wonderful information for parents here. I also work with parents using mindfulness techniques and avoid giving any prescriptive advice. My own parenting journey transformed me from mother from hell to mother who can acknowledge heaven by simply being more aware…aware that my world is a projected one, if I’m angry or upset, my child can be too. Interestingly I’ve found that sometimes they are the first ones to alert me to my own emotions ! Luckily I’ve stopped trying to fix them, but just spend time with myself, turn my thoughts around and then connect in a much better way to my children. Such Joy!

    Wonderful Work – and sorry to miss you at the conference in the UK next weekend Marcy I had hoped to be there.

    thanks again
    Kathy White – http://www.joyfulparents.co.uk

    1. Oh my gosh, Kate, yes — sorry too that you won’t be there. I fly away tomorrow evening! Hopefully our paths will cross at some point… Thanks for your thoughts, and for the work you do. So important.

  9. I’m grateful to read the conversation here! I resonate so deeply with the struggles we face as mothers to heal our history as we learn to lovingly parent. Growing up in foster care, I have had much to grieve, heal and re-learn, and still do! Similarly, I was also inspired to work with mothers and support them to connect within as they mother. It is so wonderful when I read authentic articles and conversations like this, that inspire me and which I feel confident referring mothers to. Thank you both for your hard work on behalf of mothers and children…and thank you all for your sharing!

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