Book Review: Brain-Based Parenting: The Neuroscience of Caregiving for Healthy Attachment

Neuroscience and cognitive psychology are two of several exciting new fields about the brain and behavior. This book does sound justice to these subjects and to the evolving way that science can (and must) inform and assist everyday human endeavors, including parenting.
08/09/2012 11:31 am ET Updated Oct 09, 2012

Book Review:
Brain-Based Parenting: The Neuroscience of Caregiving for Healthy Attachment
By Daniel A. Hughes, Jonathan Baylin and Daniel J. Siegel -- W. W. Norton, 2012

Brain-Based Parenting is a long way from what we read decades ago when Dr. Spock (the pediatrician, not the Star Trek star) was explaining and guiding parents in how to care for their children. The distance is, however, principally in terms of understanding how the brain works -- the neurobiology underlying attachment, attunement, and good and not-so-good parenting. That is the strength of this book, and a remarkable strength it is.

Readers be warned: This book takes work. It takes careful reading, digesting complex material, and considering how we are both a product of our biology (and neurodevelopmental evolution) and how we can influence our biology. The book is as much a textbook of neurobiology as it is a parenting manual.

The opening chapters are the most brain-based, and perhaps the best. The reader will learn about key brain regions (the amygdala, hippocampus, insula, overall limbic system, and prefrontal/orbitofrontal/anteriocingulate cortices), mirror neurons, the vagus nerve, vegetative and autonomic nervous systems, and a host of neurotransmitters such as oxytocin (the attachment neurotransmitter), dopamine (the brain's pleasure neurotransmitter), GABA, serotonin, adrenalin and brain growth factors. This neuroscience course is tremendously aided by the authors' use of summary boxes, graphics and photos. But it is not "neuroscience for dummies"; it is neuroscience for serious students of the brain, behavior and parenting.

Subsequent chapters get down to the business of parenting. They cover what the authors regard as the principal "domains" of effective parenting (approach, reward, child-reading, meaning-making and parental executive functioning), "blocked care" (how parents are internally constrained from doing right), their formula for caregiving (PACE -- playfulness, acceptance, curiosity and empathy), how parents can master their own emotional regulation, and "reflective functioning," or how parents can feel and think, how parents can eschew judging and reacting and replace this with understanding.

This foundation in cognitive neuroscience is what I will remember the most from the book. I now can imagine what I can do to release oxytocin in my brain (give my wife or son or a dear friend a hug), or dopamine, or how to prompt my cortex to override limbic fears and impulses and in so doing "be the adult in the room." I can begin to appreciate how developing mindfulness and a meaningful mental narrative can avert powerful but not helpful defensive and reactive judgments, and how this will lead to being a more "attuned" and successful parent, or person in general.

To my surprise, the opening chapters (not the coaching that followed) were what left me the most enlightened. But I was forewarned by the authors in chapter one, when they remarked that "Parenting is a brain thing." The authors' parental teaching and coaching was rather menu-driven, even if sophisticated, clear and directive. But advice surrounds us and understanding is in short supply. The book's contributions to understanding were what distinguish it. The book is not really a self-help book, but it does provide help.

There were many sections in the book on what happens between a therapist and a patient during psychotherapy. As a psychiatrist who has done a great deal of therapy, I found these interesting. But they strayed from the core and critical topics of the book, namely cognitive neuroscience and parenting, which were in themselves enough to digest. I don't comprehend what purpose this material will provide parents looking to learn.

Brain-Based Parenting is one in a W. W. Norton series on interpersonal neurobiology, launched by Daniel J. Siegel, M.D. Neuroscience and cognitive psychology are among the most exciting new fields about the brain and behavior in a long time. This book does sound justice to these subjects and to the evolving way that science can (and must) inform and assist everyday human endeavors, including, in this case, parenting. Is this book worth the wade into such complex territory? I say, stay with it and you will be rewarded, as will your progeny and the others that constitute your emotional world.


Lloyd I. Sederer, MD

Dr. Sederer's book for families who have a member with a mental illness, The Family Guide to Mental Health Care, will be published by WW Norton in the spring of 2013.

The opinions expressed here are solely mine as a psychiatrist and public health advocate. I receive no support from any pharmaceutical or device company.

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