How the Vagus Nerve Is Central to Infant Emotional Development

Our vagus nerve is linked to how we self-regulate stressful situations. How well the vagus nerve develops in-vitro and infancy can have a lasting impact on emotional development both in childhood and later in life. This article explains the importance of the vagus nerve with the healthy development of an infant’s stress response. We'll also take a look at tips on how parents can help stimulate and strengthen their child's vagal nerve to ensure a lifetime of healthy coping skills.

Key takeaways:
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    Our vagus nerve starts to develop in the third trimester of pregnancy, and continues to rapidly develop as infants start to grow and explore.
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    During an infant's first year, the vagus nerve is strengthened by positive social interactions.
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    A weak vagus nerve can be caused by abandonment, neglect, and an unsafe or unpredictable caretaker.
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    A mother or parent can help their baby develop a strong vagal system with consistent love and attention.

What is the vagus nerve?

The vagus nerve is a critical pathway for our parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest), connecting our brain to various essential body functions, including digestion, mood, heart rate, and immune response.

The sensory nerve significantly influences our gut health by controlling smooth muscle contraction in our intestines and communicating to the brain and other vital organs about what is going on in the gut. This is also called the Brain-Gut Axis and helps to control inflammation.

Through the control of our breathing and heart rate, the vagus nerve directly impacts our stress response and our ability to calm ourselves down. There is a link between infant vagal tone (the activity and strength of the vagus nerve) and a baby's eventual development of anxiety, depression, and chronic stress.

When does the vagus nerve develop?

We are not born with the fully developed vagus nerve. An infant's nervous system is rapidly changing during the first year. During the third trimester of pregnancy, the primary goal of the vagal system is establishing breathing, obtaining food, and regulating body temperature to survive outside of the womb.

Throughout an infant's first year, the further development of the vagus nerve expands to the ability to engage with objects, other people, and their surrounding environment through physiological regulation of the essential functions of life — breathing, eating, and heart rate.

Effects on emotional development

Since we are mammals, we are incapable of caring for ourselves. We are dependent on others to provide a safe environment. The development and strength of our vagus nerve is also highly reliant on other people meeting not only our basic needs but also our social and emotional needs.

A loving environment helps infants develop strong or high vagal tone, allowing for a positive transition from dependence on caretakers to well-adjusted, independent adolescents and adults.

Benefits of strong vagal tone

A strong vagal system developed during infancy sets the foundation for future social interactions, resilience, and overall well-being. People with high vagal tone typically have the following:

  • Higher self-esteem
  • Positive social bonds
  • Ability to recover from stressful situations or traumatic events
  • Can independently take care of themselves
  • Comfortable being alone

Risks of low vagal tone

If infants are neglected either physically or emotionally, raised in a chaotic or unpredictable household, or have depressed or chronically stressed mothers or caregivers, they can develop low vagal tone — which can negatively impact the rest of their life.

If an infant's basic physical and emotional needs are not met, they are at a high risk of developing:

  • High emotional reactivity
  • Attachment disorders
  • Poor impulse control
  • Lower attention spans
  • Anxiety and depression
  • Difficulty connecting with other people
  • Lack of resilience

The Polyvagal Theory highlights the connection between the evolution of the vagus system and how it can foster or inhibit social relationships. Since the vagus nerve runs through our face, neck, thorax, and abdomen, it has control over body systems that encompass social cues, such as facial expressions, speaking, behavioral meltdowns, and emotional shutdown.

Many people mistakenly think children are naturally resilient and can adapt to any situation. While that may be true for children who grew up in an environment that fostered a healthy nervous system development, many children with low vagal tone struggle to cope with stress and traumatic events and how regulate their emotions.

How you can gauge vagal tone

In addition to self-regulating emotions, people can gauge vagal tone by comparing it to their heart rate variability (HRV). However, there is no way to measure it directly.

The HRV is the fluctuation of time between heartbeats. It may change depending on your current activity and state, such as exercising, stress, and relaxing.

Since the vagus nerve is the communication pathway between your heart and brain, it has a lot of influence over your heart and respiratory rates. A high HRV means your body can successfully cope with stressful situations and calm itself down.

In contrast, a low HRV signals that your body cannot manage stressful situations and may lead to future health problems such as diabetes, high blood pressure, heart arrhythmia, and mental health disorders.

How to strengthen infant vagal tone

Becoming a new parent is complicated and stressful. Many people talk about how important it is to bond with your baby. Still, they may not understand how emotional interaction with an infant directly impacts their ability to deal with stress as an adult.

The good news is there are ways to help strengthen your infant's vagal tone. You are probably doing them already and they are free.

Tips on positively impacting your infant's nervous system include:

  • Let them explore safe objects with their mouth, such as spoons or safe toys, to stimulate the vagus nerve.
  • Take care of yourself and ensure your own emotional needs are being met.
  • Establish a secure emotional attachment with your infant.
  • Create a calm and predictable home environment.
  • The most valuable tool is love and support.
  • Make your baby belly laugh.
  • Gently massage your baby.
  • Talk and sing to you baby.

Love and attention are the common denominators for strengthening your baby's vagus nerve. While we all come from different backgrounds and life experiences, providing your child with consistent love, encouragement, and a safe environment is critical to your infant's emotional development and well-being.

If you are an adult and you know or suspect your vagal tone is low, there are a number of vagal toning devices that you can use to improve it.

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