Darcia Narvaez, University of Notre Dame – Companionship Care

Associate Professor Darcia Fe Narvaez..Photo by Matt Cashore/University of Notre Dame

Associate Professor Darcia Fe Narvaez..Photo by Matt Cashore/University of Notre Dame

Do we need to be social right after our birth?

Darcia Narvaez, professor of psychology at the University of Notre Dame, explores how companionship care for infants can have great benefits throughout the baby’s life.

Darcia Narvaez is a Professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Notre Dame. Her prior careers include professional musician, classroom music teacher, business owner, seminarian and middle school Spanish teacher. Dr. Narvaez’s current research explores how early life experience influences societal culture and moral character in children and adults. She integrates neurobiological, clinical, developmental and education sciences in her theories and research about moral development. She is the author or editor of numerous books and articles. Her most recent book, Neurobiology and the Development of Human Morality: Evolution, Culture and Wisdom (2014), won the 2015 William James Book Award from the American Psychological Association.  She is executive editor of the Journal of Moral Education and also writes a popular blog for Psychology Today called “Moral Landscapes.”

Companionship Care


Children’s wellbeing in the US is trending downwards and is typically way behind other advanced nations.

Why? Have we forgotten something? Yes. We have forgotten that we are social mammals with specific evolved needs from birth.

Babies at full-term birth are highly immature with 75% of the brain left to develop after birth. So babies need intensive care that builds a healthy brain and body. In fact, like all animals, humans evolved with a nest of care for their young. We call it the Evolved Developmental Niche.

The Evolved Developmental Niche is about companionship care. What’s that?

One: Soothing, naturalistic birth experiences.

Two: Responsiveness to baby’s needs so that baby does not get distressed; sensitivity to the signals of the baby before the baby cries.

Three: Constant physical presence: carrying baby in arms, plenty of affectionate touch.

Four: Extensive breastfeeding for proper development of brain and immune systems.

Five: Playful interactions with caregivers and friends.

Six: All this care is provided within a community of affectionate, mindful caregivers.

The six components of the Evolved Developmental Niche are linked to health and wellbeing in children, but also in adults.

My lab examines whether they matter for moral development. They do.

Children who experience more of the Evolved Developmental Niche have more empathy, self-control and conscience. Adults who report receiving more of these parenting practices in childhood display less depression and anxiety, greater ability to take the perspective of others and an orientation to compassionate morality. Adults who report less of these parenting practices in childhood have poorer mental health, more distress in social situations and are less able to take another’s point of view. They are more focused on themselves.

When we give babies what they evolved to need, they develop a more cooperative nature, wellbeing, and greater emotional and moral intelligence.