State of USA Today

Child mental and physical wellbeing have been on the decline for over 50 years in the USA, the wealthiest nation on earth. People under the age of 60 score at or near the bottom on multiple health indicators than citizens in 16 other advanced nations.[1] The USA has heightening epidemics of depression, anxiety, psychosocial and health problems at all ages.[2] Because humans are holistic creatures, attachment, sociality and moral capacities have also been declining (e.g., empathy, moral reasoning).[3] Avoidant attachment has been increasing along with narcissism, both of which undermine social and citizenship capacities.[4] Sociopathy has become a cultural phenomenon.[5]

Although there are likely multiple causes, we can surely point to one basic cause with converging evidence from across the human sciences. Early life toxic stress.[6]  Recent research is tempering views that deficits from poor early care can be easily outgrown; many cannot be.[7] In fact, an increasing amount of converging evidence across animal, human psychological, neurobiological and anthropological research demonstrates the later vulnerability of brain and body systems among those with poor early care.[8]

What is needed for healthy child development? The evolved nest.

Converging research is demonstrating that human development is biosocial: healthy bodies, brains and sociality are formed from early experience provided by family and community. Every animal has an evolved nest (evolved developmental niche; EDN) for its young that forms part of an extra-genetic inheritance corresponding to the needs and maturational pace of offspring.[9] Humans evolved to have the most helpless newborns and the longest maturational schedule of any animal.[10] Human child-raising practices, rooted in social mammalian parenting over 30 million years old, evolved to accommodate these factors and were practiced for over 99% of human genus existence and still are in some indigenous cultures.[11] The evolved nest in early life includes soothing perinatal experiences, extensive breastfeeding and positive touch, free play with multi-aged peers and nature connection. Human variations observed among hunter-gatherer societies also include positive social support for the mother-child dyad and multiple responsive adult caregivers.[12] All these caregiving practices are correlated with health outcomes, but also with social and moral development.[13]

Justice for Children, Societal Wellbeing

Our concern for young children and their caregivers is rooted in our concern for justice. To not receive the Evolved Developmental Niche (EDN), Evolved Nest, in early life can be perceived as an injustice to a child, with serious ramifications for the child’s future. If brain and body system thresholds are established suboptimally in early years—not by trauma, but simply by not providing care that children evolved to need, then children may not reach their potential or become cognitively and socially underdeveloped. For example, children who do not receive supportive parenting early are less likely to behave prosocially.[14] They are more likely to be self-centered and uncooperative.[15] While such children may sometimes function well enough as adults, holding down jobs and raising families, we are interested in caregiving environments that foster optimal development. Specifically, we are interested in the development of proactive concern for others—an orientation that includes a sense of social responsibility, global citizenship and prioritizing care for others, including the natural world.


[1] National Research Council (2013). U.S. Health in International Perspective: Shorter Lives, Poorer Health. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

[2] e.g., UNICEF (2007). Child poverty in perspective: An overview of child well-being in rich countries, a comprehensive assessment of the lives and well-being of children and adolescents in the economically advanced nations, Report Card 7. Florence, Italy: United Nations Children’s Fund Innocenti Research Centre; Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (2009). Doing better for children. Paris: OECD Publishing.; Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (2013), How’s Life? 2013: Measuring Well-being, OECD Publishing. http://dx.doi.org/10.1787/9789264201392-en

[3] e.g., Konrath, S. H., O'Brien, E. H., & Hsing, C. (2011). Changes in dispositional empathy in American college students over time: a meta-analysis. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 15, 180-198. 

[4] Twenge, J. & Campbell, R. (2009) The narcissism epidemic: Living in the age of entitlement. Free Press.  

[5] Derber, C. (2013). Sociopathic society: A people’s sociology of the United States. Boulder, CO: Paradigm Press.

[6] Lanius, R. A., Vermetten, E., & Pain, C. (2010). The impact of early life trauma on health and disease: The hidden epidemic. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press;  Shonkoff, J.P., Garner, A.S. The Committee on Psychosocial Childhood, Adoption, and Dependent Care, and Section on Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics, Dobbins,  M.I., Earls, M.F., McGuinn, L., … & Wood, D.L. (2012). The lifelong effects of early childhood adversity and toxic stress.Pediatrics, 129, e232; Van der Kolk, B. (2014). The body keeps the score. New York: Penguin.

[7] (e.g., Karr-Morse, R., & Wiley, M.S. (2012). Scared sick: The role of childhood trauma in adult disease. New York: Basic Books.; Lupien, S.J., McEwen, B.S., Gunnar, M.R., & Heim, C. (2009). Effects of stress throughout the lifespan on the brain, behaviour and cognition, Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 10(6), 434-445. 

[8] Felitti, V. J., & Anda, R. F. (2005). The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study. Atlanta: Centers for Disease Control and Kaiser Permanente.

[9] Gottlieb, G. (2002). On the epigenetic evolution of species-specific perception: The developmental manifold concept. Cognitive Development, 17, 1287–1300.; Oyama, S., Griffiths, P.E., & Gray, R.D. (2001). Cycles of contingency: Developmental systems and evolution. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

[10] Montagu, A. (1968). Brains, genes, culture, immaturity, and gestation. In A. Montagu (Ed.), Culture: Man’s adaptive dimension (pp. 102-113). New York: Oxford.

[11] Hewlett, B.S., & Lamb, M.E. (2005). Hunter-gatherer childhoods: evolutionary, developmental and cultural perspectives. New Brunswick, NJ: Aldine.

[12] Hrdy, S. (2009). Mothers and others: The evolutionary origins of mutual understanding. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press.

[13] e.g., Narvaez, D., Wang, L., Cheng, A., Gleason, T., Woodbury, R., Kurth, A., & Lefever, J.B. (2019). The importance of early life touch for psychosocial and moral development. Psicologia: Reflexão e Crítica, 32:16 (open access). doi.org/10.1186/s41155-019-0129-0; Narvaez, D., Woodbury, R., Gleason, T., Kurth, A., Cheng, A., Wang, L., Deng, L., Gutzwiller-Helfenfinger, E., Christen, M., & Näpflin, C. (2019). Evolved Development Niche provision: Moral socialization, social maladaptation and social thriving in three countries. Sage Open, 9(2). https://doi.org/10.1177/2158244019840123l Narvaez, D., Wang, L, & Cheng, A. (2016). Evolved Developmental Niche History: Relation to adult psychopathology and morality. Applied Developmental Science, 20(4), 294-309. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/10888691.2015.1128835; Narvaez, D., Gleason, T., Wang, L., Brooks, J., Lefever, J., Cheng, A., & Centers for the Prevention of Child Neglect (2013). The Evolved Development Niche: Longitudinal effects of caregiving practices on early childhood psychosocial development. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 28 (4), 759–773. Doi: 10.1016/j.ecresq.2013.07.003

Narvaez, D., Wang, L., Gleason, T., Cheng, A., Lefever, J., & Deng, L.  (2013). The Evolved Developmental Niche and sociomoral outcomes in Chinese three-year-olds. European Journal of Developmental Psychology, 10(2), 106-127; Narvaez, D. (Ed.)  (2018). Basic needs, wellbeing and morality: Fulfilling human potential. New York: Palgrave-MacMillan; Narvaez, D. (2016). Embodied morality: Protectionism, engagement and imagination. New York, NY: Palgrave-Macmillan.

[14] Kochanska, G. (2002). Mutually responsive orientation between mothers and their young children: A context for the early development of conscience. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 11, 191-195. 

[15] Sroufe, L.A., Egeland, B, Carlson, E.A., & Collins, W.A. (2008). The development of the person: The Minnesota study of risk and adaptation from birth to adulthood. New York: Guilford.


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Institutional Policies That Support The Evolved Nest


Paid Parental Leave. Paid parental leave will allow parents to be responsive to the ongoing needs of their young children, preventing the toxic stress that arises from babies left alone, to cry or in stranger daycare.

All nations should provide paid parental leave for at least a year, if not longer, so that parents can focus their full attention on bonding and building responsive care based on the needs of the child. Several European nations are effectively implementing this practice (Pew Research Center 2016).  

 Government supplementation of quality child care would reduce worker turnover. Free market systems do not work properly for this service as most parents cannot afford the cost of a highly educated and trained caregiver who provides quality care. Teachers also struggle within the profession due to unsustainably low wages.


Community Education about the Evolved Nest. Many parents and communities have forgotten what babies need for healthy development. The new research on epigenetic effects of experience on wellbeing must be widely disseminated.


The 2013 book, Evolution, Early Experience and Human Development (Edited by Drs. Darcia Narvaez, Jaak Panksepp, Allan Schore & Tracy Gleason) suggested that researchers do the following: 

(1) Establish a baseline for evolved human functioning; 

(2) Examine current epidemic problems in light of evolved, expected care (e.g., anxiety, depression, Sudden Infant Death Syndrome); 

(3) Examine the effects of the missing evolved and expected care on health and immunity, including cancer (e.g., vagus nerve function) 

(4) Establish a national database on the relation of early experience to mental health.

(5) Establish a research initiative focused on how the missing evolved, expected care may affect mental health at all ages.


The 2013 book, Evolution, Early Experience and Human Development (Edited by Drs. Darcia Narvaez, Jaak Panksepp, Allan Schore & Tracy Gleason) suggested that professional organizations do the following: 

  • Formulate policy statements on parenting.
  • Formulate policy statements on structuring society and institutions to support children and families.


National Workplace Breastfeeding Resources

Break Time for Nursing Mothers Law. See the Center for Worklife Law's extensive study into the limited provisions of this law.

EXPLOSED: Discrimination Against Breastfeeding Workers. This first comprehensive report on breastfeeding discrimination reveals widespread and devastating consequences for breastfeeding workers.

United States Breastfeeding Committee -See a full list of the federal law, provisions and FAQs here.

The Business Case for Breastfeeding. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HRSA).  Worksite lactation support information and toolkit for employers and employees.

What Employers Need to Know – US Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Women’s Health 

State Level Workplace Breastfeeding Rights – US Department of Labor

Investing In Workplace Breastfeeding Programs and Policies, from the National Business Group on Health

Creating a Breastfeeding Friendly Workplace Strategy, A Toolkit for Employers

Paid Family Leave Resources

Connecticut Permanent Commission on the Status of Women

Report of the Family Medical Leave Insurance Taskforce

National Parternship for Women and Families

Expecting Better (2014)

2014 Leave Legislation

2013 Family Leave Legislation

2012 Family Leave Legislation

Family, Sick and Parental Leave Laws