So let's look at what I do that makes me an "earth mother"; I breastfed, co-cot slept with my second - first was moses basket and cot and I couldn't cope with being that exhausted again! Plus I had read material from McKenna and felt as I was breastfeeding, baby was safer with me and at increased risk of SIDS sole sleeping in a cot. I try to parent respectfully, with my second I used a sling - but heck that was sheer practicality; with an older toddler to chase after, having babe held close whilst I had hands free was genius - not least as it prevented "prodding baby awake to play". I also found the hours of rocking, colic and fussing were removed by using the sling - hello why would I not use one? I could never leave either of them to "cry it out" and recently I've got quite good at baking the odd biscuit - not quite managed this lentil knitting yet though I hear so much about.
Did I have a pram? yes, a baby swing? yep and a bouncy chair - quick call the Attached Parenting Police quick! Because that's another label I've apparently earned "Attached Parent". This phrase confused me for quite a while - because what is the opposite, the "Detached Parent"?
Here is the "official definition" of an attached parent:
- Preparation for Pregnancy, Birth and Parenting - I went to a couple of antenatal classes, before dropping out due to a lack of parking and bought some babygrows, not entirely sure that's what is meant though - so I guess a fail here for me. If you could have a first time again however, I would have definitely done a bit more prep!
- Feed with Love and Respect
- Respond with Sensitivity
- Use Nurturing Touch
- Ensure Safe Sleep, Physically and Emotionally
- Provide Consistent Loving Care
- Practice Positive Discipline
- Strive for Balance in Personal and Family Life (note "strive" not always achieve!)
"Attached parenting" is most aligned with what a large body of evidence tells us - and not just from a particular field. When we examine physical, psychological and emotional evidence from different quarters, it demonstrates a human infant is designed to be kept close to and nurtured by it's mother; that pregnancy, birth and immediately post partum are in fact one long intricately linked continuum. Babies have certain expectations - parents have others, whether the two meet is another question; like anything else when we veer from this norm, there can be undesirable consequences.
Sears has provided a whole evidence based handout (with references) highlighting various risks:
One study showed infants who experienced persistent crying episodes were 10 times more likely to have ADHD as a child, along with poor school performance and antisocial behavior.14 Dr. Bruce Perry, researcher at Baylor University found when chronic stress over-stimulates an infant’s brain stem, and the portions of the brain that thrive on physical and emotional input are neglected (such as when a baby is repeatedly left to cry alone), the child will grow up with an over-active adrenaline system. Such a child will display increased aggression, impulsivity, and violence later in life because the brainstem floods the body with adrenaline and other stress hormones at inappropriate and frequent times. 6
Dr. Allan Schore of the UCLA School of Medicine has demonstrated that the stress hormone cortisol actually destroys nerve connections in critical portions of an infant’s developing brain. In addition, when the portions of the brain responsible for attachment and emotional control are not stimulated during infancy, these sections of the brain will not develop. He concludes that the sensitivity and responsiveness of a parent stimulates and shapes the nerve connections in key sections of the brain responsible for attachment and emotional well-being. 7, 8
Infant developmental specialist Dr. Michael Lewis presented research findings at an American Academy of Pediatrics meeting, concluding that “the single most important influence of a child’s intellectual development is the responsiveness of the mother to the cues of her baby.”There's a lot more information including details of physical impact and references on the official handout here.
Penelope Leach, author of "The Essential First Year" examined more than 150 scientific sources and quotes study after study, including one in which three sets of parents looked after babies in different ways.
The first group fed their children on demand, carried them around with them, slept with them, and responded instantly to their crying. The second group was attentive but strove for the beginnings of some separation. And the third operated on the Fordesque “controlled crying” basis, only picking children up to be fed when the routine allowed
"At three months the distribution of crying was as you would predict,” says Leach. “The babies who were picked up most, cried less.”
“Brains that are growing and developing are very sensitive to an overload of cortisol,” Leach says. And, apparently, high levels of cortisol that build up over time can be toxic to a young baby’s rapidly developing brainDr Leach suggested unattended extreme crying bouts of 30 minutes or more could be damaging to babies.
"If you do not respond, the baby learns no response is coming," she added.You can read more in the article "It’s dangerous to leave them crying, mum"
"The reason that a baby stops crying after fifteen minutes, half an hour, three-quarters of an hour or an hour is that it has given up and that its expectations have been altered.
"I've heard it said that babies stop crying because they have learned that mummy wants them to go back to sleep.
"Babies are not capable of that sort of learning."
What many parents don't realise is that whilst they understand baby is safe in a cosy house, a baby's brain functions on a different level:
Our kids don't know they've been born into a loving family in the 21st century- for all they know it's the 2nd century and they are in a cave surrounded by tigers. Our instinctive behaviors as baby humans need to help us stay protected.
And the tigers. What about them? Define "tiger" however you want. But if you are baby with no skills in self-protection, staying with mom, having a grasp reflex, and a startle reflex that helps you grab onto your mom, especially if she's hairy, makes sense. Babies know the difference between a bassinette and a human chest. When infants are separated from their mothers, they have a "despair- withdrawal" respone.Hmmmm not sure I remember any of that being covered in any of those parenting manuals?
Some infants will quite quickly accept nobody is coming and sleep - thus reinforcing belief the technique "worked". Others will fight and keep on a yelling - much like some toddlers will happily sit by if someone pinches their toy, whilst others will hang on screeching for dear life! But even if there hasn't been high stress and hormone surges - is a child realising nobody will come when they cry (the only tool they have given they can't yell out - hey mum my gums are throbbing, or heck I'm a bit worried you've left me behind and need a cuddle) a great outcome? what are the possible implications of this longer term psychologically?
There is absolutely a difference between an older infant who needs to have a bit of a whinge before they can sleep (and my experience is some do) and one crying in distress I also believe mothers often know the difference - one is a low pitched stop and start "noise", and often the stops get longer until they are asleep. The other is a high pitched distress cry that makes the mother want to respond NOW.
So what is the long term impact of detached parenting?
Well if we know elevated cortisol levels are linked with depression, perhaps it goes some way to explaining why toddlers and children are more depressed than ever before. In the last forty to fifty years rates have increased rapidly, prompting a major Surgeon General report on children’s mental health, and sending the USA's behavioral health caseload soaring to record highs.
According to the National Mental Health Association, one in three American children suffers from depression. Magellan Behavior Health, the leading mental health provider in the United States, reports that more than 3,500 of its nearly 149,000 members with depressive disorders are under age 10.
In spite of the staggering statistics, depression remains the most under-diagnosed and under-treated illness among children and adolescents. Unlike the reddish, raised bumps of chickenpox or the leaky nose of the common cold, the symptoms of depression are not so concrete and, consequently, often go unnoticed by unsuspecting parents.
Of course the most severe levels of depression are found in children who are bereaved or who have a depressed mother, lifestyle may impact - perhaps spending hours watching tv or gaming; but the fact remains early infancy is crucial developmentally, and evidence is showing us how we parent can have a significant impact.
So next time someone suggests you train your baby or promotes such a parenting book - ask them to provide the evidence it's safe for your baby....