by Richard Boyd, Body Mind Psychotherapist, Energetics Institute, Perth, West Australia
The choice of being a parent is one of the most important and life style challenging decisions an adult will make in their life. A decision such as this often will be made in the face of one or both parents needing to work to create the lifestyle they want in life. Such a lifestyle will often create in new parents such conditions as sleep deprivation where the parent will try to serve the new babies dependency needs in the face of juggling other relationship, work and lifestyle tasks.
Today more than ever there are competing forces and demands at play which affect the ability of parents to be present to their infants and children to the extent that they would ideally want to have. Unless the family is able to financially support the mother being a stay at home mum which is not possible for most families. In our era the idealistic parenting outcome remains aloof for most mums.
Over the years society has thrown up a range of baby raising methodologies and programs for mothers to adopt in their attempt to create the best possible parenting outcome. Many programmes target the parent to create an outcome where their baby will sleep without fuss or without extended mother contact. Some of these programs are geared towards the baby while some are geared toward the parent.
The current edition of Time magazine has a very provocative cover photo of a mother breastfeeding a 3 year old boy in a posture of defiance. The photo is linked to the central article entitled “Are You Mom Enough?” and revisits the debate on parenting styles with babies and infants.
The article is a summary of Attachment Parenting and bases its example on the public and unusual example of a woman from the Playboy Mansion who mothers in this style. The photo on the cover creates a highly charged emotional association before the reader even turns the page to find the related article.
The Time Magazine choice of the advocate of this style of parenting as well as the cover page ensure a polarising and extreme form of association are crafted in the mind of the reader. This is an extreme and biased form of journalism that will not enable a balanced form of coverage to be possible about Attachment Parenting. What then are then the important considerations about parenting styles and methods such as Attachment Parenting and more modern behavioural parenting programmes.
There are two important lines of thought that a parent may want to consider in choosing such a programme. The first is the accumulated wisdom of hundreds of generations of maternal lineages of mothers that have reared children in traditional cultures. The second is the recent advances made in infant neurobiology and developmental psychopathology and our understanding of the critical role in bonding, attachment, touch, and eye mirroring between babies and the mother.
The first line of thought comes from the natural instinctual practices of mothering that we find traditionally in many cultures and which is still practiced in some communal cultures such as parts of the Caribbean, Africa and South American today. In these cultures there is a predominant theme of the baby and infant up to about 2 to 3 years old being in near constant touch and contact with either the mother or the wider family unit of siblings, relatives or community members.
Such a child is affectionately attended to and by the attention, contact, mirroring and love shown to it. If physically well and not having any significant trauma such an infant will typically feel safe, will have been stimulated and its developing window of tolerance of its nervous system engaged so that it naturally now wants to sleep. These infants have been shown in studies to quickly develop good sleep habits at an early age. They often co-sleep or sleep in proximity to their parents such as in the same room.
The baby raised in this way will typically make a lot of eye contact with its mother and others whom hold it. This is important as the baby makes meaning of its experience by learning from the facial expressions, sounds, eye dilation and touch of those holding it. This is a key way that in our human design we are all made to learn, develop and grow into emotionally expressive and mentally well adjusted children and then later adults.
There are now various forms of modern parenting methodologies that borrow from these accumulated wisdoms of traditional societies. Two such programmes are Attachment Parenting and Conscious Parenting. Both of these approaches bring elements of the traditional wisdom of mothering and parenting into a modern context, and add to this knowledge more western researched understandings of the implications, practices and technology assisted tools for parenting.
The Attachment parenting model presented in the Time magazine article and then summarised and sensationalised in such news feeds as Perth Now are emotive rather than informative. There are some important experts in the infant development fields currently touring in Australia at present whom have the detachment from sentiment and the backing of science from which to speak.
Their line of thought is informed from the rapid advances in infant neuroscience, neurobiology, and developmental psychopathology that along with other sciences are now proving what shapes the development of healthy and compromised outcome children. These sciences are in many ways completing a circle that points back to many of the age old wisdoms of traditional culture when it comes to best practice for parenting and mothering.
Neuroscience and the other related disciplines mentioned above are in broad agreement that young infants have a vast array of biopsychosocial competencies and inbuilt processes which help them to create meaning-making as a core process in their young life. The engagement of these competencies and mechanisms are central to governing both pathological (illness) and typical (healthy) outcomes, argues prominent childhood developmental psychologist Ed Tronick (2011).
Ed Tronick has an extensive background in childhood developmental research and practice, and is currently touring Australia under sponsorship by the Australian Childhood Foundation. Core to his argument about positive mental health outcomes for infants is the reciprocity and attachment bonding that occurs between mother and the young infant or baby. This implies consistency and quality of interaction between mother and baby.
Ed states in his 2011 article that “infants, as open dynamic systems, must constantly garner information to increase their complexity and coherence. They fulfil this demand by making nonverbal “meaning” – affects, movements, representations – about themselves in relation to the world and themselves into a ‘biopsychosocial state of consciousness’, which shapes their ongoing engagement with the world.”
The old societal ideas that infants lacked consciousness and therefore how we treated them was more or less insignificant, is now a proven false concept. Babies emerge into this world primed at adapt, to find meaning, and to grow and learn, primarily through their bodies and their senses. They are totally dependent on their caregivers to stimulate, engage, protect, and respond to them to make their world safe and make meaning of that world.
Ed Tronick notes that it is critically the infant-adult engagement and communication system that connects the infant with the world of people, things, and themselves, and consequently their meaning making based on those engagements. The research outcomes of Ed and other specialists in these fields is that the mother and the caregivers need an active and ongoing process of safe engagement with their babies for them to evolve and emerge into healthy childhood.
In my related article How Early Life Attachment Affect Adult Intimacy and Relationships I explored the various outcomes of the attachment process between mother and infant and to what degree health as expressed as secure attachment is achieved. The article shows that the childhood attachment process outcome has a direct correlation to the ability of the later adult to socialise and form intimate adult relationships.
Importantly we now know that infants do make meaning of those early life interactions between caregivers and the infant as well as their relation to the world of things and about themselves. When either the babies meaning making goes wrong or the caregiver is inappropriate or does not make meaningful contact consistently with the baby then an unhealthy developmental outcome may result for the baby or infant.
As a consequence Ed Tronick (2011) notes the infant may come to make meaning of themselves in a number of ways:
- Helpless and hopeless, and so they may become apathetic, depressed, and withdrawn;
- Feel threatened by the world and may become hyper vigilant and anxious or hyperactive and preservative;
- Develop rigid or deregulated patterns of self-regulatory behaviour or have difficulty making sense of themselves and others.
Ed Tronick (2011) notes that such outcomes will then “affect how infants master age-appropriate developmental tasks, such as self regulation, forming attachments with caregivers, or establishing autonomy”. He notes that “these self organising processes, via positive and negative feedback, also lead to the emergence of new systemic properties, including new developmental capacities, such as the ability to walk or use language, which in turn create new meanings”.
This means that the feedback by caregivers in their interactions with the infant is critical to the adoption of meaning that arises in the infant’s interpretation of those interactions. Unfortunately today we are witnessing some parenting programmes which are designed to create a low maintenance lifestyle for parents, but which negatively impact the baby on the way through in terms of the feedback it creates, and the developmental trauma that can result.
In contrast to the essentially negative portrayal of Attachment Parenting in the media sources mentioned earlier, some other behavioural parenting programmes seem to curry favour amongst the media community. The basis for conclusions being drawn in either direction appears to lack independent comment from experts in the field.
I have noted in recent times that articles and segments have included endorsements from media connected persons but have neglected to include comment from respected members of childhood psychology bodies such as The Australian Childhood Foundation or prominent psychologists. Respectable journalism has a duty of care to publish informed comments especially on topics such as parenting that is often not commonly referenced by many outside media commentary.
I have noticed a few new models of infant parenting which target sleep deprived parents and whose aim is typically how to have a baby sleep through the night or how the parent can still have a great life with a low maintenance overhead baby. These programmes seem to come from a premise of attending to parental needs more so than attending to the infants needs.
Given the infant is totally dependent on the caregiver for its survival and other needs then the parent focus appears to be a fundamental flaw in the architecture of the parent oriented programmes. If a behavioural programme vindicates a decision for parents to adopt a low contact model with infants then the implications of such an approach should be explained.
In common with many of these programs is a rigid and formulaic way in which parents are asked to interact with their baby with the aim of creating a programmed outcome in the child. As Ed Tronick (2011) notes the baby needs sufficient resources such as touch, eye contact, sounds, love, and colour and object rich environments, to enable them to increase their coherence and complexity and to self-organise new capacities.
The infant’s needs are situational and not able to be described or delivered from adult enforced time based or other “orderly” constructs. Babies are primed from birth for contact, touch, engagement and play.
These constructs are essentially situationally open and flexible instead of being delivered through rigid time based processes. Babies do not respond to organised adult rigidity in their interactions. That is an adult world construct. Adults will need to fit their parenting into adult oriented time routines which is just life, but infants do not need such constructs developed for their benefit alone.
Despite what is stated in some programmes, a baby cannot be spoilt in the sense that its crying is somehow a non genuine attempt to get attention or is based on selfish or manipulative constructs. A child does not develop an ego until its second birthday to an extent that it will be able to develop selfish motives.
Crying which forms its primary verbal communication medium until language develops is needs and impulse based and always an indicator that should command prompt attention and response by caregivers. Crying serves a critical role as an alert for attention based on genuine need. The idea that a young baby or infant can be spoilt is a projection that an outside adult places on that child.
The infant also needs ongoing interactions with caregivers to utilise the “open window” of opportunity that exists for their brains to understand and adapt to their external environment and to make meaning and coherence of it. If this window of opportunity is missed or is basically perceived as hostile or unsafe then these meaning-making conclusions that move forward with the infant will later dominate its reality as foundational states in adult consciousness.
A deprivation of touch, contact, interaction, or response when the baby cries will all create a negative meaning to the child over time, and may influence the way in the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) then deals with the reaction of the baby. Experts such as Steven Porges, Pat Ogden and Bessel Van Der Kolk all have shown how responsiveness by the caregiver to the infant in a sensitive way is critical to proper mental health in the child and then later adult.
The way in which the infant learns to react to events and manage its state of arousal may become its later life dominant way of responding as an adult to stimulus and events. Some of the baby parenting programmes may then be creating outcomes which will later negatively affect and shape the older child and then adult in the way they do life.
This outcome may create problems or be more or less fearful, withdrawn, hostile or ambivalent to its external world and those who approach the now adult for contact and relationship. If one considers some of the attitudes, presumptions, and parent/baby interactions promoted by some of these behavioural programmes then the sort of issues that may be created and/or later arise are in my opinion as follows:
- Babies need taming – this concept appears to come from an essential idea that babies need to be socialised, trained, and tamed into docile submission where they become compliant and “good”. The effects of the denial of the infants own reality, their own impulses, needs and wants. This can result by forcing a child to adopt behavioural conditioning that overrides the instinctual self, may create a person who will become needless and wantless, and disconnected from their own impulses.
- Force Feeding or programmed feeding - this concept is designed to create schedules and rigid order. Babies live from impulse regulation that is genuine and disposed towards needs and self regulation. Asking a baby to somehow fit into an adult rigid feeding timetable is not realistic and places the child’s needs secondary to that of the parent. The essential truth is that the baby has integrity in its demands and the responsiveness of the parent to its needs creates safety and helps the baby to manage its own varying stimulus states and emotional arousal. A lack of response to feeding impulses has been shown to creating later life eating disorders as well as jaw tension in the infant.
- Plan the babies day down to a tight schedule – some programmes come with manuals extending into many hundreds of pages where the proponents reveal an almost obsessive need to control the life of the child through micro-management and excessive regulation. A baby learns through unstructured play and exploration of environments and novelty. Unstructured time is a key part of coherence and meaning making in infants. Structured time activities are fine as part of an overall mix.
- Minimise cuddling and touch – babies learn, grow, evolve and feel loved and safe based on touch. Touch is love and communication and babies need stimulation to survive and thrive. The denial of touch will affect the infants ANS in ways where it may contract and form armouring defences in the body whilst it may hyper-arouse or shutdown. Later in life the person may emotionally numb out, may be predisposed to depression, and be rigid in defence against touch, so creating bonding and attachment problems in adult relationships. In very extreme cases the neglect of touch such as seen in Eastern Bloc orphanages in the early 1990’s, leads to a shutting down and finally death through hypo-arousal.
- Avoid the eyes or look intently at the child – infant studies show that avoidance of caregiver eye contact with their child is a form of abandonment that creates a state of being unsafe in the child and which leads to trauma. The child will learn to withdraw and shutdown as it no longer trusts it parent. This may create a quiet withdrawn child but it is abusive as it neglects the child and abandons it to feeling unsafe. The act of looking intently will overwhelm the child and potentially terrorise it and the child will look away, and possibly dissociate. It too is unsafe and threatening to the child. Either way may lead to a quiet child over time but not one that is safe and loved and developmentally well adjusted.
- Let the infant cry – Crying is a natural form of communication that discharges arousal and anxiety whilst signalling a need for parental intervention, contact and safety making or resource supply. When a parent lets an infant continue to cry then the infant becomes anxious and hyper-aroused. The pitch of their cry will increase into a more angry demand which is an increase in hyper-arousal and can start an episode of trauma. This will eventually become a despairing sob as the ANS cuts in and uses the parasympathetic state to calm down the infant into a sleep state to avoid any more trauma and suffering. The parent may think that by letting the infant continue to cry they achieve their intended outcome but it is traumatic for the infants self and nervous system. Later in life there may be a nervous system disposition for the person to become firstly hyper-aroused and anxious, and then plunge into a numbing hypo-arousal or shutting down. This may be substituted by the numbing out tendency associated with many addictions or depression.
- Minimise the stimulation in the environment – Infants need stimulation to keep their nervous system slightly hyper-aroused and their senses engaged and interested for coherence and meaning-making to occur. Too much stimulation as well as minimal stimulation can create adverse effects on the infants self regulation capabilities. A child needs a sense of stimulation as well as object constancy which means a degree of uniformity with favourite objects it can relate to as safety and meaning making. The infant will feel safe encountering familiar objects each day as well as new and novel colourful objects over time. Removing favourite and stimulating objects and environments can unsettle an infant whilst not letting it create attachment to some objects as replacement “mothers” or attachment substitutes is unwise and reduces the infants stable and safe sense of meaning and environment.
- The baby’s needs are secondary to the parents – unfortunately this is the basis for many parenting programmes. The presupposition is that we need to make the child a minimal conformist to adults and adult constructs, rules and routines. However adults have far more autonomy and resources in which to get support, needs, wants and desires met than the vulnerable child. Too many parents do not want to make a genuine sacrifice with their parenting and truly be there for the infant. The paradox is that the parent who responds to the infant from birth often has an infant and child who is content, sleeps well, is happy to increasingly separate from the mother and be more and more self regulated. The effect of a number of the parenting programmes is to create a disrupted or shutdown infant which appears and acts compliant but often will show later childhood and then adult negative impacts or tendencies that reveal a compromised ability to relate, connect or stay present to stimulus. They may have mental health issues as a result.
- The infant sleeps in a room on its own – this contentious aspect of parenting is widely debated but from a neurobiology and neuroscience perspective there is ample evidence that the infant will benefit from not being physically separated from the presence of the mother. This may be the mother’s voice which is soothing or her touch and holding. It is difficult for many parents to countenance having the infant co-sleep in the bed with them but if the child is in the same room in a cot rather than in a separate room in a cot then the mother will not miss the cry or arousal of the baby. The voice of the mother or the quick attendance of the mother or parent to the child will assist the child in being safe and settling back down but it does interrupt the sleeping routine of one or both parents. For this reason the often working parents need to function and so the infant is removed from the bedroom. It is a practical solution but is not ideal for the attendance to the infants needs but in our modern age is an understandable but sub-optimal practice.
- Breast Feeding – Some programmes adopt the position that bottle and formula feeding is best practice. This is not so. The World Health Organisation promotes breastfeeding as best practice and states that breast feeding should occur ideally up to age 2 years. Breast feeding is a critical practice that has far more meaning than just feeding. The child uses the mirroring process to have eye to eye contact with the mother where a bonding is made and strengthened. It is a time of safety, contact, tactile touch, and love that deepens the maternal bond and promotes brain development in the child. The child also regulates its own heartbeat and nervous system through the contact of being next to the mothers heart and synchronises itself to the mother, creating regulation. A hyper-aroused child can down regulate by this important process with the mother. The child also heard the heartbeat of the mother in the womb and when its ears are pressed against the mother we find that the sound of the mother’s heartbeat soothes the child and settles it. Unfortunately the idea that the baby should be fed up to 5 years old as the model claimed in the Time article is wrong and damaging. The child naturally starts to individuate from the mother approaching the second year and so breastfeeding should stop in the second year as part of the baby becoming a child who develops autonomy and a separate sense of self. The act of continuing breast feeding too long will interfere with the process of individuation and independence of the child. It may be serving the mother’s need for attachment and can start a sexual element in the contact that damages the safety of the contact.
- Day Care or Home Care – This is another contentious area of debate. Babies are born to bond and attach to their mother as their primary safe object. Mother is their meaning making translator of what is going on in the world and to mirror and model how to react and what emotions to evoke depending on the events that have just occurred for the baby. The attachment bonding must be secure for the baby to properly organise, develop its own reality and meaning making, and to emotionally communicate and feel safe in itself, with others and the world. The baby will not feel safe and secure if separated from the mother and placed into Day Care before the age of 2 years, and perhaps even later if the early attachment bonding with mother was weak. Stephen Biddulph has shown that babies have trauma indicators such as heightened levels of the stress hormone Cortisol when prematurely placed into Day Care. The baby will feel abandonment and go into survival mode when placed in unfamiliar environments with unfamiliar people and so may traumatise. The social engagement part of the brain in babies develops as they approach 2 years old and this is required to navigate social interaction with other infants and children at Day Care. Day Care Centres offer varying experiences and quality of supervision. Some are staffed and run by dedicated experienced people whilst others have teenagers and young twenties staffing centres and being paid McDonalds type wages. Their skills, experience and motivation may not be focussed on the children. Older children may hurt or scare younger children if not supervised correctly and each child will tend to have its own style of relating, being and needs that takes sensitivity to notice and follow. Parents often have to work in our high expense society and so this decision is often taken away from parents who must work to survive. This can create anxiety and guilt in them as they often dislike Day Care themselves. An Au Pair, grandparents or a Nanny are better choices as the baby learns that there is a constant foreign face put in its care and will learn to bond and attach with that person when they are consistently there and safe with the baby.
The parenting debate is not likely to go away anytime soon. The use of any model to parent from needs to be understood as a guide and any extreme form of parenting is unlikely to serve the infants needs. We need to ask who is this programme really serving when we consider adopting it.
It is tragic that a model from the Playboy mansion was offered up in the Time magazine article as a role model or representative of Attachment Parenting values, attitudes and beliefs. If an adult woman adopts a Playboy lifestyle then one can assume that at some level they will become sexualised and objectified in their own adult reality.
The expressions of how far they would go in using their attachment to a growing child may hint at their own set of bodily boundaries not being solid. Sex as attachment for adults in many ways has a similar somatic effect as the infantile attachment to the mother. Both elicit the pleasure centres in the brain and create bonding and attachment outcomes.
I personally do not advocate the extremes of Jamie Lynne Grumet in terms of having her child photographed in a feeding pose for magazine publication, nor do I favour some of her interpretations of Attachment Parenting such as breast feeding a child way beyond 2 years. Any good thing can be debased when it is used in an extreme way.