good bad habits

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If you are a parent of a young child, you have most likely been forewarned by many people about making sure you don’t “create bad habits” with your child (sometimes people just simply refer to these as “habits”, minus the “bad”, but then imply it’s something you must change, leaving the “bad” as unsaid but clearly present).  Usually these people are talking about one of the following:

  • Nursing or cuddling your baby to sleep
  • Holding your baby while s/he sleeps
  • Nursing on demand, including for comfort
  • Holding or soothing your crying baby

These are, apparently, the “habits” you must break your child of.  Apparently they will do damage to your child, to you, to your relationships, your sanity, and quite possibly global peace.  To hear people speak of these actions, one would think we were attempting to raise trained assassins and these were our pivotal steps.

I ask instead that we consider our infants’ behaviours a little differently.  You see, although the strict definition of a habit is, “A settled or regular tendency or practice”, when it comes to parenting you will see it almost exclusively used to refer to what parents do for the children.  Therefore, when we assume the bad habit is caused by action, the assumption is that inaction is preferable.  In the case of these common “habits”, the preferable actions in our society are:

  • Having your baby fall asleep alone
  • Having your baby sleep in his/her own bed in his/her own room
  • Only nursing when the baby is clearly hungry (no comfort feeds) or to a schedule
  • Leaving your crying baby so s/he can learn to “self-soothe” (or assuming s/he is capable of self-soothing)

But, what if instead we viewed habits from a biologically normal perspective?  That is, what if we started off with what babies will biologically expect and then deem any action or inaction that deviates from that as the creation of a habit?  What would this look like?

Well, if we look at human history, the “bad habits” that we are so fond of telling parents off for are actually the very normal behaviours that exist between caretakers and their children[1][2][3].  In this sense we can, I believe, safely assume that these are the very behaviours that infants have evolved to expect and when we look at their physiological and behavioural reactions to them we see exactly what we would hope for: Securely attached children with minimal displays of physiological stress[4][5].

Given the definition of a habit above, why are we not seeing these other inactions as the habits that they are?  A baby who is forced to fall asleep alone can develop the habit of falling asleep alone even if it’s not biologically normal.  A baby who is forced to sleep separate from others can develop the habit of not calling out to a parent at night or seeking proximity even if it’s not biologically normal.  A baby who is fed to a schedule or refused comfort feeds can develop the habit of waiting until feeding times even if it’s not biologically normal.  A baby who is left to cry to “self-soothe” can learn to shut up to preserve energy and cease to communicate for help or comfort even if it’s not biologically normal.  And in all these we must remember that it’s not just that these acts aren’t biologically normal, but many of them are linked to potential problems, such as increased SIDS risk when sleeping alone[6], cognitive deficits from feeding schedules[7], and problems with later emotion regulation from a failure to be responsive to distress[8].  Who’s got the bad habits now?

Next time someone tries to tell you that you’re developing “bad habits” or “making a rod for your own back”, you can remind them that perhaps it is they who are creating the bad habits that can cause problems in the times to come or at least that what you are you doing is totally, biologically, evolutionarily normal.

[1] Diamond J.  The World Until Yesterday. New York, NY: Penguin Group, 2012.

[2] Liedloff J.  The Continuum Concept.  USA: Perseus Books Group, 1977/1985.

[3] Hewlett BS, Lamb ME, Shannon D, Leyendecker B, Scholmerich A.  Culture and early infancy among central African foragers and farmers.  Developmental Psychology 1998; 34: 653-61.

[4] Bowlby J.  Attachment and Loss, Vol 1: Attachment.  New York, NY: Basic Books, 1969.

[5] Gunnar, M. R. Social regulation of stress in early childhood. In K. McCartney & D. Phillips (Eds.),Blackwell Handbook of Early Childhood Development (pp. 106-125). Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2006.

[6] Task Force on Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.  SIDS and other sleep-related infant deaths: Expansion of recommendations for a safe sleep environment.  Pediatrics 2011; 128: e1341.

[7] Iacovou M, Sevilla A.  Infant feeding: the effects of scheduled vs. on-demand feeding on mothers’ wellbeing and children’s cognitive development.  European Journal of Public Health 2012. DOI: 10.1093/eurpub/cks012.

[8] Leerkes EM, Blankson AN, & O’Brien M. Differential effects of maternal sensitivity to infant distress and nondistress on socio-emotional functioning. Child Development 2009; 80: 762-775.