There’s something in the water. Or so it seems because lately it’s as if promoting crying-it-out is a new mandate for the media. It started months ago with the research from Australia claiming that CIO had no long-term effects. Except the research has been torn to shreds as being anything but a bunch of crap (see here and here). Then we had the media pick up on a piece from Weinraub and colleagues looking at natural night waking patterns in children and deciding that they were supporting CIO. Except they weren’t and nothing in the actual piece suggested they did (see here). Then yesterday I had the displeasure of reading this piece by a mother who is so glib about her CIO experience and so focused on her own experiences without a second thought to her child, it made me feel physically ill. And today I awoke to this gem of a piece in The Independent about a “baby expert” who is all for CIO.
It’s this last one I plan to discuss herein. Because this baby “expert” – Rachel Waddilove – has written a book which is now out and what does she focus on? Yep, sleep. Let’s see about some of the things she’s said in this interview and why this woman needs to be added to the list of who not to listen to.
“Any well child can sleep through the night from a young age”
Really? Because the evidence on child sleep suggests that when left to their own devices, that’s not actually the case. The Weinraub study mentioned earlier found that over a third of babies were waking regularly at 18 months
But I will concede that if you shut your child in a room and leave them to scream their heads off, eventually they’ll sleep from sheer exhaustion. Of course, you’ve also now made it clear you won’t respond to your child and have ignored their psychological well-being, something I would hope you value. Add to that that it is abnormal for adults to sleep through the night, why do we feel this is something that is normal for children? And finally, are you sure your child is sleeping the whole time or just simply no longer calling out or signaling to you? Given that humans are expected to wake at night, it seems that we may want to consider this waking state “normal” against which all else is compared.
“There is also nothing wrong with leaving a child to settle themselves so long as they are safe and not in pain.”
In short, your biggest mistake is to treat pain as only a physical manifestation. Our psychological needs, especially our children, are equally important as they shape how we approach the world. A child who is not responded to when upset will not develop the healthy attachment needed to thrive in this world. Are children resilient? Yes, but it doesn’t mean we don’t do harm. Doctors take an oath to do no harm, shouldn’t parents do the same? And we’re not talking a moment of minor fussing as a child drifts off. We’re speaking of screams for 10-20 minutes and beyond. That’s not responsiveness.
Oh, and the Independent cites the Weinraub study here as supporting this CIO philosophy, but as you know, that’s not at all what was suggested in the article.
“Raising a child requires a lot of love and a strong will, but a lot of parents seem to have lost sight of the basics.”
I will agree with the statement here. Of course, my view of the basics is love and responsiveness. We are talking about babies and baby sleep right? So I’m not sure where a “strong will” is necessary. But of course, if you’re treating your child as you wish to be treated, regardless of your child’s age, then you shouldn’t need too strong a will. When we speak of needing strong will, we often speak of it as going up against something. In parenting, shouldn’t we be working with our children? Yes, we set limits but when we’re conscious of how these limits help them, it doesn’t take strong will to stand up for them. It requires love.
Much of the official advice doled out to new parents these days, she adds, is “nonsense”. Among her pet peeves are the World Health Organisation’s guidelines not to wean a child before six to eight months, and the widespread advocacy of baby-led weaning – letting a baby pick their own food from a plate, rather than spoon-feeding them purée. “It’s nonsense – babies need to develop in a certain way. These ideas came from scientists who do experiments but know nothing about babies. They’ll revert back to past guidelines soon enough, I’m sure of it.”
I actually wouldn’t be surprised if they did, given the culture we live in, but that’s a topic for another day.
Let’s take this apart piece by piece. Is the advice doled out to new parents “nonsense”? Yep, if we’re talking about CIO and that formula is equal to breast milk, for example. And that is actually the advice doled out these days, more so than anything else.
Baby-led weaning? This will be my first, but not last, mention of human evolution and history. Letting babies pick their own food is how the vast majority of infants and children first eat food. Parents may use mastication to make it easier for the infant to eat, but purees? That’s a modern invention that is not necessary (although some families love it and great for them, but it’s not necessary).
Now the comment “babies need to develop in a certain way”. Need to? Well, they do develop in a certain way. And certain types of parenting practices respect this and others don’t. But the use of “need” suggests we’re to impose something on their development, but outside of love, support and responsiveness, I don’t see what that is. Unless you’re trying to mould your child into something that love, care, and, when older, boundaries can’t provide, but that’s kinda scary in and of itself.
As for those scientists who know nothing about babies, you realize most of them have kids right? And that the purpose of science is to deconstruct what we think we know to determine if our “common sense” is correct or not, right? Because people thought the sun went around the earth and that Copernicus was insane to think it might possibly be the other way around. Luckily we had science. I would argue that yes, there is research that is ridiculous and ill-informed. And research that is well thought-out and executed. But science is imperfect. As are you. Notably, we don’t even need science here because we have history, which tells us a very different story than you are trying to paint (and I mean a full history, not just a look at the past couple generations, because they’ve turned out oh-so-well).
Don’t even get her started on attachment parenting, which in its most basic form is when a child sleeps in their parents’ bed and is strapped to their mother in a sling. “It’s not fair on the child. The idea is that a child chooses when to ‘detach’ from its parents, but if it’s always been attached, the child doesn’t know anything different and the detachment process can be very traumatic,” she says.[First let me say what an atrocious depiction of attachment parenting. Ugh. The focus of attachment parenting, as I’ve outlined here, isn’t about the individual practices that are more common, but about responsiveness. But returning to our main points…]
So you do care about psychological trauma? Interesting given your lack of care for it with respect to CIO. However, here’s where your dreaded science and history would counter you. Children who are securely attached (which includes those who bedshare and who are worn in slings, when it works for the family, but it isn’t necessary to the attachment process) tend to be more independent than their counterparts. Of course, it really comes down to responsiveness and while certain parenting principles help in the attachment process by making responsiveness easier, when you respond to your child, they are attached. When they are securely attached, they will become independent (as well as retaining inter-dependence which is also key).
Furthermore, historically this is the type of parenting that has been employed by families, and we thrived in that time. If you look at how advanced we have become in such a short evolutionary time, you should see that this type of parenting – you know, where you have a secure attachment to your child by being responsive – helps us thrive both at the individual and societal level. This bizarre notion that children will suffer for choosing when to detach is beyond me because becoming independent does not happen overnight and we have a biological imperative to be somewhat independent (though as social creatures, it is hardly to the degree that we typically see in Western societies). When children take these steps on their own, they are following that biological imperative and are developmentally ready for the fear and anxiety that go with being independent. They have the capacity to handle it appropriately.
What is traumatic is having separation forced on you when you aren’t prepared for it or even developmentally ready for it. Let me ask you, you have always been breathing your whole life, right? It is all you know. Which would be more traumatic? Someone coming up without warning and covering your airway for a period (though letting you live, of course) or choosing to hold your breath for the same period on your own? I thought so.
Waddilove, 65, is once again speaking up for “old-fashioned, common-sense parenting”.
Old-fashioned in a modern context, perhaps, but not really old-fashioned because if you got to old-fashioned, common-sense parenting for most of human history, you’re talking evolutionary or attachment parenting.
“Today, being a parent is filled with pressure. Babies and children have become a lot more precious. I’m a real believer in lots of love and care and cherishing and nurturing your children… but I see children being made kingpin. Then you find by the time they are five they are abominable.”
Okay, but what does this have to do with letting your child scream alone at night or responding to their cries? And this is called permissive parenting which has little to do with even being loving and caring as opposed to parents who either lack the confidence to do what parenting requires and throw up their hands to let anything go or lack the interest.
“I’m a bit old-fashioned. I think there shouldn’t be the pressure on women to go back to work… There are many, many women who would love to be at home more and really be home makers because that’s what we’re made for… Women, basically, we’re carers; men are providers.”
I should note that this comes up as one of the reasons we have “abominable” children by age five. So while I do agree that there shouldn’t be pressure on women to go back to work (hello, paid parental leave), I also know that some women want to go back to work. And that when they do, their children don’t automatically become abominable little creatures who are out of control and it is highly insulting to suggest that is the cause.
And finally… “Parents find it difficult imposing discipline. People have lost where and what the boundaries are – ‘Is this behaviour acceptable or not?’ And if it’s not acceptable, deal with it.”
This is fine and dandy when we’re talking about older children and natural consequences. No one argues that you should become permissive parents. In fact, one of the biggest misconceptions about attachment parenting is that it is permissive parenting, which is not true (see here). However, it is equally wrong to attribute this type of “acceptability” to behaviours outside the child’s control, and this is what is happening with sleep training or scheduled feeds; the children are being told their natural, instinctual, biological behaviour is “unacceptable”. What kind of message does that send? How do we expect a child to grow and trust him or herself when the message received from an early age is that everything you feel is wrong?
This is a woman who is preaching that we need to return to the days of when doctors recommended infants not be touched too much and that they be fed on schedule. She can say she believes in love all she wants, but her advice is contrary to that. When you tell parents to ignore their instincts because their baby’s behaviour is “unacceptable”, we have a problem. Let us remember that her notion of “old-fashioned” and “common-sense” is as ethnocentric as they come; it ignores a wealth of history and cross-cultural differences in what constitutes parenting.
Whatever one woman’s experience, she is no expert on your child. You are. When you feel the pain of not responding when you know your child is truly in distress, that is your instinct as mother telling you something is wrong. Crying-it-out is not responsive. It is, however, something our society has told people is acceptable and even laudable. We must counter this and make parents aware that their instincts and their child are what they need to listen tom and we must provide support and education to help them in times of need. Leaving your child to scream is the easiest answer in some ways, but it is not the answer that keeps us whole.
To understand more about normal, human infant sleep, please see here. Often simply understanding infant sleep can help a parent who is having a hard time. If that alone does not help, here is information on routines, the best way to assist a child gently to sleep for longer periods when they are developmentally ready (and yes, it is found to be more effective than CIO). For other ideas on how to soothe an upset baby, see here.
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 Bowlby J. Attachment and Loss, Vol 1: Attachment. New York (1969): Basic Books.