EP LogoOur society – heck, all societies – have their ideas about how to raise children.  I can go to a bookstore here in Vancouver and find hundreds of books on parenting.  From sleep to feeding to schedules to discipline to all-around philosophies based on someone’s observations of the world, you name it, it’s probably there.  The question I have to ask is: What good does it do us?  A look at our society, including the declining rates of attachment and higher rates of mental disorders, tells me we’re kind of on the wrong track.  I think we need change and so enter Evolutionary Parenting.  The philosophy behind Evolutionary Parenting is as follows: Focus on how infants and children have evolved biologically, looking at what they are adapted for instead of asking them to adapt to us.  That is, EP is here to help parents look to how infants and children have evolved, how we co-evolved to provide what they need, and then to use modern science to fill in the areas that we haven’t had access to through just observation of the external.

The tagline here is “Where History and Science Meet Parenting” and it’s almost entirely the focus of the site.  I say “almost” because I wanted to add in “biology” there too, but then it just got too cluttered and so you can include that in the history or science, wherever you feel it fits best.  Note that “history” is not your grandparent’s generation, but the history of humankind which encompasses (to me, as someone who believes in evolution), hundreds of thousands of years.

The other important element of EP is that it integrates the various perspectives on information and education that parents need.  Take crying, for example.  It has been long-held by many parenting philosophies or “experts” that to not cry equals being content or soothed; however, there are actually many reasons a child may not be crying, not all of them positive.  When we look at crying, we have to look at it from the historical or evolutionary perspective (Why do infants or children cry and how is it adaptive?) and the biological or scientific perspective (What does crying do to the developing body/brain?  What alters these physiological reactions?) before we turn to the personal (Why is my baby crying and what works best for him/her?).  Then we can truly understand the meaning behind the cry, and in turn, the best way to respond.

One of the things that is often overlooked in today’s Western society is the pivotal balance between the infant’s independent and interdependent behaviours.  The degree to which parents expect independence or interdependence from their children is often backwards: Parents expect babies to be able to handle far more independent behaviours than interdependent behaviours then expect far more interdependence or even dependence in childhood.  Understanding how the ratio of interdependent to independent behaviours shifts with time is integral to understand the capabilities and limitations of our children and learning to work with them instead of against them.

Not All Children Are the Same

One of the main reasons I find it so hard to read things that proclaim absolutes (“All children should be sleeping through the night by 3 months” or “All babies can self-soothe”) is that they just aren’t true.  Yes, babies in general have evolved to have certain capacities, like that of communication, and they are also highly adaptive to various environments.  But relying upon a baby’s ability to adapt to what you want or expect a child to do (often because you believe s/he should be doing it) will not do your baby well (and often not you either; speak to any parent whose gone through weeks of crying-it-out – it’s almost as stressful on them as it is baby).  What science and history have shown us is that while babies and children are resilient to a degree, if we want our children to thrive, we need to play to their biology when possible.

We also need to understand how much variability there is within children to realize how information pertains to your specific child.  Although there are individual differences, there are rarely (if ever) such extreme variations that one can rightfully suggest, for example, that a newborn doesn’t need touch – even children with Autism Spectrum Disorders, who often dislike touch, do well with some forms of massage therapy, improving attentiveness after treatment[1].  However, there will be individual variations.  Some children will not want the proximity of bedsharing, instead doing better with room-sharing.  Some children will breastfeed and be done around one (earlier and it’s often a “strike”, not cessation) whereas others will continue for years, finishing up as late as 7 or 8 (when it continues to work for the dyad).  Some children hate babywearing, or babywearing in specific carriers.  “Higher needs” children often need more contact and more physiological regulation than lower needs children and the differences in outcomes when they are given specific responsiveness to their needs is amazing to see[2][3].  This is where families need to learn about their own child and understand how the information surrounding them pertains to their specific child.

What You Will Find Here

EP_v14_02102012Because of the focus you will find articles of various types and on various topics.  Although I strive to make sure the majority are based on science, that’s not always the case and I have my own opinions which I share here in the opinion section (think of them as Op-Eds).  However, first and foremost you will find articles talking about the science of infant and child care including sleep, feeding, touch, play, discipline, and more.  Because of the evolutionary view here, you will find that many of these touch regularly on certain practices, specifically babywearing, breastfeeding, co-sleeping, gentle discipline, free play, and circumcision. However, I want to be clear that in no way are these “musts”.  I find that they naturally follow as practices that fit within the historical and scientific framework, but they are practices that may not fit within your framework for your family.  That doesn’t mean you can’t “do EP”, and this is important.  It means that I ask you to look to what we know of infant and child biology, history, evolution, and science and pick your specific practices with that in mind, whatever they are.

Not all families can do what would be “optimal” from this perspective, but when we have that perspective in mind, we often find ways to maximize our situations, no matter what they are.  As such, you’ll find some articles on how to work with some of the more popular adaptations we’ve had in our society, like bottle-feeding and cots, as well as some of the things you may want to avoid (given what we know scientifically).  For example, using a cot is quite common and it can be the safest choice for many families, but knowing that infants’ physiology is regulated by being in close proximity to an adult, room-sharing is preferable to having baby sleep in his/her own room (and in that vein, it halves the risk of SIDS[4]).

You will also find resources that I hope will help people because, let’s face it, our society isn’t always helpful in allowing families to parent in a way that benefits children or even themselves.  I accept this, I know it, and I’m not trying to hide from it, but I will try to change it.  I know parents go back to work in some countries at six weeks; however, instead of just accepting it, I will advocate and do what I can to bring about change.  I don’t believe any dyad should be separated that young.  Any bit of information that I think is helpful to parents trying to navigate evolutionary parenting in a very non-adapted society will be shared from videos to books to guest posts and anything else I manage to dig up.

Take Home Message

If I had to summarize EP briefly it would be to say that it’s about (a) responsiveness and (b) learning.  Be responsive to your child based on what we know about evolutionary development and biology as well as what you know about your child.  Additionally, be ready to learn.  Learn, for example, what science is discovering about infant physiology and biology, about how children play and the importance of free play, about what is biologically “normal” for infants and children, but most of all, enjoy learning about your children and how incredible the relationship you can have with them is.

 


[1] Escalona A, Field T, Singer-Strunk R, Cullen C, Hartshorn K.  Brief report: Improvements in the behavior of children with autism following massage therapy.  Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders 2001; 31: 513-6.

[2] Gunnar MR, Brodersen L, Nachmias M, Buss K, Rigatuso J.  Stress reactivity and attachment security.  Developmental Psychobiology 1996; 29: 191-204.

[3] Belsky J, Pluess M.  Beyond diathesis stress: Differential susceptibility to environmental influences.  Psychological Bulletin 2009; 135: 885-908.

[4] 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.