Are we raising kids to be more aggressive, anxious, and depressed because we use strollers and carriers, don’t breastfeed exclusively, and sleep train?
At a symposium at Notre Dame, researchers from many disciplines discussed how the practices that have become part of what we think of as “modern parenting” — using formula, sleeping alone in a crib, allowing a baby time to “self-soothe” — are harmful to children’s moral and emotional development. In other words, babies and young children today are being exposed to non-nurturing early experiences — everything from c-sections to bouncy seats — that can damage the desired path of gene expression, allowing children to be vulnerable to emotional and learning disturbances, cognitive deficits, and anti-social behavior.
I’ve read through many of the slides from the symposium, and the researchers do not mince words. They have strong feelings about what should constitute appropriate parenting, what should lead to smart, good kids. Most recently, I came across one of the researchers, the chair of the meeting, in my research on sleep training. In my sleep-deprived state a year ago, when my son wouldn’t sleep for more than an hour or two at a time, I came across some of her articles on the Psychology Today website, with alarming, titles such as “Let Crying Babies Lie? So Wrong.” In these articles, she proposes “nuanced care” as an alternative to sleep training or letting a baby learn to self-soothe. From what I can tell, this basically means sleeping with the baby, feeding him (preferably breastfeeding) or holding him and rocking him until he stops crying or goes to sleep. Genius. Oh, wow, why didn’t I think of that? I think most parents have tried EVERYTHING before they start breaking out the Ferber and Weissbluth books. My son wanted nothing to do with “co-sleeping” and I spent hundreds of dollars on lactation consultants, breastfeeding books, post-birth doulas, and consultations with pediatric gastroenterologists about my son’s reflux and milk allergy before throwing in the towel on breastfeeding.
There has been lots of other research about “cry it out” and its effects. The most research suggests that too much parental intervention at night can lead to poor sleep for everyone and may contribute to emotional problems in the mother. Basically, through sleep training, babies learn to sleep without waking up repeatedly, resulting in disrupted, unrestful sleep for everyone in the house. I’ve never heard anyone say that their babies were “harmed” or became less attached because of a few nights of crying.
From what I can tell, this type of research about parenting practices commits the most basic research error: mistaking correlation with causation. Yes, there is an “epidemic” of kids with emotional disturbances and developmental disorders of all types. Yes, there are lots of aggressive, angry children. But to argue that a diverse array of problems with kids is mostly explained by a few types of early childhood experiences, such as childbirth interventions (c-sections, etc.), strollers, and sleep training, is way too simplistic at best, and, at its worst, making already over-stressed, anxious parents more guilt-ridden.
As the Science Daily article summarizes,
“Whether the corollary to these modern practices or the result of other forces, an epidemic of anxiety and depression among all age groups, including young children; rising rates of aggressive behavior and delinquency in young children; and decreasing empathy, the backbone of compassionate, moral behavior, among college students, are shown in research.” In other words, they have no idea if these childhood issues are caused by modern parenting or something else or many other combined factors.
Thanks, but I’m sticking to my stroller.