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.
Good for you for doing what is right for you and your child. And good for those of us that chose to do things differently. Each parent needs to find the right mix of parenting styles for the child and stop judging other parents for doing the same. Unfortunately, this seems to have turned into a battle between “modern” and “attachment” parenting styles in the media.
Woudn’t there be less pressure (and resulting anxiety) if we all just supported each other’s decision whether we would do it that way or not?
School of Smock says
I totally and 100% agree! Each kid, their inborn temperaments, and each family’s situation are so completely different. Even within one family, one kid can have completely different needs than another and what works for one baby might not work for another. Based on my experience and my friends’, you can choose a “parent philosophy” and find that it doesn’t work for your baby or child.
My only point is that it doesn’t help any new parent’s anxiety when (often in desperation because a child has colic, or she is encountering long-term breastfeeding difficulties, or has serious trouble sleeping that is impacting the whole family) “experts” make huge inferences based on only peripherally related research that doesn’t specifically relate to the claims that they’re writing about (for instance, making claims about sleep training when the research is actually done on neglected or abused children). For instance, after a horrific bout of colic, my son wouldn’t sleep for more than one or two hours and then demanded to be held all night long. This wasn’t a workable situation for anyone. No one could function and my son’s behavior and health were suffering from lack of uninterrupted sleep. I would’ve been happy to co-sleep, carry him, anything that would have involved any one in my family getting any rest. We eventually hired a sleep consultant who turned our family’s life around in about three days.
My fear is that thousands of women are needlessly suffering because they read articles like this one (that make unsubstantiated claims about “cry it out” and other solutions that work perfectly well for lots of people) and feel incredibly guilty for “damaging” their babies for putting them in a stroller, going to work for eight hours a day, or not co-sleeping. Before fear-inducing claims like psychologist’s are made about children, they should be shown to relate specifically to the cause and effect relationships that they are discussing.
Thanks for writing this. I, like you, wanted more than anything to breasfeed my baby boy. But after endless hours attempting to feed and pumping between feeds, and reading up on how to produce more milk, and eating all sorts of supplements, and seeking help from La Leche League only to have my calls unanswered. I threw in the towel. I remember starting work three months post partum and sitting in my office pumping for a half hour twice a day and getting a combined total of one ounce. It was so demoralizing. I even kept it up for three weeks because I kept telling myself one ounce was better than nothing. So when I read that by giving my baby formula I’m harming him, it makes me feel so guilty and wonder if I could have done more. I know, in reality, there was nothing more I could do. That article was all about creating fear in mothers which is so not helpful.
School of Smock says
I’m so sorry that you had that experience, Jessica. Pumping all the time can quickly make anyone’s life miserable. There’s a great article by Hanna Rosin that I think should be required reading for anyone having a really, really hard time breastfeeding, despite heroic efforts, and feeling very guilty about giving it up, even though they think that it might be best for them and the baby. http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2009/04/the-case-against-breast-feeding/307311/
Katie Spencer White says
Great post – one size fits all drives me insane and you illustrate how even educated, well informed people can make different choices. We forget that raising a child is an experience for both the child and the parent. It is the parent who makes the most decisions based on *their* needs and temperment. Children are expected to adapt to us. It drives me equally bonkers to see someone ignore their crying toddler and say “oh, she’ll be fine” as it does to see a mother shove a boob in her face every ten seconds. Many of us follow the advice of “experts” rather than simply listening to what our kids are telling us. Love it. I am a new fan 😉
School of Smock says
Thanks, Katie! It’s so great to hear that people of all parenting styles can agree that one-size-fits-all parenting isn’t always best! I’ll check out your blog too 🙂
Mary Kathryn says
There’s one parenting philosophy that everyone should implement: flexibility. Why, oh why do we think that the solution can come in a book? Humans are complex; babies are difficult to read and please. I struggled to breastfeed all four of mine, with reasonable success. But #2 had failure to thrive and milk intolerance and reflux.
My attachment parenting friends (usually 15 years younger than me) used to badger me about my choices and opinions. But then they would complain repeatedly on facebook about how miserable, grumpy and sleep-deprived they were, after co-sleeping with one or several kids. I learned not to respond to their complaints. I’m a bad sleeper. Sleep is valuable. I want my children to sleep well, and to learn to sleep alone all night long. Whatever! Each to her own. Thanks again for your honest evaluation of the situation — this approach is so helpful!
School of Smock says
Flexibility and lack judgment is the best approach! I’m a really awful sleeper too, and I had a baby with reflux and milk intolerance too, and I simply wouldn’t have survived as a person or been a functional mother if I had co-slept. Good sleep is so incredibly important to a child and to parents! It can literally make the difference between being a great parent and a lousy one.