Dear Dr. Debbie,
Family get togethers are coming up and I’m dreading comments directed at my husband and me and our 8-month-old daughter. In the past, a few older family members have admonished other new parents in the family not to “spoil” their babies when they cry. We have been enjoying parenthood but adhere to attachment style parenting which believes a baby’s cry is her way of communicating need.
What scientific evidence can we turn to, if necessary, to defend holding and nurturing our baby as much as we do?
The Snuggles Family
Don’t miss last week’s column Finding alternatives to screen time for an 11-year-old — Good Parenting
More and more research is supporting the responsive parenting your family is practicing. Instinctively, parents protect and nurture their young. Historically we can point to the popularity of Behaviorism in the 1920’s and 30’s with turning parents away from their natural instincts. This is when “sanitary” hospital births and “scientific” bottle feeding took the place of midwives and breastfeeding for the majority of babies in the western world.
Swinging back to more natural parenting has occurred in spurts since then. In the mid-1960’s the Snugli® was invented by a former overseas Peace Corps Worker, Ann Moore, who observed the babies’ calmness when carried in a cloth sling on their mothers. Around this time, cross-cultural researchers confirmed that babies were less stressed when the culture supported lots of carrying and snuggling.
Parenting Science reports on recent studies that give us the physiological evidence you are looking for. Measurements of brain chemicals reveal the physical changes in the brain associated with stress. Cortisol is the main stress hormone produced in the brain, raising blood pressure and heart rate in preparation for Fight or Flight. When there is less cortisol flowing in one’s brain in infancy, researchers report, there seems to be a long-term resilience to stress. The opposite is also apparent — higher stress in infancy predicts a more highly stressed adult. Higher levels of cortisol through childhood (or from a traumatic adult experiences) has been labeled “toxic stress,” a psychological condition associated with ongoing social-emotional difficulties and a shortened lifespan.
Studies of animals and humans suggest that a lack of close contact and other naturally nurturing behaviors can affect a baby negatively and permanently. There is much interest in returning humans to a more “natural” way of parenting our young, including being aware of and reducing stress triggers for babies.
Please tell the No Spoilers that:
- Calming a baby with touch – triggers oxytocin and other brain chemicals that make the baby feel better. The calming effecting of these chemicals is due to their ability to lower cortisol levels. Affectionate touch also produces natural pain relievers in the brain, which is good to know during teething bouts.
- Parents and other infant caregivers can reduce a baby’s stress by taking the baby’s point of view into account. Introduce environmental changes, such as immersion into a bathtub, with sensitivity. Prepare everything you will need before undressing the baby so she doesn’t have time to get cold between being dressed and being in the warm water. Likewise try to minimize abrupt changes for her to have to adjust to in a social environment. For those family get togethers, choose one area where she can play safely on the floor with one or two new faces among one or two she knows well.
- Because a baby is so dependent on a caregiver at this stage of life, she keeps tabs on her caregiver’s stress level to know if her own needs will be adequately met. If you’re stressed out, she will be too. Think of it this way: if you’re driving a car that erratically hisses and pings as you rumble along an unfamiliar stretch of highway, your anxiety level will be much higher than if the car had a reassuringly steady, quiet hum.
- Babies are generally amused with a one-on-one interaction with a happy caregiver. This has been corroborated with hormone sampling. In this vein, an upset baby benefits from immediate and responsive engagement in order for the cortisol levels to go back down. Paying attention to the baby’s mood and needs is the best way to keep the baby calm and happy.
- Movement calms an upset baby. Always has. Always will. There is something about the rocking motion of walking a baby, or going back and forth in a rocking chair that brings on the “feel good” brain chemicals and keeps the cortisol at bay.
- Bedtime is a major separation each day. The recommendation is to cater to an infant’s strong need for predictable routine and calming closeness to reduce the amount of cortisol produced at this time. Lowered cortisol levels – due to close contact, gentle rocking, quiet singing or humming, soft caresses or rhythmic pats, as your baby prefers – correlate with reduced cortisol levels not only to help her fall asleep and stay asleep, but these levels stay low over the next 24 hours.
As long as there have been babies there have been advisors — for better and for worse — about how they should be handled. Bolster your confidence with the evidence from research to support the way you are approaching your parenting roles. And keep enjoying your minimally stressed baby!
Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis. She holds a doctorate in Human Development from the University of Maryland at College Park and is founding director of the Chesapeake Children’s Museum. Long time fans and new readers can find many of her “Understanding Children” columns archived on the Chesapeake Family Magazine website. You can find her online at drdebbiewood.com.
What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments or submit a question to Dr. Debbie at Betsy@jecoannapolis.com