Dear Dr. Debbie,
Our extended family members have been giving me very diverse suggestions/directives about holding my baby. Some are saying, “Don’t spoil him. He’ll expect to be held all the time,” while others urge me to hold him and pass him around as much as possible. Beyond just holding him, I’ve been criticized for “letting” him make noise at a family dinner in a private home — not a restaurant — by one of the oldest family members who is in her 80s. On the opposite extreme, three others made sure to tell me they admired how easily I soothed and entertained him when he started to get fussy. I’m looking for a comfortable position on this issue and some sound arguments to defend it.
Trying to Get This Right
Don’t miss last week’s column When a friendship has run its course — Good Parenting
Dear Ms. Right,
Popular opinion about parenting is not always up-to-date with the latest research. Nor are personal opinions about parenting easy to change, particularly those formed during one’s early life. As you have experienced, well-meaning advisors will contradict each other with their “this is the only way to do it” instructions. In many families, the differences are generational with the advice corresponding with what was popular when each generation was parenting or when they were parented.
A brief history of parenting advice
Sigmund Freud, popular about 100 years ago, warned parents about their unintended sexual messages harming the developing psyches of their children. In the 1920s, behaviorists including Maria Montessori focused on shaping a child’s behavior with consistent good or bad consequences, bypassing emotions as much as possible. It appears that your elder relative was raised during these decades when “coddling” — warmly responding to a child’s emotional needs — was frowned upon.
In 1946, Dr. Benjamin Spock first published his instantly popular Baby and Child Care, with its “radically” softer tones toward discipline. Soon to follow, Jean Piaget, Arnold Gesell and other developmentalists promoted a natural unfolding of stages that merely needed a parent’s gentle support.
By the 1970s, John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth gave us Attachment Theory which pinpointed the quality of the child’s relationship with his primary caregiver as key to his psychological well-being. The best type of parent-child relationship produces a securely attached child.
Babies need to be babied
Research in the area of attachment parenting suggests that responsive caregiving — reacting appropriately and quickly to a baby’s needs — is the best bet for many good outcomes. A securely attached child — neither fearful of the adult nor overly fretful in their absence — is more likely to be socially competent with peers, compliant with adults and empathic to all as a preschooler. This theory persists today with new information corroborating the importance of good early nurturing.
Psychologist Alan Sroufe and his colleagues at the University of Minnesota, continue to report on a longitudinal study started in the 1970s of a large group of low-income families. As they followed the children, the researchers found higher confidence and self-esteem, more solid friendships and more positive leadership among the children with secure early attachments. The study reports that their adult relationships were also more positive. Another interesting suggestion from this research is that a good early parent-child relationship gets things off to a good start for the family, with parents tending to remain warm and sensitive as their children grow older.
Endorsed by brain science
Brain science research over that last few decades has increased our appreciation for the role of responsive nurturing. For example, the hippocampus, the structure in the brain responsible for memory and learning, grows significantly larger in a child who is experiencing good nurturing. In contrast the amygdala, the brain structure that if activated causes excessive emotional responses, is negatively affected by insufficient early nurturing.
Research suggests that long term benefits of good early nurturing are created by the networks in the brain that protect against depression, anxiety and memory impairment. Continuing research at the Institute of Child Development at the University of Minnesota (funded by the National Institute of Health) on the long term effects of early nurturing for physical health suggests that a lower stress level and a stronger immune system are supported by a secure attachment. This study found that, “Individuals who were continuously insecure during infancy were more likely to report all types of physical illness in adulthood.”
In respectful debate with your senior relatives, declare that warm, responsive caregiving is an approach to early parenting that is here to stay. Rather than being “spoiled,” the well-nurtured child matures nicely. With its foundation in attachment theory backed up by the physiological evidence of brain science, nurturing is the clear winner of this family argument.
Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis. She has 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.
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What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments or submit a question to Dr. Debbie at Betsy[at]jecoannapolis.com.