They say if you tell a big enough lie and repeat it frequently enough, it will be believed. It will become a cultural truth, even if it has no factual origins.
They also say that fear can convince a person, or a society, to do just about anything; no matter how unpleasant the act may seem at first. If enough people are doing it, others will follow. If enough people believe it, it won’t be questioned.
Terms like “it’s for his own good” are often borne out of our primal need to rationalize and justify choices that abrade our instincts. To help us justify decisions that deep down, we know just don’t feel right.
Of course, with anything in life there are extremes; encouraging our children to brush their teeth or eat their greens is unquestionably looking out for “their own good”. But, other practices like discounting their basic emotional needs; not so much.
I have no doubt that this post will find me in hot water; people have a habit of shooting messengers especially when an inconvenient truth is being delivered.
And that’s ok, because I’m not writing to be popular. Rather, I’m using the written word to advocate for the needs of those who can’t speak for themselves. To shine a light on the truth. And, as uncomfortable as it may be, to throw unquestioned mistruths into the arena and start a conversation.
Because the further I venture into my parenting journey, the more I feel many detached mainstream parenting practices can be traced back to the mistruths we’re told when our children are young.
And if we can be convinced to disengage with our babies, where does it end? Unknowingly, we allow cultural beliefs to set the stage for a lifetime of disconnection.
From cry it out to time out, it begs the question; how are we convinced to crush our compassion in the first place? What rewards could possibly justify being non-responsive to our children’s needs?
When it comes to infant sleep the prize we’re promised is self soothing. The theory is that by ignoring a baby’s needs we’re actually teaching them a valuable lesson; how to soothe themselves so that, as parents, we won’t need to continue doing it for them.
Strengthening this theory is the ultimate motivator: fear. Parents are scared into believing that if they refuse to teach their baby how to self soothe, they’re failing to teach a very necessary life skill.
Thankfully, self soothing is an illusion. And when we shatter an illusion, it has no power over us; our love can’t be leveraged and our sleep-deprived desperation can’t be taken advantage of. We’re immune to being duped into believing that we need to carry out harsh parenting practices in an attempt to achieve something that doesn’t even exist.
It’s critical to expose and debunk these myths before they embed themselves in our subconscious; creating unrealistic expectations, fueling unnecessary frustration and driving a wedge between us and those we love most.
Because, no matter what some may say, parenting matters.
Our choices can have powerful consequences, serving to either strengthen or weaken our mutual connection. To build or erode trust and to grow or diminish our confidence as new parents.
In a modern world that places such a high value on the species-inappropriate expectation of solitary sleep we need to feel emboldened to ask tough questions, to scratch beneath the surface and seek the truth. So, why is self soothing the biggest con of new parenthood?
Because self soothing is a physical impossibility for babies and young children. The skill of self soothing is referring to the ability to regulate one’s own emotions; a developmental milestone that can’t be rushed. The last part of the brain to mature is the neocortex; it is the rational or analytical part of our brain that enables us to assess a situation and mediate our response.
In infants and young children, the neocortex is extremely undeveloped, quite literally making it a physical impossibility to rationalize and deal with strong emotions and unmet needs. This is why young children rely on us, their parents, to externally regulate their emotions for them until they are capable of doing it for themselves.
Because it fuels the practice of non-responsive sleep training. For me, self-soothing and non-responsive sleep training are like the chicken and egg theory. Which came first? I don’t know. But, what I do know is that two lies are stronger than one. What these myths rely on are massive assumptions, the desperation of sleep-deprived parents and the failure to fully examine what is really happening.
What parents observe is that their baby eventually stops crying after practicing one of a variety of techniques that involves leaving their baby to cry without comfort. But just because parents don’t hear their baby crying doesn’t mean they’re sleeping through the night and it doesn’t mean they’ve miraculously learned to self soothe. It means they’re silent through the night. Babies continue to lightly or fully wake as often as biology dictates, but they’ve learnt if they cry nothing happens so they stay silent.
Because it teaches babies to freeze. When babies are silent, it doesn’t necessarily means they’re calm and peaceful. Because, when babies are left alone, with physical or emotional needs they can’t meet, it is a stressful experience for them. Their blood cortisol levels rise and their fight, flight or freeze response kicks in. The only choice babies have is to freeze or develop a behaviour called ‘learned helplessness” or as Dr. Sears describes it ‘shutdown syndrome’.
Because it has a material effect on brain development. During the first three years of life, a baby’s brain grows from a mere 25% to 80% of their ultimate adult size. This period of rapid brain development is critical to long term mental and emotional health. Early childhood experiences literally fire and wire the brain our children will have for the rest of their lives.
Two regions of the brain, the amygdala and hippocampus, are especially susceptible. The hippocampus is key to memory and stress modulation as well as behavioural regulation, while the amygdala helps process emotions.
A longitudinal study in 2012, involving neuroimaging of healthy and depressed preschool children, showed that the more nurturing mothers were towards their children, the greater their hippocampal volume became. The positive effect of maternal support was greater in healthy children and a similar response has been shown for the amygdala. These findings provide prospective evidence of the beneficial effect of early supportive parenting experiences on healthy brain development.
Because it trains children to believe that their needs don’t matter. When we ignore a baby’s communication, they learn that their needs don’t matter. Babies who learn this lesson early in life are predisposed to experiencing insecure attachment, which can lead to a myriad of negative mental and emotional outcomes.
If we teach our children that, as parents, we’re unreliable in responding to their communication when they’re young, how likely are they to feel comfortable confiding in us when they’re being bullied at school? Or will they freely choose to come to us when they’re teenagers and feeling peer pressure to make choices that don’t feel right for them?
Because babies believe they, themselves, are the source of their experience. Young children believe they, themselves, are the source of their own experience. How we treat our babies lays the foundation for the beliefs our kids will come to hold true about themselves for the rest of their lives. Babies can’t understand that we’re intentionally choosing not to respond to cries because an author recommended to leave them to cry for X number of minutes, so that they can learn to self soothe. From a baby’s perspective all they know is that they’re communicating a need and nobody is coming.
If we repeatedly ignore our babies they’ll believe they’re not worthy of attention, comfort and affection. But if we shower them with unconditional love, they’ll believe they’re loveable, valued and worthy of healthy relationships.
Because it sabotages the REAL path to teaching children how to self-soothe. Our children learn how to effectively regulate their own emotions through observation; by observing us modelling healthy emotional regulation. Nurturing close, connected and respectful relationships with our children when they’re young offers the greatest assurance that they will not only be able to self soothe when they’re neurologically able, but that they will develop empathy and healthy pro-social behaviour.
‘Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.’ Marie Curie
While it may be possible to train babies and young children not to cry out when they need help, it is important to acknowledge it is not the same as self soothing. A child who is left to navigate emotions or situations they’re incapable of coping with is not happy, calm and stress-free.
The path to a happy, calm and stress-free baby is to be responsive to their needs. To pick them up. To hug them silly. To hold them, even if we can’t stop their cries. To reassure them through our actions that our love is unconditional and we will have their backs no matter how inconvenient or uncomfortable it may be at times.
Now is the time to trust our babies. To have faith that when they are developmentally ready, they will spread their wings and fly. And one day, in the not too distant future, they won’t need us any more. And we will look back and feel gratitude for the moments, that despite our sleep deprivation, we held our babies, drank in their sweet innocence and sang to them in the black silent stillness while nobody was watching.