Last week on Facebook (yeah, that’s right, *FB*), there was an article circulated through my network of friends and colleagues, entitled “Science shows up Supernanny: A mental health expert warns that fashionable advice to ignore your child’s tears may cause lifelong harm”. It was actually published back in 2004, and refers to some contemporary research that seems to indicate that letting babies “cry it out” (CIO as it is politely called in the circles that prescribe it), can cause neuro-dvelopmental anomalies linked with later mental disorders. Well, I thought that was cause for an Attachment Parenting holiday.
As I read the article, I was first struck with a sense of jubilation, and then almost immediately, confusion. If this was published in 2004, and the research that suggests the correlation between parenting attachment strategies and neurological development is at least that old, why haven’t CIO strategies been outlawed by now? That’s a joke, but seriously, why aren’t notions like “self-soothing” and “CIO sleep training” more passé in the general populace?
All I can figure is that the popularity of particular parenting gurus (and their subsequent ability to dupe us into ignoring our parenting instincts and intuitions), and the taboo against discussing other people’s parenting (as in, “Parenting is a personal issue, no one can tell you how to treat your baby…”) combines into a perfect storm of stasis, such that by and large, we go on parenting the same way some other “expert” told us to, regardless of what other information shows up along the way. I know that is bound to be a vast over-simplification, but I think you get my point.
So instead of a landslide of change in parenting styles toward greater attachment and connection, we hear people saying, “Oh well, they can find a scientific study to prove anything…” And what should have been an about-face in common parenting tactics has wound up being a very slow turn of a few at a time brave enough to swim up the viscous stream of (very recent) parenting dogma. And though, we will have to continue to swim through being thought “extreme”, “permissive”, “pandering” “fools willing to raise brats due to a false allegiance to new age scientific mumbo-jumbo”, we will not only continue on in a direction that feels more humane and natural to us, but also more scientifically grounded.
I won’t typically bother to make the following argument, because I, too, have learned to be skeptical of biased, agenda-laden “scientific study”. However, in certain cases, such as the current one, the evidence all seems to stack up together in such a way that science, nature, and human intuition coalesce to make a cosmic assertion. In the present example, we have years of Behaviorist studies on the one hand, which seem to conclude that if we respond to behaviors we like, and ignore ones we don’t like, that our children will adapt to exhibit only the preferred behaviors. There has been some reported/assumed veracity to this argument — that is, research (and parent experience) has lent some truth to the central Behaviorist theory. Children do tend to alter some of their behavior based on our responses to it. I would suggest, however, that this theory has been used to attempt to “control behaviors” with which it was never meant to interfere, and, additionally, that there are ramifications that go beyond the simple expression or suppression of certain behaviors. Further, this theory, when applied in methods like CIO, flies in the face of what feels right to parents, and what seems most natural for the human species.
On the other hand, the findings of recent neuro-scientific analysis which suggest that babies experience stress and shock when being left to cry alone, and thereby undergo interruptions and curtailment to brain development, is a pretty different kind of analysis than Behaviorist studies of cause and superficial effect. When B.F. Skinner et al studied how parents can alter the behaviors exhibited by their children, they had no way of seeing what happened to the children, other than what was externally exhibited. Now, with advanced MRI techniques, neuro-scientists can actually see what the brain is doing under the influence of repeated stress, attachment issues, and psychological abandonment. And it ain’t a pretty picture, let me tell you. But what is more, the finding that leaving babies to cry it out, or experience other stressors on a regular basis, is problematic for brain development — and the corallary argument that we, therefore, should not leave babies alone, or expose them to risks of insecure attachment — aligns perfectly with the most natural (historical) approach to parenting children, the instincts/feelings of the parents, and what seems most humane.
What I mean to say is simply this, Behaviorist methodology doesn’t mesh with what feels right and normal for human parenting, but the idea that we’d better nurture the heck out our babies so that they may develop fully and normally does match with what feels most appropriate. And although I mean that it feels right for me, I would also lean toward assuming that under normal circumstances most healthy adults will feel the same about this particular discussion. Honestly, what parent would feel normal about leaving her baby alone to cry, if she wasn’t inundated with skewed parenting dogma?
After I read the article, “Science shows up Supernanny”, I decided to go looking for a more direct route to the research discussed there. Margot Sunderland, the director of Education and Training at the Centre for Child Mental Health in London, was the primary human subject of the article. She’s written more than 20 books about child mental health, including, The Definitive Child Rearing Book, but the claims she makes in the article are actually forwarded by an overwhelming host of neuro-scientific researchers, who seem to be reaching the same conclusions in growing numbers. I found article after article discussing effects of stress on baby brains, noting everything from elevated stress hormone, cortisol, levels; to chronic dysregulation of cortisol rhythms; to neuro-transmitter malfunctions; to under-development of various areas of the brain, including the limbic system, and the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA). Almost all of the research I perused, linked these changes in brain development with later “mental symptoms”.
So now there’s two things I want to know. First, what is it going to take to undo the socially corrosive gospel according to B.F.Skinner, such that parents can begin to return to what feels right, and natural, and intuitive in child-rearing? And second, if insecure attachments negatively effect brain development in children, what becomes possible with potently, securely, ultra-connected attachments?
I believe that if we move, as a culture (and a species), more in the direction of radical nurturing, and natural parenting, we will discover a capacity and capability in humanity that we have only yet dreamed. If we take the time to form deep, securely-attached bonds with our infants, and respond to their early needs immediately and compassionately, I believe a revolution of conscious will occur in humanity, unlike anything seen since we came down out of the trees. Our Cro-Magnon predecessors knew all this already. They had it down so well that they evolved into modern humans. I believe we could take that further, toward developing the currently uncharted terra incognita of our minds, perhaps even one day using more of our brains than we even know about now…
Believe in your instincts, power nurturers. And if they’ve been quashed by your conditioning, believe in nature. And if you can’t find your natural flow, or you need some hard data to hold onto, then swim with the neuro-scientists. They’re headed up stream, but they’re riding a rising tide…
Want more? Here’s a drop from the bucket:
- The article, “Science shows up Supernanny“
- Another article (with references!), “Cry It Out: the Potential Dangers of Leaving Your Baby to Cry”
- Shirtcliff and Essex in Developmental Psychobiology [2008, 50(7):690-703], argue for a link between high levels of cortisol and mental health symptoms in early adolescence.
- Hawes DJ, Brennan J, Dadds MR in Current Opinion in Psychiatry [2009, 22(4):357-62] argue that cortisol dysregulation (both elevated and suppressed levels) causes developmental problems.
- Oskis A, Loveday C, Hucklebridge F, Thorn L, Clow A in Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, and Allied Disciplines [2011, 52(2):111-8] argue that the same pattern of cortisol dysregulation associated with disorder in adulthood manifests as a function of anxious insecure attachment style in females during healthy childhood and adolescence.
- Weiss SJ in Perspectives in Psychiatric Care [2007, 43(3):114-22] argues that exposure to traumatic stress is associated with changes in the limbic system, the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, and key monoamine neurotransmitters. Different neurobiological alterations can be linked to specific symptoms of hyperarousal, dissociation/numbing, and reexperiencing of the trauma.