Young children suck…breasts, bottles, thumbs, dummies (pacifiers), fingers…

The instinct to suck is present moments after birth and plays a crucial role in supporting babies’ early growth and development.  Like sexual behaviour, sucking has a predictable developmental trajectory.  It is strongest in infancy and gradually fades as children age.  There are individual differences in the degree to which children suck and how the developmental trajectory unfolds and, of course, the trajectory for an individual child will be affected by a whole range of contextual factors.  The ‘average’ age to spontaneously stop sucking seems to be somewhere between two and four with anywhere between one and seven within the bounds of ‘normal’.  This is true of breastfed babies allowed to self-wean and thumb-suckers allowed to stop sucking when they wish and is consistent with patterns of nursing and weaning in other primates.

Sucking is right up there with eating, drinking and sexual behaviour as utterly crucial to our survival as a species.  For our ancestors, a baby with a poor sucking instinct was likely to die. A child who lost the drive to suck early in infancy was at risk of death or injury due to infection or malnutrition.  In an era without formula, antibiotics or hospitals, in which access to clean water and a variety of nutritious foods was not always dependable, a desire to suck regularly for years would have increased the chance of survival.    Childhood sucking is underwritten by instincts and desires shaped by millions of years of evolution.  How does evolution ensure that we perform the behaviours that are utterly crucial to the survival of the species?  By making them highly reinforcing – pleasurable, comforting, satisfying. So just as the evolutionary ‘purpose’ of sexual behaviour is reproduction but many people all over the world regularly engage in sexual behaviour for satisfaction, the evolutionary ‘purpose’ of childhood sucking is to support growth and development through nutrition and immunological benefits but many children all over the world regularly engage in sucking behaviour for comfort.  And this is just as natural, normal and psychologically healthy for a young child as having sex for pleasure is for an adult.  Evolution has also co-opted both sexual behaviour and sucking (as well as physical contact more broadly) to help bind us to each other.  When comforting childhood sucking experiences are shared with another person (regardless of what exactly is being sucked) they can promote bonding.  If this happens regularly, then sucking behaviour also gets jumbled in with all sorts of social reinforcers in a complex way. 

So, are there any risks to childhood sucking?  The main risk is dental problems.    Sucking a thumb, finger or a dummy, particularly beyond two years of age does increase the risk of developing specific dental problems.  However, the majority of children who do continue to suck beyond two years of age don’t develop these specific dental problems and some children who are not sucking a thumb, finger or a dummy beyond two years do.  It is clear that the longer the sucking behaviour persists the higher the risk but what I’ve found disappointingly unclear within the scientific literature is the dosage of sucking required to create the risk.  In other words, exactly how much sucking is needed before your child’s dentation is at risk?  One minute a day?  Ten?  An hour?  Two hours?  Without knowing the dose relationship it is hard to judge the risks involved in the sucking behaviour of a particular child, and hence it is hard for a parent to judge how much they should prioritise the elimination of risks to dentation over other considerations such as their child’s emotional needs or the promotion of autonomy or a peaceful family life.  To be a bit facetious, many behaviours performed repeatedly may leave their mark upon the body, but we usually don’t recommend that the behaviours be eliminated entirely.  The other potential for dental problems is clear.  Sucking from a bottle allows the liquid to wash over teeth so only breastmilk, formula or water should be put in a bottle. 

So, can sucking be a habit?  Sure.  The specific ways a child sucks are obviously learnt and at times, children suck because it is a ‘habit’ just as at times adults engage in particular sexual behaviours because it is a ‘habit’.  But assuming sucking is ‘just a habit’ is a mistake and underestimates the potential importance of sucking for your child. 

So, what can parents do?

Firstly, think about how all of this best fits into your family, your values and your circumstances and how all of that will unfold for you throughout early childhood.  For example, it isn’t wise to introduce a dummy (pacifier) before you’ve at least considered how and when your child might finish dummy (pacifier) sucking.

Breastfeed if you can.  If there are downsides of breastfeeding for you, or if you find that you struggle with breastfeeding and seeking professional help doesn’t solve the challenges that you experience know that this isn’t all or nothing.  Any breastfeeding you’ve managed to do is a brilliant achievement.  And your choices from here on aren’t just black and white, there are shades of grey.  For example, expressing milk (without pressure, just when you can) and feeding it to your baby from a bottle, combination feeding (breastfeeding and formula feeding too) or feeding your baby mostly on formula but continuing to offer the breast for comfort.  You can also mimic breastfeeding in how you bottle feed and gain all the non-milk benefits of breastfeeding (see below).  If you do successfully establish a happy breastfeeding relationship then continue to breastfeed for as long as suits you and your child.  Breastfeeding, even for months, decreases the chance that your child will persist in sucking their thumb or finger or a dummy (pacifier).

For all sucking other than breastfeeding, try to imitate breastfeeding.  Breastfeeding automatically puts specific boundaries on sucking behaviour.  For example, when breastfeeding:

  • sucking is always paired with physical contact
  • feeding usually happens by demand not by schedule (breastfeeding doesn’t tend to work if it is done on schedule)
  • the child regulates their own intake, stopping a feed when they are satisfied
  • babies often fall asleep at the breast
  • for older babies and toddlers, there are times when the sucking object is unavailable or when access is delayed (because mum is somewhere else or busy)
  • for older babies and toddlers, sucking can’t be done at the same time as crawling, walking or running, so children have to choose between comfort and exploration

You can replicate these same conditions with other forms of sucking.  For example, when you bottle feed (regardless of whether there’s expressed milk or formula in the bottle), always hold your baby at the same time, pairing sucking with physical contact.  Feed your baby by demand, not by the clock and allow your child to regulate their own intake instead of encouraging them to finish the bottle.  If you introduce a dummy (pacifier) then you can place boundaries on its use, for example, only giving it when your baby is tired, as part of settling for sleep.  You can pair physical contact with dummy (pacifier) and thumb or finger sucking by regularly giving cuddles at the same time.   For toddlers, you could even negotiate rules around sucking happening during cuddle time or when settling to sleep, not during play. 

Allowing your child to choose when to finish sucking is a legitimate option and if you go down that path your child will probably finish sucking altogether somewhere between their second and their fourth birthdays.  Within the breastfeeding literature this is called child-led weaning.  It is a gradual process, you will notice your child gradually cutting back on sucking over time, long before they finish sucking altogether.  If you decide it is time for your child’s sucking to end or to be reduced it is possible to bring this about in a gentle and gradual way.  Within the breastfeeding literature this is called mother-led weaning but the same strategies can be used with all forms of sucking.  When breastfeeding, a gradual weaning process is always advised as sudden weaning risks blocked milk ducts and infection in the mother.  However, a gradual weaning process is also gentler for the child and should be considered the best option with all forms of sucking. Again, child-led weaning vs mother-led weaning isn’t black and white, there are many shades of grey in between.  You might, for example, wait for your child to initiate cutting back on sucking and then actively assist this to happen, or you might negotiate specific boundaries around sucking behaviour, cutting back to a small amount of sucking per day and then allow your child to finish sucking altogether whenever they wish.   To encourage your child to gradually cut back on sucking you might like to experiment with:

  • Start by cutting back on your child’s least favourite feed or sucking time. Target their favourite time to suck last.
  • Don’t offer and don’t refuse. This is often used to wean from the breast but it can also be effective with dummies (pacifiers).  Start keeping your child’s dummy (pacifier) out of sight and never offer it again.  If your child asks for it, give it.
  • Negotiate a boundary to sucking. For example, ‘only at home’. 
  • When targeting a specific sucking time, focus not on eliminating the sucking but on the new behaviour that will happen instead. For example, if your child likes to suck to sleep at night, you can try experimenting with new bedtime routines such as reading a book, doing a relaxation exercise or having a cuddle.  Continue to offer sucking after the new routine if your child is still awake.  Keep experimenting until you find that your child begins to fall asleep before sucking.  As another example, if your child likes to suck in the morning just after waking for the day, you can try experimenting with new morning routines, ensuring that you are available for an enjoyable play just after your child wakes. 
  • Do all of this flexibly, experimenting to find what works, and with full consideration of your child’s perspective.

The bottom line?  Remember, your child’s need to suck is a powerful and necessary force shaped by millions of years of evolution and in early infancy it kept your child alive.

Apply it to your life:  Consider your child’s need to suck, and how that may be present in early childhood.  How can you best accommodate your child’s needs in your family?


Dettwyler K. (1995) A time to Wean: The Hominid Blueprint for the natural age of Weaning in Modern Human Populations. In: Stewart-MacAdam P, Dettwyler KA, editors. Breastfeeding: Biocultural Perspectives. New York: Aldine deGruyter

Duncan, K., McNamara, C., Ireland, A.J. & Sandy, J.R. (2008) Sucking habits in childhood and the effects on the primary dentition: findings of the Avon Longitudinal Study of Pregnancy and Childhood. International Journal of Paediatric Dentistry, 18,178–188

Sugarman M, Kendall-Tackett K.A (1995) Weaning ages in a sample of American women who practice extended breastfeeding. Clinical Pediatrics, 34(12), 642-7.


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Your intention matters

It frustrates me when I hear parental responsiveness being discussed as if responsiveness were a matter of following specific rules.  This can make parents feel confused and guilty and it just isn’t correct.  It also suggests that all responsive parent-child relationships look the same, when in fact, responsiveness is flexible and creative.  Responsiveness is, by definition, following your child not following rules.  There is also plenty of room for ordinary human error within a responsive, loving relationship.  Responsiveness is a pattern of care over time; with even responsive parents frequently behaving in an unresponsive way in particular interactions.  Mistakes usually don’t matter.  Intention matters.  Your ongoing pattern of interaction matters.  Being compassionate to your child matters.  Doing the best you can matters.

We understand this easily in other relationships.  For example, imagine you were at home with the children and your partner was at work.  You become sick.  You need support.  You have a vague memory of your partner saying that they will be home late tonight so you pick up the phone.  You ring your partner, explain that you are unwell, and ask them to come home as soon as possible. Unfortunately, you find out that your partner will still be late. You reached out for help and your partner let you down. 

Now imagine these three scenarios:

Scenario One

Your partner was compassionate during the phone call.  They wanted to rush straight home but they have an important late meeting at work, a meeting that is impossible to reschedule and utterly crucial to their career.  It is the kind of meeting that is likely to lead to new opportunities and a better income.  You receive several supportive text messages from your partner throughout the day.  When your partner comes home they find you in bed, give you a cuddle and ask if there’s anything they can do.

Scenario Two

Your partner wasn’t compassionate.  They are catching up with an old friend after work and simply don’t want to cancel. After the phone call you don’t hear from your partner again.  When your partner comes home they slip into bed beside you. 

Scenario Three

Your partner wasn’t compassionate, if in fact, your partner responds to your request by saying that you rely too much them.  Your partner says that it is time for you to learn how to manage the kids better, even when you are sick.  They are catching up with an old friend after work and aren’t going to cancel.  Your partner says that you shouldn’t ask them to come home early just because you are sick.  After the phone call you don’t hear from your partner again.  When your partner comes home they slip into bed beside you. 

All scenarios involve your partner letting you down and mean that you have to get through a full day with your kids, while feeling very unwell.  But they are very different, aren’t they?  Your partner’s intention matters.  Your partner doing the best they can matters.  Your partner being compassionate to your needs matters.  All of that matters to your children too. 

Apply it to your life:  Let go of the rules and follow your child instead, with the intention of meeting your child’s needs as best you can.

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Becoming Mum now available as an ebook!

Hooray!  At long last Becoming Mum is officially available as an ebook.  It is available in all the major formats: AmazonGoogle, Apple, Kobo and Nook.  Becoming Mum is, of course, still available as a paperback.  You can purchase the paperback directly through the Becoming Mum website or via your usual online retailer such as Amazon, the Book Depository  or Angus and Robertson.  Or you could be old school and look for it on the shelves at your local bookstore (if they don’t have it in stock please do tell them you were looking for it!).  

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The challenge of finding unconditional love

To choose to have children is to accept the challenge of finding, within yourself, unconditional love.  It is the challenge of accepting into your heart someone who could be anyone.  It is the challenge of loving fully someone you could lose.  Your children may come easily and quickly, or unexpectedly, or slowly and painfully and when they arrive who knows who they will be?  Boy or girl?  Healthy or not? Like you or different?  Content or emotional? Easy or rebellious?  And who knows what kind of person that child will grow into? In a strange way, if you can learn to open your heart to your children, you’ve opened your heart to everyone.  Even yourself…

It is natural to have preferences, anxieties or dreams for your children’s future. Naturally, you want the best for your children and naturally you’ve got your own ideas about what the best might be.  It is also only natural to not want to suffer yourself.  And yet, the core task of parenting, should you accept it, is to open your heart to all of that, to treat yourself gently with all of that, and to open your heart fully, recklessly and without condition to your child.  This doesn’t mean that you won’t have your own preferences and opinions and it certainly doesn’t mean that there won’t be times when you feel angry, sad or stressed.  In fact, it means opening your heart to all of that, to all of your reactions to your child, and opening your heart to your child too.  It means choosing to love someone who could become anyone.  It means choosing to love knowing that there will be times when it hurts.  It means loving anyway. 

Apply it to your life:  Can you choose to love your child unconditionally?  To hold gently your preferences and worries, the awareness of what you might lose, and to love anyway?

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Parenting is not a mere ‘lifestyle choice’

It infuriates me the number of times I’ve heard people express in public discourse that parenting is ‘a lifestyle choice’.   The implication is, of course, that parents have no right to expect consideration, adjustments or support from society as a whole and that non-parents have no obligation to make financial contributions, through taxes, to support parents directly or indirectly.  It infuriates me further how few times I’ve heard a position so obviously ludicrous pass unquestioned.  Parenting is not a mere ‘lifestyle choice’…

A mere ‘lifestyle choice’ is an action or a series of actions that you make for personal reasons and – here’s the crucial bit – a mere ‘lifestyle choice’ makes no contribution to society as a whole.  In liberal democracies we generally hold that people should be free to make whatever ‘lifestyle choices’ they wish, so long as their choices don’t harm others.  We also don’t usually see ‘lifestyle choices’ as warranting public support.  But parenting is not a mere ‘lifestyle choice’…  Yes, the decision to become a parent is a deeply personal one and yes, it changes your lifestyle.  The actions taken as a parent, everyday, are taken for deeply personal reasons.  But, parenting makes an enormous contribution to society as a whole. 

Compare parenting to surfing and providing healthcare, for example.  Surfing is a lifestyle choice.  Imagine I had a magical wand and I instantly removed all desire to surf from the entire population of the world at once.  People just stopped turning up at beaches to surf. What would happen?  Some specific businesses would collapse (i.e. businesses that make or sell surfboards) but pretty much life would just go on.  In contrast, imagine what would happen if I instantly removed all desire to provide healthcare from the entire population of the world.  All currently registered nurses and doctors instantly resigned and refused to work, all nursing and medical students dropped out and no one lined up to replace them.  Our hospitals would instantly be in chaos!  Our governments would declare an international health emergency overnight and untold numbers of people would die.   Choosing to become a nurse or doctor is not a mere ‘lifestyle choice’.  Of course, people choose to become a nurse or a doctor for personal reasons, that choose impacts on their lifestyle and many doctors and nurses find their work deeply fulfilling and rewarding.  But the fact that some people make that choice benefits us all.  Society as a whole has a stake in some of us becoming nurses and doctors.  Further, society as a whole has a stake in doctors and nurses having the resources and support that they need to practise with professionalism, the latest scientific knowledge and care.   Now imagine if I instantly removed all desire to parent from the entire population of the world.  Existing children were abandoned and people simply stopped reproducing.  What would happen?  Society would be in utter chaos.   If we managed to survive the initial chaos, our economies would collapse.  With no new children born, as the population aged, one by one each and every business would lose their customers and their workforce.  Our species would, quite literally, die out.  If our economies, our societies, our very survival as a species depends upon a segment of the population making the choice to be parents, and putting their time and effort into parenting for many years, how can that be called a mere ‘lifestyle choice’?  Not only that but parenting quality impacts greatly upon the kind of society we live in.  How well the average parent parents changes the next generation for better or worse, for all of us.  It changes everything from crime rates, to rates of divorce, from the intelligence of the population, to the capacity for compassion.  And we all must live in the world that parents are creating.  Parenting makes an enormous contribution to the economy and to society.  And that means that providing societal support for parenting is both sensible and just.  Ensuring that parents have the resources and support to parent well benefits us all.  We all have a stake in it.

Apply it to your life:  I think that by parenting you are making a great contribution to our society and I think that entitles you to the support that you need to parent well.  Importantly, I don’t think this support is charity, I think justice demands it and I think we all benefit from societal investment in parenting.  What do you think?

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The trick isn’t what you do; it is knowing what has to be done

One of my Lecturers during my clinical training at UQ, Prof Tian Oei, told us this joke.  A company was struggling with productivity.  Nothing they tried could fix the problem.  It was looking like their factory would have to be closed.  They called in an expert consultant to help fix the problem.  The consultant toured the factory, observed the workers, drilled the managers with detailed questions and examined every machine in detail.  Eventually, the consultant reached her conclusion.  “I know how to fix your problem” she said.  She took out a spanner and tightened a single screw on one of the machines and instantly productivity soared.  The company was saved.  But initially, the managers weren’t happy, “But that was too easy!” they cried, “Anyone could have tightened that screw.  You don’t deserve to be paid for that.”  The expert consultant shook her head, “You aren’t paying me for tightening the screw.  You are paying me for knowing that tightening that screw was what had to be done.”  The job of a psychologist, remarked Tian, is the same as that expert consultant.  The actual strategies within a psychologist’s toolbox are pretty simple (in fact, I think he made a comment about trained monkeys), but what most people find hard, what psychologists specialise in, is knowing what has to be done to change behaviour.  The strategies of behaviour change are pretty simple stuff and easy to learn how to implement, it is knowing what has to be done, with a particular behaviour of a particular person in a particular context, where all the magic happens.  That is the true key. 

So, I find it interesting how much parents, keen to make changes in their own or in their child’s behaviour, focus on strategies.  They are almost always convinced that their lack of success so far is because they don’t yet have the right tool.  They are almost always keen to skip straight to hearing what tools I can teach them to manage their child’s misbehaviour.  In fact, the tools that work are all really simple stuff, and they are all based within a straightforward principle: stop reinforcing the misbehaviour, start reinforcing alternative behaviours and if your child has no alternative behaviours then teach them some.  The tricky bit, the bit where the magic happens is knowing how to apply that principle to the specific behaviour of your child, given the context in which that behaviour occurs.  The good news is you can get better, not just at strategies and tools, but at knowing what has to be done.  And here’s how:

  • Pick a particular behaviour to focus on and, for the next week, monitor that behaviour. In an ideal world, you would be recording every instance of the behaviour, either by taking a tally (for a discrete behaviour like hitting), recording the duration of the behaviour (for a behaviour where duration not occurrence is the focus like independent play), or noting whether the behaviour has or has not occurred at regular intervals, such as every 30 minutes (for behaviours with blurry boundaries like whinging).  I don’t want to discourage you from doing that, but I know that this isn’t an ideal world and most people aren’t that meticulous.  So, you can also set aside time at the end of each day for a week and ask yourself: did that behaviour happen a lot today or a little?  Did it happen more at particular times?  Was there any pattern to when and where it happened?
  • Now think about a specific episode of the behaviour. Pick one that seemed fairly typical.  What seemed to trigger the behaviour?  That is, what was happening immediately before the behaviour?  What, do you think, could be reinforcing (i.e. strengthening) the behaviour?   What happened immediately after?  What was happening when the behaviour stopped?  What happened next?  Remember your attention could be a reinforcer even it was negative attention!
  • Again, think about the situations in which the behaviour occurs. If you are focussing on a misbehaviour, a behaviour you’d like to see decrease, you need to ask yourself, what could your child do instead?  In the particular situations in which your child misbehaves, given their age and skills, what could they do instead?  Does your child have alternative behaviours or do you need to teach them?  If your child does have alternative behaviours, are those reinforced (e.g. by your attention, by your child getting what they are after)?
  • If you are focusing on a behaviour that you’d like to see increase, you need to ask yourself, can your child actually do that? Is it realistic given their age and skills?  Do you need to teach them how or make the task easier in some way?
  • If you like, talk through your ideas with your partner or a friend or relative. Do they have any insights to offer?

By the end of this process, you should have some ideas about what it is that needs to be done.  The next step is to try those ideas out and see what happens, continuing to monitor the behaviour.  You’ll know your ideas are right if the frequency or duration of the behaviour changes over time, in the direction you were aiming for.  Remember to be realistic and to take your child’s age and individual personality into account. Sometimes it is better to simply be more patient yourself!

It is ideal to cultivate the habit of asking these questions, figuring out what is to be done, in your daily life.  I guarantee that becoming more skilled at working out what is to be done will be more helpful than learning yet another tool.   Oh, and if you are really stuck you could always call in that expert consultant, a psychologist, to point out which screw needs tightening…  It is after all, what we are good at…

Apply it to your life:  You can become more skilled at knowing what has to be done. Remember: What triggered that behaviour?  What might be reinforcing it?  What can my child do instead?

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Knowing the people who matter most

‘It’s not who you’ve known,

but who you’re knowing’

Who are you ‘knowing’? Who do you spend time listening to?  Who do you make efforts to understand?  Who do you treasure learning little details about? Who are you aware of?  Who are you insightful about?  Who do you share living with?

Work colleagues, acquaintances, celebrities, no one?

Friends, family, your partner, your children, yourself?

Right now, today, who have you spent time and energy ‘knowing’?  Pause and actually answer the question to yourself. 

Incidentally, the quote comes from the Eels song ‘I like the way this is going’.  The song is a beautiful romantic love song, but most of the lyrics work perfectly for a love song from parent to child.  And in case you are getting hooked by grand ideas of what this ‘knowing’ might involve, the song includes the lines:

‘I like to watch TV with you,

there’s really nothing that I would rather do

Then maybe we can go to bed,

and get up and do it all again.’

Who do you sit in comfortable acceptance with?  Who do you share, actually share, the everyday realities of your life with?  Who shares the mundane realities of their life with you?  And… can you take joy in that?  Can you dwell within the everyday moment?  Can you live that so ordinary day and live it fully, really being with the people you are with whether they be friends, family, your partner, your children or even just yourself?  Can you pause, dwell in the ordinary moment and say, ‘there’s really nothing that I would rather do’?

‘It’s not who you’ve known,

but who you’re knowing

I like the way this is going’ the Eels

Apply it to your life:  Who are you knowing?  Dwell in that ordinary moment with the people that matter in your life.

I like the way this is going 

The Eels website

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Building parental responsiveness from the ground up

Responsive parenting series part 3

This post is the third of a three part series on responsive parenting.  Responsive parenting, in a nutshell, means parenting that is responsive to the signals or cues of your child.  It is warm, caring and on cue.  Responsiveness is often understood within an attachment theory framework (responsive parenting predicts secure attachment styles in children) but I’m not going to go into that here.  In fact, apart from this short introduction, I won’t be mentioning attachment at all.  This isn’t because attachment theory isn’t valuable.  It is because it can be useful to view parental responsiveness from other angles too to get a full and complete picture of responsiveness.

We’ve seen how parental responsiveness is the way that humans do parental care and why it is vital not just for emotional development and psychological health but also for cognitive development.  Convinced parental responsiveness matters but unsure of how to get there?  Here are some simple tips to tune in and be responsive:

  • Start with your own heart. Like, really, start there.  What matters most to you about parenting?  If you could secretly listen to your child, in twenty or thirty years’ time, completing the sentence, ‘I’m lucky I had the parents I had because….’  What would you love, absolutely love, to hear your child say?  I’m guessing it isn’t ‘they had me toilet trained in a single weekend!’ No, it is something about being loving, or being kind, or just plain being there, isn’t it?  Listen to your heart…
  • Be present psychologically. Your child exists in this very moment, in the here and now.  If you aren’t psychologically in the here and now too, if you are daydreaming or worried about the future or caught up in memories of the past, you are missing your child as he or she is right now.  And you are probably missing your child’s signals.  If being present is a challenge for you, consider practising mindfulness.  In fact, practise mindfulness of your child as you interact.  Pause and just notice your child, as he or she is in the here and now again and again. 
  • Wonder about your child’s perspective. Many, many times a day pause and just wonder: How does my child feel?  What is my child thinking?  What is my child seeing?  Take these insights into account and notice what happens.  Wonder again.
  • Loosen up a bit. Be creative.    Being a responsive parent isn’t something that you either achieve… or not.  It is a process, a process of continual adjustment and experimentation.  Even incredibly responsive parents are often off-cue.  When you notice you’ve gotten it wrong, gently experiment with a different approach. 
  • Find your own joy in connection. Responsive interactions are often playful, relaxed and fun for both parents and children.  Find your own joy in getting to know your child, in understanding your child’s perspective, and meeting your child’s needs.  At times being responsive can be tough.  Listen to your heart at these times.  Find the sweet satisfaction that comes from doing what matters, even when life is tough.

Apply it to your life:  Experiment with this responsiveness recipe.  Which aspects worked for you?

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Responsive parenting fuels cognitive and neurodevelopment

Responsive parenting series part 2

This post is the second of a three part series on responsive parenting.  Responsive parenting, in a nutshell, means parenting that is responsive to the signals or cues of your child.  It is warm, caring and on cue.  Responsiveness is often understood within an attachment theory framework (responsive parenting predicts secure attachment styles in children) but I’m not going to go into that here.  In fact, apart from this short introduction, I won’t be mentioning attachment at all.  This isn’t because attachment theory isn’t valuable.  It is because it can be useful to view parental responsiveness from other angles too to get a full and complete picture of responsiveness.

The psychological and emotional benefits of responsive parenting are often the first benefits that we think of.  But the benefits of responsive parenting don’t end there.  Responsive parenting is the fuel for the fire of cognitive and neurodevelopment.  Want smart kids?  Be responsive! 

Our children may be born developmentally immature but, by the end of their first year of life, just as they are starting to resemble a newborn precocial mammal in terms of mobility, they have already begun to do something that no other species on this planet can do.  They have begun to talk…  At their first birthday language is still rudimentary, but at around eighteen months language acquisition will take off bigtime, a phenomenon called the naming explosion.  In several short years our children become verbal humans.  They learn to live, like us, not just in a physical world but in a symbolic world. 

This involves, first of all, learning to relate stimuli.  Learning language means learning that a sound is equivalent to, or represents a physical object.  For example, learning that the sound ‘kitty’ represents an actual cat.  Our children learn that sounds, gestures and, in time, even squiggles on a page, can stand in for physical objects psychologically.  Our children will learn many different relations including equivalence, opposition, temporal relations (before, after), and even deictic relations (you, me).  And they will learn literally millions of specific instances of relations between stimuli.  This relational learning is foundational to intelligence, language and all complex human cognition.  Repeated responsive interactions with verbal humans is necessary for this relational learning to occur. 

To be effective, language exposure must be responsive.  A radio blaring human speech or a parent talking relentlessly without regard for the child will not have the same effect.  The parent must be aware of their child’s perspective, so that the child can pinpoint the correct relations.  For example, a parent may notice their child looking curiously at a dog and respond, ‘Oh that’s a nice doggie, isn’t it?  Look at the doggie!’ allowing their child to connect the sound ‘doggie’ to an actual dog. Human children need many repetitions of responsive verbal interactions.  Everyday verbal interactions between parents and children predict a child’s later intelligence and vocabulary.  All human parents, pretty much, expose their children to some language.  Everyone makes those necessary, functional statements.  ‘Do you want a sandwich?’ or ‘Don’t pull kitty’s tail, be gentle.’  What really makes a difference in terms of later intelligence is how much a child is exposed to that responsive, often joyful, verbal sharing between parent and child.  ‘Oh it is a yummy sandwich, isn’t it?   I can see you are enjoying it. Oh yes, yum yum.  You like vegemite, don’t you?  It is yummy.  I might have a bite too.’ or ‘Isn’t kitty soft?  Doesn’t she have soft fur? Oh, she’s purring.  Can you hear it? Rumble, rumble.  Isn’t it a funny noise?’ Responsive verbal interactions are multiple exemplar training, intensive teaching sessions, that fuel cognitive development, as well as neurodevelopment. 

And so it turns out that our high burden of parental care is the price we’ve paid for our humanity in another sense as well.  Responsive verbal interactions are the pathway that we walk into the symbolic world. 

Wondering how you can become more responsive?  Practical tips in the next post!

Apply it to your life:  Notice joyful, verbal sharing in your relationship with your child. Relish in those interactions, remembering your mutual fun is fuelling your child’s cognitive development.


Hart, B., & Risley, T. R. (1995). Meaningful Differences in the everyday experience of young Americian children. Baltimore: Paul H Brookes Publishing Co.

Coyne, L. W., & Wilson, K. G. (2004). The role of cognitive fusion in impaired parenting: an RFT analysis. International Journal of Psychology and Psychological Therapy, 4(3), 469-486.

Eshel, N., Daelmans, B., Cabral de Mello, M., & Martines, J. (2006). Responsive parenting: interventions and outcomes. Bulletin of the World Health Organisation 84(12), 991-998.

Hart, B., & Risley, T. R. (1995). Meaningful Differences in the everyday experience of young Americian children. Baltimore: Paul H Brookes Publishing Co.

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Responsive parenting is the way our species does parental care

Responsive parenting series part 1

This post is the first of a three part series on responsive parenting.  Responsive parenting, in a nutshell, means parenting that is responsive to the signals or cues of your child.  It is warm, caring and on cue.  Responsiveness is often understood within an attachment theory framework (responsive parenting predicts secure attachment styles in children) but I’m not going to go into that here.  In fact, apart from this short introduction, I won’t be mentioning attachment at all.  This isn’t because attachment theory isn’t valuable.  It is because it can be useful to view parental responsiveness from other angles too to get a full and complete picture of responsiveness.

Parental responsiveness is, quite simply, the way that our species provides parental care.  To understand why we need to compare a newborn human with other newborn mammals and to delve into our evolutionary past.  Consider a newborn lamb who within hours of birth is able to walk.  Then consider what a newborn human is like: immobile, neurodevelopmentally immature and with little direct control over their environment.  Parental care is crucial to all mammals and there are two distinct patterns.  Some mammals are precocial, their young are born neurodevelopmentally mature with early mobility, for example sheep.  For precocial mammals, parental care still happens, but the offspring are able to follow or cling to the mother.  Precocial mammals produce a high lactose milk, perfect for a mobile infant who is able to follow the mother and feed frequently and at will.  Singleton birth is the norm.  Other mammals are altricial, their young are born neurodevelopmentally immature, for example, mice.  Altricial mammals typically give birth to litters and nest.  They produce milk with high fat content, allowing the young to survive lengthy periods in between feeds while the mother leaves the nest and forages for food. 

Humans evolved from precocial ancestors and we still have many characteristics typical of prococial mammals.  For example, singleton birth is the norm, human milk is high lactose, and our babies thrive with demand feeding, that is feeding at will, and often frequently, just like prococial mammals (regardless of whether breastmilk or formula is given).  But our babies aren’t prococial.  Far from it…  At birth they can’t even hold up their own massive head…  We are secondarily altricial.  Why?  Well, that massive head is the clue.  A lengthy, dependent childhood is the price we must pay for our large brains.  It has been suggested that we have to give birth to our babies ‘prematurely’, while their huge heads are still small enough to fit through the birth canal.  But it may simply be that supporting the growth of such a large brain to sufficient neurodevelopmental maturity to be precocial simply outstrips the maternal body’s metabolism.  Either way, the price of our large brains is that we are secondarily altricial. 

So, we give birth to neurodevelopmentally immature, immobile, utterly dependent babies who are primed for the near constant contact, and at-will feeding that prococial mammals easily obtain by simply following or clinging to the mother.  We cannot nest, there is no litter to nest our young with.  And, we feed them high-lactose, easily digested milk, the kind of milk that necessitates frequent at-will feeding patterns (even formula is based on the nutritional properties of human milk and so, although there may be differences between breastmilk and formula, the basic point still applies).  Well, how did evolution solve that one?  I’d argue there is only one solution.  Only one.  The parent must bridge the gap.  The parent must be the one to ensure that their child remains close.  The parent must notice their child’s signals or cues, be aware of their child’s needs, and respond.  The solution is parental responsiveness.  Responsiveness is the way our species does parental care. 

The next time you find yourself mulling about how tough parenting can be, I agree.  In terms of parental care, our species carries a heavy burden.  But that burden is, quite literally, the price we’ve paid, the price we had to pay for humanity.

And there’s another reason for that too… So make sure you return for the next post in this series.

Apply it to your life:  Was our high parenting burden a fair price to pay for humanity?  Does putting parental responsiveness in an evolutionary context help you to understand why it is so important?


Ball, H. (2009). Bed-sharing and co-sleeping: research overview. NCT New Digest, 48, 22-27.

Dunsworth, H.M., Warrener, A.G., Deacon, T., Ellison, P.T., & Pontzer, H. (2012).  Metabolic hypothesis for human altriciality.  PNAS, 109 (38), 15212-1562.

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