The non-existent problem of deciphering a newborn’s cues

It is now well-accepted that cue-based care, responding to a baby’s cues for feeds, physical contact, play or sleep, is the best form of care for babies, particularly for newborns.  However, this has turned into lists of baby’s cues, instruction guides on how to decipher their bizarre and yet supposedly universal signals.  Many of these instruction guides seem to suggest that children come into the world speaking their own peculiar language of grunts, ear-pulling, eye-fluttering and specific cries for specific needs.  It is ridiculous and it makes life unnecessarily stressful for new parents, many of whom feel like they need to learn a new language to parent their child.

In fact, instruction guides on deciphering a baby’s cues are just as useless as the “How to Know if He Likes You” articles so common in young women’s magazines.  Sure, the fact that he talks to you frequently could mean he likes you in that way.  It could mean alot of things…  There’s only one way to know if he likes you and that’s to put time and energy into getting to know him and to let your feelings and his become clear with time.  In the same way, sure, ear-pulling could mean your baby is tired.  It could mean alot of things…  There’s only one way to become adept at reading and responding to your child’s unique cues and that’s to put time and energy into getting to know your baby.  You need to experiment and see what works. Your baby’s unique cues, patterns, feelings and personality will be revealed with time.

You might say that’s all very well in the long-term, but what’s a new parent to do?  How is a new parent, still groggy and overwhelmed from the birth, meant to decipher baby’s cues?Don’t new parents needs the lists and instruction guides as a starting point? The truth is there isn’t much deciphering to be done in the early months.  In fact, to give cue-based care to a newborn there’s really only one question you need to answer: could baby be hungry?  If you think your baby could be hungry then offer a feed.  If you don’t think your baby could be hungry then mix up your baby’s sensory experience in a way that would feel good for you at the time: hold baby, walk with baby, rock baby on a rocking chair with some music, dance with baby, go for a walk with baby, spend time in your backyard, or have an outing together.

Notice what happens.  Did baby suckle hungrily, taking big gulping swallows of milk?  Did baby seem to enjoy the backyard, walk, dancing, or outing, did your baby liven up and relish the sights and sounds?  Did baby drop off to sleep on the feed or out on the walk?  With time, noticing how your baby responds, will give you a clear sense of your baby’s unique cues and patterns.

Apply it to your life:  Are you the parent of a new baby?  Put those instruction manuals aside and get to know your unique baby.  In the early months there’s really only one question: could baby be hungry?

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The benefits of babywearing

I’ve written a guest post on how babywearing  can be used to promote parent, family and infant mental health for Mental Health Week.  The post is on the Babes in Arms website here: The Benefits of Babywearing

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Pregnancy: our rules for when to confirm and when to share are breaking women’s hearts

When to confirm a pregnancy and when to share the news that you are pregnant are, of course, personal decisions.  What might be right for an individual woman varies according to her unique situation and personality.  But there are social norms, unspoken (or spoken) rules that many women follow, that many women feel they have to follow. The current social norm seems to be: to confirm as soon as possible (even before your period is late) and to share at twelve weeks (not before!).  This may suit some individual women, but as a social norm it is bad, really bad.  We confirm far too early and we share far too late and it is breaking women’s hearts.

Just a generation or two ago women needed to wait until their period was well and truly late to confirm a pregnancy via a blood test arranged by their doctor.  For the first time in human history women are confirming that conception has successfully taken place days before their period is even late (and without conferring with a doctor, midwife or wise woman).  Pregnancy tests, bought over the counter in pharmacies or even in supermarkets, goad women into doing this (“accurate 10 days post-conception!”  “test before your period is due!”).  The trouble is, what a positive result on a pregnancy test taken before your period is due is detecting “accurately” is that a conception has technically taken place (“chemical pregnancy”).  What a woman wants to know is not whether a conception has technically taken place, but whether or not she is “pregnant”.  That is, can she begin to expect her belly to swell and a baby to grow?  No pregnancy test can predict that accurately before your period is even due!  Unfortunately, many conceptions are not viable and may be lost without any further development.  With very early testing, comes very early pregnancy loss.  Very early pregnancy loss, loss days to a week after your period was due, is physically similar to normal menstruation.  That is, there is no passing of tissue, just blood and the pain and symptoms are similar to a normal menstrual period.  My generation of women are likely to experience chemical pregnancies, normal and healthy events along the reproductive journey that women in previous generations knew as late periods, as loss.   Many women today are being coaxed into having their hearts repeatedly broken while trying to conceive.

Although we are confirming pregnancies earlier, we continue to be told to shroud the first trimester in secrecy and silence, waiting until twelve weeks before sharing the news.  In fact, many articles and websites on pregnancy assume that the first trimester is necessarily marked by silence (what a strong message that must give some women!).  Many women are waiting until twelve weeks to share their pregnancy, not just with work colleagues and casual friends but with family and close friends.  Sharing sooner is discouraged because *cue scary music* you might have a miscarriage.  Yes, you might have a miscarriage.  Yes, that is scary.  But why is that a reason not to tell people?  The assumption must be that if you experience a tragic loss you are better off weathering it alone.  Um… no, very clearly no, in fact…  That’s about as unsound as psychological advice can get.  Social support is key to weathering all of life’s tragedies including miscarriage.  If you experience a miscarriage, you’ll be better off if those you love most, your family and your close friends, know.  If fact, depending on your exact circumstances, you may even be better off if your boss, work colleagues or casual friends know too.

This hiding of miscarriage by hiding the first trimester of pregnancy has another terrible social cost for women: miscarriage becomes an isolated and individual tragedy when, in fact, it is a shared loss.  The whole family loses when a miscarriage occurs and miscarriage is not rare, it is common.  Early pregnancy loss is an experience women share. Every second woman will experience a miscarriage by the end of her reproductive career.  This means that every woman who experiences a miscarriage already has in her social network an untapped resource: women who have experienced that same event and survived.  Our silence gets in the way of supporting each other.  Further, there is much about how the healthcare system deals with miscarriage that can and should be improved.  But this cannot happen until women organise and advocate for ourselves.  And that won’t happen if we don’t talk to each other.

The secret first trimester also means that women bear the often crippling symptoms of morning sickness and bone-aching fatigue alone, bravely soldiering on through their working days and social events, trying to hide their rising nausea, absolute exhaustion and bathroom dashes.  It is cruel.  It is particularly cruel when you consider that the risk of miscarriage drops at eight weeks with a confirmed heartbeat, just as first trimester symptoms really ramp up.  So, even if you don’t want your wider social network to know if you experience a miscarriage, the isolated soldiering on from weeks eight to twelve is still for nothing.  Viability can be confirmed via a scan at eight weeks, allowing you to share your news with your wider social network and receive support and understanding for your first trimester symptoms.

Women need and deserve the support of those nearest and dearest to them from the very beginning of pregnancy.  Women need and deserve the support of those nearest and dearest to them when experiencing an early loss. We aren’t meant to do this alone.

Apply it to your life:  Trying to conceive?   Consider waiting until your period is a full week late (or even two) before confirming with a pregnancy test.  In deciding who to share the news with and when consider: who do you turn to when tragedy strikes?  Share your pregnancy with those people, your nearest and dearest early in the pregnancy.  There is no point in waiting: you will need their support if you experience a miscarriage.  Share with your wider social network as soon as works for you, given your circumstances and symptoms.  Don’t assume that not sharing will make a miscarriage easier.  Instead, think carefully about how widely you want to share the news and when – what’s in your best interests?  Remember, confirming viability at eight weeks is an option.

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How to prepare your child for academic success

The foundations for academic success are built in the preschool years and there is much that you can do, as the parent of a preschooler, to ensure that your child is well prepared to flourish at school.  In order to promote your child’s academic flourishing it is necessary to understand where family and formal education fit into the picture.  Formal education, including literacy and numeracy, can be thought of as multiple interlocking towers, built piece by piece, ever upwards.  Some parents are tempted to begin building these towers at home, before school, in order to give their children a head start.  In fact, I’d argue that your time is better spent building a stronger foundation.  The towers of formal education all rest upon a foundation of oral language, curiosity, intelligence, relational concepts (relational frames) and social-emotional understanding.  The stronger the foundation, the easier and quicker the towers will be built.  So, how can we, as parents, help our children to build this strong foundation?

  1. Play, play, play and more play.  Play is the engine driving intellectual development so make your children’s play a priority in your home.  Provide opportunities for active play in playgrounds, for pretend play, for play with construction toys like blocks, for play with arts and crafts activities, for play alone, for play with other children and for play with you.  Make sure you often let your child lead the play.
  2. Provide ample quality toys to facilitate play: blocks, dolls, lego, craft bits and pieces, train sets, tea sets, doll houses, pretend kitchens, trucks, toy animals, swings, slides…  Quality toys are not a luxury or mere entertainment for a preschooler.  Quality toys, for preschoolers, are what textbooks, computer access and pen and paper are for a High School student.  Fortunately, we live a time when toys are cheap but if finances are an issue for you than consider buying second-hand or using a toy library and accessing your local park.
  3. Read to your child regularly.  Make reading time special and allow yourself to delight in the pleasure of the written word.  There are many delightful children’s books so find some favourites that you can enjoy too.  If you can’t afford to purchase a selection of children’s books then access your local library.  Talk to your child about the books that you are reading.  Ask questions like: What do you think she will do next?  How does he feel? What happened in that story? Who was that story about?
  4. Talk to your child.  From birth onwards talk to your child often.  Don’t restrict your language to the necessary chatter.  Instead, verbalise your thoughts, count aloud, talk about colours, shapes, textures, animals, talk about your feelings and ask your child about their thoughts and feelings. Language exposure fuels language development.  Language development enables academic success.  Literacy, in particular, relies on oral language.
  5. Talk about relational concepts and words.  Relational concepts (also called relational frames) relate two or more concepts in a specific way, for example: opposite, same, under, bigger than, before, and faster.  Relational concepts underpin much of what we consider academic intelligence and many are key concepts in mathematics (e.g. bigger than).  Notice relational concepts in your everyday life and find opportunities to explore relational concepts during play with your child.  For example, during play with blocks you might ask, “Hey, which block is the biggest?”

Apply it to your life:  Do you live these five tips?  Is there a small step you could take in building a solid foundation for your child’s formal education?

References:

Hart & Risley (1995). Meaningful differences in the everyday experience of young American children.  Baltimore, Paul H Brookes Publishing Co.

Ginsburg, K.R. (2007).  The importance of play in promoting healthy child development and maintaining strong parent-child bonds.  Pediatrics, 119, pp182-191.

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How to handle your child’s boundary testing like a pro

All parents know that as children develop, they go through stages were they particularly ‘test the boundaries’.  During these stages, children often focus on testing out particular family expectations.  Suddenly a daily task that caused no distress or grief whatsoever becomes the centre of vocal and angry objections.  These ‘boundary testing’ times can be very stressful.  You might wonder what you did to cause your child’s sudden anger and defiance, or you might be at a loss to know how to respond.  How do you make both your expectations and your love abundantly clear? Well, I’m going to share how I handled a recent ‘boundary test’ with my daughter.  You’ll get to see exactly how a real life parenting researcher handles it: not edited book-perfectly but as a human being in messy reality.  Finally, I’ll distill my experience into some simple tips.

At the time of this ‘boundary test’ my daughter was two and a half and the testing centred on teeth brushing.  In the past, teeth brushing hadn’t been an issue.  It started with her responding to my requests to open her mouth by pursing her lips into a little O shape like a goldfish. I gave her the benefit of the doubt – perhaps she was experimenting, or being humorous?  I played along, making different shapes with my mouth too until I got a wide enough mouth from her that I could slip the toothbrush in.  This continued for several days, and I wondered: is this a passing game, or is she ramping up for a challenge?  Sure enough, the challenge came.  She refused, with anger and tears to open her mouth at all.  In that first interaction I also gave her the benefit of the doubt – perhaps she was tired, or sickening for something.  I didn’t back off altogether (that would have reinforced her tantrum) but I did lower my expectations to merely getting the toothbrush to touch her teeth at all, and I thanked her for letting me brush her teeth once that was achieved.   I ended the interaction before it escalated.  As time passed, it became clear that she wasn’t sick.  The next time her teeth needed brushing there was another tantrum.

We were in the thick of a boundary test and this particular boundary, brushing teeth regularly, was one we couldn’t compromise on.  I started by talking about the issue to the two other people who also brush her teeth, my husband and my mum.  She was testing the boundary with everyone.  We hatched a plan.  We would need to be persistent, to weather the storm.  We would also talk to her about why teeth needed to be brushed, not when we were actually trying to brush her teeth, but during the day when she was calm and happy.  I knew that, for the next several days, teeth brushing could take an hour or more so I planned my day accordingly.  As we enacted our plan, my husband and I ran into an unforeseen stumbling block.  My daughter, already several minutes into full meltdown, yelled that she wanted daddy not mummy to brush her teeth.  Of course, we had no issue with her choosing who she wanted to brush her teeth.  But we could not respond to angry yelling lest we reinforced the tantrum.  I said that we could do that if she asked in a normal voice, she did and I passed the toothbrush to my husband.  Going forward we decided that we would give her every choice that we were happy to give at the very beginning of the interaction so that she couldn’t throw a reasonable request at us mid-tantrum.  So now, before brushing her teeth we ask if she wants to have her turn first or second and we ask (if both of us are in the house), if she wants mummy or daddy to brush them.

So, what did being persistent and weathering the storm actually look like?  I’d get her toothbrush and tell her that it was time to brush her teeth.  I’d let her choose if she wanted to have her turn first or second, and, if my husband was in the house, if she wanted me or him to brush them.  With her choices locked in, and once it was my turn to brush, I’d ask her to open her mouth wide.  If she objected I’d say something like, ‘I know you don’t like it, but I have to do it to keep your teeth healthy’.  If she still didn’t open her mouth I’d say something like, ‘We have to brush your teeth.  I’ll wait until you are ready.’  I’d then sit silently near her.  If she asked me to play or talked to me about something else I’d say something like, ‘I’d love to play with you.  I need to brush your teeth first.  As soon as your teeth are brushed we can play.’  Any objections or yelling I’d simply ignore.  If she was clearly feeling sad or angry I’d say something like, ‘I can see you are feeling really sad about this.  I can understand that but I still need to brush your teeth.  If there’s some way I can help, like by giving you a hug, just let me know’.  If she asked for a hug I’d give it.  I would not, however, respond to the tantrum behaviour itself (hugging a child in response to tantruming may reinforce tantrum behaviour and it may also be unwelcome).  In fact, I was silent most of the time.  I actually said very little.  I took deep breaths and kept myself calm and centred.  I tried to project, with my stance, body language and facial expression that I was completely accepting of her and her feelings, that I loved and adored her exactly as she was… and I was going to keep patiently waiting, as long as it took, for her to be ready. Eventually, she’d open her mouth.  I’d slip the toothbrush in and say something like, ‘Thank-you that’s a lovely big mouth.  Let’s get rid of those germs and keep your teeth nice and strong’.  I wouldn’t push it.  Just getting the toothbrush in was enough at first.  The first few storms that we weathered were big, long and emotional. Within a couple of days, they’d become short objections.  Soon, teeth brushing returned to being easy.

So, how can you handle the next ‘boundary test’ by the children in your life?

  • Start by giving the benefit of the doubt.  Often children are just playing around, or tired, or getting sick.
  • When suddenly confronted with ‘defiance’ it is okay to lower your standard to the bare minimum and get through an interaction without escalation.  That way, you can wait and see what’s really happening and calmly think through how you’d like to respond.
  • It isn’t about ‘winning’ an interaction.  It is about shaping behaviour gradually with time.  Let go of winning.
  • Communicate with the other carers in your child’s life including your partner, family and childcare provider.
  • Be flexible.  Unexpected stumbling blocks are a part of life.  It is okay to adapt your plan.  If you are really uncertain, you can exit that particular interaction in order to give yourself time to think and get advice.
  • Give your child every choice you can at the outset.  Respect all reasonable requests.
  • Explain why a particular expectation is necessary, at a time when everyone is calm and happy.
  • If you know that persistence is necessary, then plan for it in your day.
  • Be persistent in weathering the storm. Wait patiently.
  • Ignore tantrum behaviours.
  • Don’t play or interact until your child has done as you’ve asked.  Let her know that’s what you are doing.
  • Acknowledge your child’s emotions with acceptance and love.
  • Don’t comfort in response to tantrum behaviours (firstly, that might reinforce tantruming and secondly, your child may well not want you to hug them when they are angry with you!).  However, if your child is clearly distressed then you can say that you are willing to give a hug if asked.  If your child asks for comfort it is fine to respond to their request with comfort (by doing so, you are reinforcing asking for comfort not tantruming – that’s a good thing!).
  • Stay calm and loving (take deep breaths!).
  • Say little.
  • When your child does as you’ve asked, thank them.
  • Don’t push it.  Bare minimum is enough for now.

Apply it to your life:  How do you handle ‘boundary testing’?  Try out some of my tips with your child.  What works for you?

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Why does my child keep asking why?

Preschoolers are overflowing with questions, many of them beginning with:  why? Why is the sun hot?  Why does kitty eat?  Why are you cleaning the floor? Answers are usually responded to with more questions. Why, why, why?

The question is: why do preschoolers ask why so often?  The whys seem to be a universal stage so asking why must be important developmentally.  Obviously, preschoolers have a lot to learn about the world so it makes sense, I think, if at least some of the whys are motivated by a desire for more information.  Asking questions, particularly about what someone is doing, can also be a way to connect with another person and start an interaction.  So, I also think it would make sense if at least some of the whys are aimed at beginning a conversation with us.  But, I think, neither of these explanations goes far in explaining the tidal wave of whys that is the preschool years.  After all, school age children also have a lot to learn about the world and a desire to interact with us, and while of course they do ask questions they no longer drill their parents relentlessly with whys as younger children do.  I think that the skill preschool children are acquiring with all of their whys is reason-giving itself.

Reason-giving, or attributing causality, is actually pretty complex.  Consider, there are actually several different types of causes and different causes are used for different things.  So, for people and animals we give intentional explanations, we attribute cause to mental and emotional states.  ‘Why did kitty scratch me?’  ‘Because kitty was angry’ For man-made objects we give teleological explanations, we attribute cause to purpose.  ‘Why is a knife sharp?’ ‘So we can cut food with it’ For the nonliving, natural world, we give physical causal explanations, we attribute cause to past physical events and natural laws.  ‘Why has my paint turned green?’ ‘Because the blue and yellow paint mixed together and blue and yellow make green.’  Children need to learn to give the right kind of explanation for the right kind of thing.  They also need to learn, with intentional explanations, the kinds of reasons we deem socially-acceptable.  So, while ‘because kitty was angry’ is a perfectly acceptable explanation for why kitty scratched a child, ‘because I was angry’ is not considered an acceptable reason for a child to scratch another child.  Tricky, huh?  There’s another level of complexity too.  How far back in the casual stream do you need to go in order to give a sufficient explanation?  So, the answer to the question ‘why are you putting food into kitty’s dish?’ is ‘because kitty is hungry’ not ‘because fifteen years ago I visited the RSPCA and adopted a kitten’ or even ‘because four billion years ago life evolved from the primordial soup on the planet we call Earth’ even though all of these events were a necessary part of the causal history leading up to the moment of putting food into a cat bowl on a particular evening.  We actually assume quite a lot about the world as we give reasons for one particular event, and knowing what we can assume and what we can’t is a pretty tricky business.  I think this is the reason why, in preschoolers, the whys just keep coming.  They don’t know how far up the casual stream to tread.

So, if I’m right and the tidal wave of whys is about understanding reason-giving itself, how should we respond?   Firstly, answer.  Give your child the best answers you’ve got, remembering that your child is learning not just the information you are providing but how to give explanations.  You can also reflect the question back to your child, that is, ask her what she thinks the answer is.  This gives her the opportunity to try out her reasoning-giving skills.  But above all, we should respond with patience and a bit of wonder.  We are watching our child learn a pretty incredible skill.

Apply it to your life:  Does your child corner you with ‘whys’?  Why do you think that happens?

References:

Frazier, BN., Gelman, SA., Wellman HM. (2009). Preschoolers’ search for explanatory information within adult-child conversation.  Child Development, 80 (6), 1592-611.

Keleman D. (1999). Why are rocks pointy? Children’s preference for teleological explanations of the natural world.  Developmental Psychology, 35 (6), 1440-52.

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Managing your anger without losing your temper

A new article of mine has been published on Happy Parenting entitled: Managing your anger without losing your temper.  You can read it here:  http://happyparenting.com.au/managing-anger-without-losing-temper/ 

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Your child doesn’t want a perfect parent…your child wants you

We all have a cardboard cut-out idea of the perfect parent rattling away in our mind’s attic.  You know, a superhero with infinite patience that doesn’t need to eat or sleep, who can read your child’s every thought or feeling with a single glance, clean and re-organise the house with a wiggle of her nose, shoot delicious and yet organic and completely healthy cookie dough out of her right pointer finger in a moment’s notice…  A ridiculous blend of aspirations, memories, stereotypes and sitcoms, cobbled together with homemade, organic glitter-glue.  And it is easy, so easy, to compare ourselves to this ridiculous and inhuman collage of perfection.  So easy to compare and so easy to find ourselves wanting…

And here’s my insight: my cardboard cut-out idea of the perfect parent rattles away in my mind’s attic.  In MY mind…

From the moment that my daughter first gazed upon my face she saw, she has been seeing, not a cardboard cut-out, but ME…  And when she sings out, “Mummy!” she isn’t hoping that a cobbled together collage of parental perfection will answer her call.  She is hoping that I will.

So when you next compare yourself unfavourably to the cardboard cut-out of the perfect parent that rattles away in your mind, remember this, there’s one quality that you have that no ideal of perfection ever can: your child’s love.  From the very start, your child has been seeking connection with you, not with a parental superhero, but with you.

Apply it to your life:  Do you have a cardboard cut-out idea of the perfect parent rattling away in your mind?  Can you recognise that it is, in fact, you your child loves?

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What do children really need?

I find discourse on the ‘needs’ of children troubling at times.  By which I don’t mean that children don’t have needs.  Unquestionably they do.  Water, for example, is something that all human children undeniably and clearly need.  What I mean is that talking about children’s ‘needs’ seems to enable the speaker to slip a whole lot of personal opinion, ideals and values in the back door and present it as unquestionable fact.  This doesn’t mean that the opinions, ideals and values are wrong, or not worth pursuing.  But it creates confusion.  It makes it possible to ruthlessly stamp people who may disagree into the ground.  It makes it seem as if there’s only one option.  This is especially problematic because children’s own descriptions of their needs are not taken seriously.  So it is adults who define what children do or do not need and we can pass off almost anything as a need.  We can even pass off as a need experiences that children themselves strenuously object to!  To see how this might be a problem, consider what men have said about the needs of women, or what white colonisers have said about the needs of Indigenous Peoples.  The human race doesn’t have a good track record for being able to talk insightfully and truthfully about the needs of others.

So what are we really saying when we talk about ‘needs’?

What are we really saying, for example, when we say that children need to learn to sleep in their own bed?  Or that children need to learn to control their emotional reactions?  Or that children need to sit still and pay attention?

It seems to me that all of these statements are personal opinion, ideals and values masquerading as objective truths.  Again, I am not saying that the personal opinions, ideals and values are wrong or not worth pursuing.  But notice the difference between:

Children need to learn to sit still and pay attention

And:

I think it is wise to teach children to sit still and pay attention because we are living in a culture where children receive extensive formal education, and education predicts later success.  Being able to sit still and pay attention will help your child to get the most out of school.

It feels quite different doesn’t it?  The second is clearly a personal opinion, driven by specific values applied in a particular cultural context.  To me, it feels open, flexible and adaptable.  As if there are other options. In contrast, the first statement hits me like a sledgehammer.

So, what can we legitimately describe as a need?  Obviously, anything a child would die without can be classed as a need, so oxygen, water and food.  I think we could also classify as a need anything that has been shown to be beneficial for children in the long-term (i.e. anything that predicts physical and psychological health and wellbeing) AND that children deliberately seek and enthusiastically consume given the opportunity.  So, I think we can sensibly talk about children needing parental attention or proximity to attachment figures or social interaction or pretend play.  Children seek those experiences with relish.  But I don’t think we can legitimately talk about children needing to learn to sleep in their own bed, or control their emotional reactions, or pay attention… Of course, we can argue for the wisdom of teaching children these skills, in our particular cultural context, based on our individual values.  But that should be an honest discussion about values, opinions and ideals.  Not a ruthless push of a particular worldview with confusing and guilt-making talk about the ‘needs’ of children.

Apply it to your life:  Be on the lookout for discussion on the ‘needs’ of children.  Are they discussing genuine needs, or are they using ‘needs’ talk to push a particular opinion?  Of course, that doesn’t mean the opinion is wrong, you may well agree with it!  But is it helpful to confuse the issue with talk of ‘needs’?

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Are babies, comforted to sleep, shocked to later wake alone in a cot (crib)?

It is commonly argued that a baby comforted to sleep will, when waking later in their cot (crib), experience a shock when they notice that they are no longer in their parent’s arms.  This shock, it is reasoned, will cause the baby to call out to the parent for comfort.  This reasoning is frequently used to discourage parents from comforting their baby to sleep.  Parents are, instead, told to encourage their baby to ‘self-settle’ to sleep in their cot from day one.  Only if the baby falls asleep in the cot alone, it is argued, will the baby feel calm when they wake and find themselves alone in their cot.

This is nonsense.  It fact, although this line of reasoning is commonly used to recommend behavioural sleep strategies, it fails on behavioural grounds.  That is, it fails as a behavioural account of surprise.

To see why, imagine that tonight, after falling asleep in your bed as usual, you stir and wake at 2am.  As you become aware of your surroundings you realise that you are in the kitchen, curled up on the middle of the kitchen floor.  Would you be surprised?  Absolutely!  The question is, why?  The common-sense explanation is that you’d be surprised because you remember falling asleep in your bed.  But, as a behavioural account of your surprise, this is wrong.  From a behavioural perspective, the reason you’d be surprised is this:  that has never happened to you before.

Imagine that you drag yourself up off the kitchen floor and back into bed.  The rest of the night and the following day passes as usual.  You fall asleep in your bed again as usual and again you stir and wake at 2am.  Yet again, you find yourself in the kitchen.  You drag yourself back to bed, the rest of the night and the following day passes, you fall asleep in your bed and again wake to find yourself in the kitchen.  In fact, you keep waking at 2am and finding yourself in your kitchen, again and again night after night.  And here’s the thing: after days and weeks, would you continue to be surprised?  Of course not!  You’d quickly learn that waking up in the kitchen is now something that happens to you and the event would no longer shock.

So, from a behavioural perspective, it is ridiculous to claim that a baby who is regularly comforted to sleep and placed sleeping into their cot, would be shocked to find herself alone in her cot when she wakes.  After all, this is an event that has happened again and again since she was born!

Apply it to your life:  Do you enjoy comforting your baby to sleep?  Does it help your baby to settle to sleep efficiently?  Then, go ahead and comfort.

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