Not only do professionals, researchers and the media persist in describing particular baby behaviours as more or less ‘independent’; but they also encourage parents to think that the ‘independent’ behaviours are superior. Parents are encouraged to waste precious time and energy making their baby ‘independent’. So the baby who suckles to sleep sucking his thumb is ‘independent’ while the baby who suckles to sleep on the breast is not. The baby who is rocked to sleep in an automatic rocker is being ‘independent’ while the baby who is rocked to sleep in daddy’s arms is not.
What. Utter. Nonsense.
There are two meanings of the word ‘independent’
- Self-determining; free from external influence or outside control
- Self-sufficient; not depending on another for livelihood or subsistence
Somehow, for babies, the focus is always on the second definition. When babies decide, for themselves, the circumstances in which they will feed, fall sleep or play that kind of self-determination is merely seen as more evidence of the baby’s dependence as self-determining babies tend to choose means which are not self-sufficient. But I am not arguing that we should begin judging baby behaviour with the yardstick of self-determination instead of self-sufficiency. I am arguing that is absolute nonsense to talk about independence in a baby at all.
In order to truly be independent, whether in a self-determination sense or a self-sufficiency sense, you need to have a clear sense of self and other. How can a person be said to be self-determining without clear knowledge of their own desires, the desires of others and the difference between the two? How can a person be said to be self-sufficient without clear knowledge of their own capacity, of the support available from others, and of their ability to choose to take or to refuse it? They cannot. A particular baby behaviour may look more ‘independent’ to us, perspective-taking beings with a clear sense of self, but it makes no sense to say that the baby is being ‘independent’. A parrot saying ‘Polly want a cracker’ may sound like language to us, verbal beings, but it makes no sense to say that the parrot is verbal. The parrot has just learnt to repeat specific sounds without any understanding of what the sounds mean. A baby who falls asleep sucking her thumb has just learnt to suckle in this way without any understanding of what this might mean in terms of self-determination or self-sufficiency. When a baby wishes to suckle for comfort she doesn’t think to herself, ‘I know what would settle me – a good suckle. I can do that by sucking by own thumb and then I won’t have to wake dear old mum, who could do with a sleep-in today. I’ll get my needs met that way’. That would be true independence. A baby’s thoughts, put into words, would be more like this, ‘I need to suckle! How did I make that happen last time? Oh yes, I lifted my arm like this and oh! There’s that thing I like to suck!’ or ‘I need to suckle! How did I make that happen last time? Oh yes, I cried out like this and oh! There’s that thing I like to suck!’
Babies who suck their thumb, rather than breastfeed, or fall asleep by themselves, rather than with their parents, are no more likely to be developmentally advanced in their milestones or to look ‘independent’ in any other way. They are no more likely to be independent at school age when true independence is possible. Why? Because babies aren’t being ‘independent’ at all…
Apply it to your life:
Ignore the nonsense about your baby’s supposed ‘independence’. What works for you and for your baby?