By Rebecca Irwin
A reader wrote in and added some very valuable points to my last month’s article on “The Baby Needs a Life.” I believe what she wrote balances what I wrote, so here it is:
Dear Dr. Alison;
There are many points in your article I agree with. However, I am concerned about a vulnerable parent receiving advice to let her child scream until passing out, if need be. Parenting can be stressful. It is the most difficult job that I have ever had. When a baby is needy, it is easy to feel frustrated and overwhelmed. When a child is screaming, adrenaline levels shoot up and affect our actions and reactions.
A baby of 10 months of age may be experiencing separation anxiety as she realizes that she and mom are different people. This anxiety increases as baby becomes more mobile, crawling and walking. Yes, most babies are content when their mother is in the room but there are some that may need some extra contact and comfort and stimulation, something an extra set of hands may be able to provide when mom is busy. However, few moms are fortunate enough to have that support. In our society of nuclear families, mothers with young children are often isolated without the support that a grandmother or other family member may offer. Thus, an already stretched mom may have to look for creative solutions.
On a behavioural level, this is what is happening to mom and baby when baby is left to scream: mom is becoming desensitized to baby’s cries and thus, may not respond as quickly in other situations; baby is learning that no one will respond to her when she is in distress (regardless of the cause, it is distress)… she is learning that her actions do not make a difference. She is learning how to be “helpless” or passive (Martin Seligman, author of The Optimistic Child). It would be great if she had a more mature understanding of consequences so that she could reason that she needs a life as well as mommy and that mommy is not deserting her but rather, helping her learn to be independent. However, this type of reasoning at 10 months could be considered prodigious.
Young children cry. However, I see crying as an opportunity for interacting, supporting, and listening. This is not giving in… rather, it is being in relationship with your child. If my spouse were to ignore me (until I passed out, which would likely happen if he did) when I was in distress, I doubt we’d be together much longer.
I think that allowing a child to cry without support is a method of parenting that needs to be put aside. There are other ways to deal with this situation, such as your suggestion that the baby have more stimulation… which includes playtime with mom on the floor so that baby creates happy associations with that space.
A few points that I would like to have seen added to your article:
1) Has the mom ruled out all medical issues for her daughter’s need for contact: teething, reactions to new foods, reactions to immunizations, etc? I realize that this mom had seen the doctor, but sometimes there can be hidden physical problems that cause insecure behaviour.
2) Is the home environment peaceful and secure, or is there marital or familial stress or illness? Has the family changed residences or recently taken a trip?
3) Is mom having daily fun-time with baby, playing and interacting with her child without worrying about unfinished tasks and chores?
4) Has the mom tried wearing a sling with the child in it, in a hip carry position? I still use this with my two year old… not only does it keep busy hands from getting into trouble, but it makes for a happier child overall, which makes for a happier mom (my personal goal). Plus, mom is able to get many things done and the child is stimulated simply by being involved in grownup activities. Shopping is a tantrum-free activity. It’s marvellous.
It is hard to be attached and committed to a child. It really is. But, according to John Bowlby (author of A Secure Base), it is important. Babies need their moms (or committed caregiver). The time for separation and independence does come, but if pushed, it comes at the terrible price of broken trust. Saturating a child with attention so that they feel secure enough to explore the world on their own is a much kinder way to go-and is a small step for helping to create a more peaceful world.
Rebecca Irwin holds a Master’s degree in Counselling Psychology and is currently at home full-time with her energetic two-year-old.