Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The real truth about why I write about babies so much

Confession: The real reason I write about parenting babies more than parenting older children is that babies are easy to explain. The truth is, I find parenting to be an endeavor that gets harder the further it progresses, and the real tests of my own mettle as a parent are just beginning to emerge with my 4- and 6-year-old daughters.

You often hear parents-to-be (especially Dads, I find) talk about being scared about parenting a baby because they are so delicate and they don’t talk so you never know what they want. When they talk, that’s when the real fun begins! My theory is kind of the opposite of that. It’s because babies are what I call “evolutionary creatures” and children are what I call “cultural creatures”. Cultural drives are far more complex than evolutionary ones.

Put simply, the older children get, the more comparative reasoning they are able to employ. When you encounter your first, “Mommy, why is their house bigger [smaller] than ours?” you’ll know what I mean. The problems that children age three and under have, as difficult as they are in the moment, are mostly confined to issues of self-regulation. Many tantrums can be explained by the fact that children this age don’t yet respond to cultural cues (e.g., that you’re not supposed to shout in public, call people by their body size or their skin color, or eat dessert before dinner). When these misfires and associated meltdowns rule the day, you can’t wait for the time when they can understand cultural rules better. I say, be careful what you wish for.

I wasn’t nearly so reactive to my children during that innocent period of time, before it was clear that their observations actually meant something. A two-year-old can’t possibly make me feel bad when she spits out my food, but when she’s five? Then it’s personal. Children don’t begin to challenge your own image of yourself until there are expectations of them. With expectations, comes the chance that those expectations won’t be met (or rather, the guarantee that they sometimes won’t be met). Before you start wishing for greater cognitive understanding (which is like wishing babyhood away!), think carefully about how life changes dramatically when you can appropriately use the phrase, “You know better than that!” It’s the beginning of the end of innocence.

Despite the fact that my professional identity is related to early childhood education, Quinlan’s transition from preschool to kindergarten was a rough one for me. I don’t think this was simply because she was 4 when she started (my peanut-sized September baby, and the dreaded mid-August first day of school in Colorado). I knew intellectually that preschool was some sort of utopia compared to the big, bad world of elementary education, but it is one of those things you have to experience for yourself. In preschool, you drop off and pick up right inside the classroom. In elementary, it’s curbside and crossing guards. In preschool, you talk to your child’s teacher - in person -at least twice a day. In elementary, you find out what’s going on by what your child tells you. Your child makes transitions from place to place during her day that remain mysterious to you. Not only do you have no control, you often have no knowledge of the daily happenings in your child’s life. That sounds more like an appropriate transition to middle childhood or the tweens, but the fact is, the world of school opens your child up – at the age of 5 or 6 (or 4 in some cases!) – to a significant chunk of experiences that are not shared with you – AND, your child is aware of this.

I find this process of becoming separate people a difficult one. It’s as if, because I know I am on a steady path of losing more and more of my grip on my children, I make feeble attempts to regain control. I ask too many questions, feel too responsible, insert myself, seek approval. If you think you have to be “pathologically enmeshed” to have difficulty teasing apart your child’s life from your own, think again. On the one hand, we set expectations that are too high. On the other hand, we try to protect our children from uncomfortable feelings and experiences even though we have no power (or business) to do so. Such struggles are all different sides of the same coin known as “letting go”.

I learned a lesson about differentiation/individuation (you know, letting go) this summer when Quinlan became the bad guy – in a play in drama camp. Not only did she not get to be the princess, she had to be evil AND male. By the time I picked her up that day when “What part did you get?” was the first question out of every parent’s mouth, Quinlan’s attitude was one of coy happiness. She was beginning to get the idea that for some reason, grown-ups thought it was really cool that she got to be mean and wear a mustache. Turns out she had the second most tears that day when the kids found out – right behind the girl who had to play the prince. I considered it resolved, but Quinlan was determined to let me know that she wasn’t that happy about the part. Although she was smiling from ear to ear during rehearsals and every time I picked her up, she sprinkled, “I’m still mad” in various forms into conversations over several days. In my normal momness, I would have reminded her how cool her character was and how happy she seemed, (subtext: “No, you are happy, happy, happy, and I have no reason to feel guilty for putting you in a position that would make you anything other than constantly happy!”) But seeing A) that she WAS happy, and B) her determinedness to tell me she was sad, gave me a unique opportunity to observe these contrasting truths. Children have feelings, and then they want you to know certain things about their feelings, and only when children reach a certain cognitive capacity can these be different. This time I could tell the difference, so I had the good sense to leave myself out of it.

I wanted to remember this for future moments when I won’t be able to tell the difference, because the upside won’t be so apparent. This makes me think of families I know that are going through divorce, and how infinitely more difficult letting go must be. After all, children from divorced families need a healthy individuation process too, but divorcing parents run a high risk of taking every separation-related upset as a personal failure. They might feel guilty for not knowing details of their children’s lives, or be reluctant to ask their children to do things independently. They might wrongly attribute ordinary, developmentally normal upsets, to upsets about ***the divorce***.

I don’t have the perfect advice for parents going through the pains and joys of their children making their way toward independence – regardless of what the family structure may look like. As far as I’m concerned, if we can just learn to interpret “I’m still mad” to mean “I still want to talk about it”, we’re all doing fine in my book.
Wednesday, July 28, 2010

One of my less controversial posts, but it may be useful anyway. :-)

The following text is what I sent to a journalist for a parenting magazine doing an article on “How to Tell if Your Child is Ready for Preschool”. Since only a few sentences will probably make it into the final article, I thought I’d post the full responses for you voracious readers. I believe it is consistent with my previous post, although that one was written from a more personal perspective. This piece was definitely about “preschool for preschool’s sake” and not about preschool also serving the purpose of child care.

Signs of preschool readiness?

In short, parents should not be too concerned about a child not being ready for preschool. The whole idea of preschool is to build certain skills, provide experiences that a child may not get as easily at home (e.g., mommies and daddies are too concerned about their floors to provide daily access to a sand table), and to nurture a love of exploration and learning. If you feel like your child needs support in any of these areas, preschool is a great place to send them, not a place they should avoid. Preschool does not have prerequisites.

Parents should think about what benefits a high-quality preschool experience might offer, and whether or not their particular child could use those benefits right now, could wait a while, or will get those skills some other way prior to kindergarten. I think parents are mostly concerned about whether their child will be at a disadvantage if they DO NOT send them to preschool. The answer is yes and no. For children that have a stay-at-home parent, for which preschool is not a necessity for child care reasons, there may still be some benefit to preschool that they cannot get at home, for example, peer interactions. (Siblings can provide some of this, but not all of it.) Thus, a child who has no preschool experience may be at SOME disadvantage in this area when kindergarten starts, but the likelihood is that this will be very short-lived. Kindergarten, which remember means “a garden for children”, is also meant to be a largely preparatory experience, and I often see things “click” very quickly at the beginning of a kindergarten year. In sum, parents should not feel pressure to send their children to preschool for fear they will not be able to catch up to their peers. On the other hand, if you want some of the benefits of preschool for your child now, and you have access to a high-quality program, it can definitely help make the transition to school easier.

Do they need to be used to separating from parents?

Once again, for children who have not had too much time away from their parents, a preschool experience can be a great way to learn some independent skills and adjust to longer days away by kindergarten. It is true that for some children who have always been with Mom or Dad, the initial good-byes at preschool can be very difficult. Cliché as it may sound, this transition is usually harder for the parents than it is for a child. And in a high-quality preschool, the teachers will be keenly aware of this potential and will help facilitate the process. While it isn’t necessary to provide extensive non-parental time prior to preschool, providing some of it after your enroll your child but, say, in the month prior to actually starting, is not a bad idea. Even a few play dates during which you don’t stay can help your child get used to the idea of good-byes, playing with other children without your assistance, and that you will return. Whenever you decide to start the separation process (whether prior to preschool, at preschool, or kindergarten), make sure to not drag it out when it happens. Tell your child good bye and that you will be back, say that you need a great big hug to help YOU get through your day, and ask for the teacher’s assistance in case your child clings to you. For what it’s worth, my daughter was in extensive day care AND preschool, and had to be peeled off me for the first week of kindergarten anyway. The bottom line is, all children are different and even prior experiences do not guarantee a “no tears” transition to preschool. Just know your child will be fine in just a few minutes after you leave.

What specific skills to look for?

Being potty trained prior to preschool is certainly helpful, but is not necessary, and you should be wary of a preschool that requires it. The fact is, children have accidents long after being potty-trained and teachers of children this age need to be prepared for that and not create a “hyper focus” on potty training just because accidents are inconvenient. Both of my daughters went through a stage of what felt like all-day-long accidents, and both of our preschool programs helped us through it and provided helpful advice along the way.

As far as the rest of the skills you mention (e.g., getting dressed, sitting and concentrating, eating independently, following simple directions, cleaning up), and sorry to sound like a broken record, but these are all skills that would make a transition to preschool easier, but can also be learned IN preschool, and should not be thought of as a prerequisite. I’m not suggesting that if you have plans to send your child to preschool you should ignore your child’s readiness for new skills and simply say “let them deal with it in preschool”. Whatever self-help skills (e.g., dressing feeding) can be learned at home should be, and are a great way for a child to gain independence and confidence.

My daughter went to an educational child care center where the youngest classroom ranged from 12 months to 3 years, which is a huge range developmentally speaking. I remember learning that the children ate at tables and had to learn to scrape their plates into a bin. I thought, “Good luck with that with my one-year old baby!” And I did feel pressure to expose her to some of these things before she started for fear she would be so behind. But the pressure was self-imposed. It was a long time before she could do some of those things and it wasn’t a problem. Peer influence is really helpful in these situations – children will learn to do things a lot faster when they see other children doing them.

I really like the list of “starter skills” you came up with. If you plan to have a list in your article I would simply call it “Preschool Skills” rather than “skills you need before preschool”. The list can be discussed as things the child will likely learn in preschool, but also ones to look for at home prior to the first day. That way, you can expose your child to a few of them first if fits naturally enough in your routine (e.g., have your child sit at the table for some meals rather than a high chair), but more importantly, you will know your child’s skills really well to help the preschool teachers know your child better.
To your list I would add:
- transitions well from activity to activity
-separates well from parent and can soothe self at departure and naptime with “security” object such as stuffed animal or blanket
-gradually learns the rules of turn-taking and sharing (but do not expect a lack of tears or tantrums here)
-demonstrates curiosity, willingness to explore, and tries to “solve problems” that are interesting to him/her (e.g., sticking legos together, figuring out how to make the two paint colors make another color)
-asks for help when needed

A quick word about “attention span”: It is age-appropriate for children 4 and under to want to expend a lot of motor energy and not be able to sit for the full length of activities. Think about if your child EVER sits for a full book with you – not about if they often can’t. If your child CAN sit for a book, even if it doesn’t happen often, chances are their attention level is just fine for preschool and in general.

Nap schedule?

For classes with 2-year-olds and under, napping should be “on demand” – that is, children sleep when tired, and thus there is no need to have a particular nap schedule beforehand. However, for preschool classes in the 1-2 years prior to kindergarten, generally there is one nap in the middle of the day and it is a good idea to help adjust your child to that routine if they are not doing so already.

Should children start preschool at age 2, 3, or 4?

Research shows that for children from families with severe socioeconomic disadvantage, longer experience in high-quality preschool programs brings more benefits. This makes sense as much as “practice makes perfect”. Generally, the more you do something, the better you are at it. However, this finding likely does not hold true for you if you know that your child is getting plenty of the experiences and skills we have been talking about.

My personal opinion is that if it is not needed for child care purposes, there is no particular need to start preschool classes prior to 3. Two or even one year of pre-kindergarten experience is plenty of time to get used to school routines and practice these skills.

How to know if a child may NOT be ready for preschool?

If your child is painfully shy, hypersensitive to new experiences, or can’t follow a simple direction by 18 months, it is a good idea to get a professional developmental assessment to explore whether there might be an underlying issue. Whether it is a delay, a serious developmental disorder, or just a unique but normal characteristic, preschool teachers can be an important part of the support that will help your child thrive.

The only issue that can keep a child out of preschool or potentially get them “expelled” is extreme aggressive behavior such as biting or kicking. Preschools and other licensed child care facilities have “safety first” regulations, and cannot accept the risk that overly aggressive children present to the other children. Once again, if your child is experiencing this kind of challenge, professional help is definitely needed. Sometimes a brief time in therapy, or a quick identification of problems that were “setting him off” that parents and teachers may have missed, help a child in this situation be safe around others. Those of us in the world of early childhood research are simultaneously working on ways to help early childhood teachers deal more effectively with challenging behavior and reduce the need for expulsions.

Attend 2, 3 or all 5 days? Attend part-day or full-day?

Again, assuming that child care or scheduling issues don’t make these decisions for you, I recommend that if you want to get to a reasonable threshold of benefits out of preschool, your child should attend at least 3 days, and those days should be full days if your child is in the last year prior to kindergarten. Preschool teachers tend to find that “2-day-a-week-ers” have a brand new adjustment to make each day and each week they return to school, so more time is spent adjusting and less time is spent enjoying and gaining new skills.

Half-day programs can sometimes be as brief as two hours (e.g., 9:00-11:00am) and sometimes parents and teachers find that this is like taking a really short plane ride – you don’t really have enough time to get all the way up before you have to come back down. Assuming the program is a more reasonable length (3-4 hours), half days are fine, but going to full days the year before kindergarten is still beneficial for obvious reasons – it can help your child learn to adjust to longer times away from you, as well as the rhythms of the day including lunch, outside time, snacks, small and large-group learning, etc..

What about parents’ own motivation to send their child to preschool?

I would want to make sure that parents neither feel A) obligated to send their child to preschool for purposes of gaining a competitive edge; nor B) guilty for sending their child to preschool because “someone else is raising their child”.

Preschool does provide some benefits that are not usually achievable in an average US home (e.g., learning to respect a community of non-family members, interacting with large numbers of age-mates), and even things that can be learned at home (e.g., self-help and problem-solving skills) can be enhanced in preschool because when children apply the same skill to more than one context or situation, they learn it better. And even if you want to send your child just to “get a break”, you can feel good about the fact that preschool is providing you the gift of sanity which helps you be a better parent, and as a bonus, your child is gaining new skills and probably enjoying himself to boot.
Thursday, June 24, 2010

Some Personal Thoughts on Putting Your Child in Non-Parental Care (Confessions of a working mom)

Before you read this post there are two things you need to know about me:

1) My professional position at the
Marsico Institute for Early Learning and Literacy revolves primarily around finding ways of improving the quality of experiences that children receive in child care and preschool;
2) My older child started part-time center-based child care by 17 months and full-time by about two, and my younger child has been in full-time center-based child care since the age of eight months, and is in full-time/full-day preschool currently.

My name is Amanda, and I’m a working Mom.

So clearly, both professionally and personally I am the opposite of a child care opponent. But, I’ve had C-sections too, and I don’t go around promoting them as the best way of delivering your baby, because they just plain aren’t. Similarly, despite my wishes to completely assuage my guilt and yours, putting a child in full-time non-parental care isn’t the best way of raising your child. There – I said it.

Wait – before you accuse me of going all Dr. Laura on you – hear me out. There are a lot of BUTs here, and I’ll try to mention every one I can think of (and hopefully you'll add plusses of your own). But before I do, I want to explain why I use the term “non-parental care” as opposed to “child care” or “day care”:

The decision to put our second baby in full-time care as in infant was an agonizing one. I had applied for a job months prior and forgotten about it by the time they called me for an interview. I clearly remember explaining to the woman who called, when she asked if now was a good time to talk, “Actually, no, I’m in the middle of nursing.” I was not really on the job market actively wanting to change what I was doing. I was my own boss, and could come and go as I pleased, and work at home as I pleased. At the time, Waverly was 7 months old, had never been in the regular care of anyone but myself or my husband, and never tasted a drop of formula. But the position was unstable and grant-funded. The offer of stability, not being primarily responsible for others’ salaries, and of course, my own salary eeking itself just beyond the laughable range was enticing. They told me I could pump breastmilk at my leisure.

At the time, my sister (who lucky for me lives close) was still in the middle of her extended leave from teaching, which she did to be at home with her second child. Naturally, those I agonized with about “putting my baby in child care” suggested that I ask my sister if she would watch Waverly. She was more than willing to help, but as we continued to work out the logistics it became apparent that the situation would not work for us. So I agonized some more about the fact that she would have to go to **child care**.

But then I realized, even care provided by a loving aunt or grandparent is still not ME. They would be the ones caring for and enjoying her. Their love for her is certainly a valuable and precious thing that we'd be unlikely to find as easily in a non-relative, but child care from family members is still multiple hours of not parenting. That is my long story for why I use the term non-parental care. But the story also leads to what I did next when I realized (or, more accurately, had the punch-in-the-gut brand of revelation) that anyone besides myself or my husband was really just a substitute.

My priority became finding a child care location that was within a mile of my job. That way, I could spend every lunch hour with her, and nurse her as well. I visited her every day until she was 18 months. Thus, I rationalized to myself, Waverly never went without me for more than a 4-hour stretch. That sounds a lot nicer than “infant in full-time child care”, doesn’t it? Did these visits benefit Waverly? I have no idea. I can tell you that I do not detect any attachment difference - she is neither more distanced nor more clingy towards me than my older daughter. Probably more importantly, it made me feel better. It made me feel as though I was doing what I could to compensate for a situation that I knew was not the ideal.

So, when friends want my brutally honest opinion about putting their child in non-parental care, here is what I say:
· If you can avoid putting your child in the full-time care of someone else before age two, Mazel Tov. I think that is a good thing.
· If you cannot avoid it, the longer you CAN wait, the better. Early development including attachment is so rapid in the first year of life, that delaying even by months IS worth it. If you can work only part-time, then do so.
· My rationale for the importance of the age factor is thus: The less a baby is a baby and more like a child, a professional caregiver becomes more of a teacher and less of a parent substitute. Starting at around two, socialization provides more of a benefit to children and child care teachers start to offer things that I don’t offer at home – a water table, for example. I know that may sound silly, but I think there is a benefit to children to be in an environment where Mommy isn’t worried about the carpet, and getting messy in finger paint and play-doh is a regular occurrence. There is value in developing an early sense of community – taking care of things and each other - that isn’t quite identical to what can be learned within one family. Most importantly, (and to the extent I and my compatriots accomplish our professional mission), high quality child care providers know a lot about children, how to build on their strengths, and how to help support them through their challenges. They have ideas, tips, and tricks that sometimes don’t occur to you as a parent.
· My biggest revelation in being a working mom was that, outside the 40 hours of working was NOT the time to catch up on ANYTHING except being with my kids. In addition to the daily visits, we found other ways that we had to be different from other families in order to hold sacred our time together as a family. So other things get sacrificed. We almost never go away on overnights without our kids, almost never get babysitting on weekends, rarely have time to talk on the phone with friends or family, hardly ever have weeknight playdates (my kids have plenty of socialization), and often have a messy house. I had to come to terms with these imperfections in order to allow our available parental face time to not be sacrificed.

If you have had a child in non-parental care, did you make similar sacrifices? If you are contemplating this reality in your future, how can you imagine changing your routine or adjusting your schedule to maximize togetherness? Can you accept not “having it all” in order to give your child the gift of time?
Monday, May 3, 2010

You don’t need baby genius products either, but unlike my blog, they can actually do damage

I was lucky enough to learn way before I had children that earlier is not always better.

I went to Tufts University for undergrad, and was a child development major (shocker, I know). My Introduction to Child Development course was taught by David Elkind, a neo-Piagetian protégé, and first to credibly decry the concept of “the hurried child” – the title of his now classic book, published in 1981. (As an aside, I have to share that the look on Dr. Elkind’s face was priceless, when after just having explained that a person learns 50% of what they ever will by age 4, a student raised her hand, saying, “But that can’t be, because then we’d learn everything else by age 8, and I’m learning right now.” I’ll say.)

Dr. Elkind and all other Tufts professors pretty much drilled into my head that a child’s development unfolds at a natural, yet variable rate from child to child. There is no life advantage, and many distadvantages, to forcing concepts and activities on children before they are developmentally ready for them.

Enter the field of developmental cognitive neuroscience from the 1990’s and 2000’s. Suddenly we have sophisticated research methodologies and brain imaging technologies that appear to debunk Piaget (at least in terms of the ages at which certain skills, such as object permanence, supposedly appear) and send the message that maybe infants are, in fact, “geniuses” who can detect patterns,
do statistics, and even predict the future! If infants are a lot smarter than we once understood, this certainly implies that we should capitalize on this potential, by directly teaching such skills – doesn’t it?

Understandably, parents are confused. If the message of the new brain science is that we have tremendous influence over the architecture and functioning of our children’s brains, and that this has lifelong implications for a child’s success in life, clearly we should find the cleverest ways of shoving the most possible information into that infant brain while we still have the chance, right? What parents need to know is that good parents are already, instinctively, doing just that. All the baby genius products you’ll ever need are wrapped up in the combination of your baby’s biology (e.g., his rapidly developing brain), and lots of lots of:

-eye contact (with you)
-interaction, including loving touch and holding (with you)
-talking (with you)
-freedom to explore the environment with the security of a “base” to check in with and return to (you guessed it: YOU).

But some of us went wrong. By “us” I mean people with some supposed expertise related to babies, and by “went wrong” I mean that they cottoned on to the facts that:

a) Our culture is competitive, comparative, and doggedly committed to the success of the individual over the success of the collective, and;
b) Parents in our culture are both and over-anxious and over-busy, and thus would likely be a good target market for quick fixes that could shoot their baby to the top of the heap.

Admit it: Something in you was jealous when you learned that your friend’s baby walked at 10.5 months, and something in you wanted a piece of the action when you learned about your friend taking her baby to baby sign language classes, and something in you worried if you were doing enough when you learned that your friend’s child knew how to use a mouse by age two. Oh, sorry – I lapsed into projection mode there. OK, so the model for those statements was me – yes, even I cannot fully escape the anxieties thrust over my evolutionary instincts and good child development knowledge.

So target us, they do. Theys such as Robert Titzer, founder of “Your Baby Can Read”. In addition to the episode of Penn and Teller’s “Bullshit”, which
pretty much says it all if you don’t mind a little cursing, I did a little digging on Dr. Titzer. His Ph.D. was in Human Performance (???), and he has not a single juried piece of evidence having anything to do with reading. The Psychological Review article he mentions on his commercial website bio was unrelated to reading and he was the third of four authors (which, in the academic world means that you played a more assistive than creative role).

But most importantly, when forced to give a direct answer, Dr. Titzer himself admits that the skills in his videos are not reading, but rather, memorizing shapes of words. Just like 6-8 month-old babies can learn a few baby signs, they can learn to memorize a few shapes and perform a corresponding parlor trick. But unlike baby sign language, which seems to help some babies get their needs met before they can verbalize, fake baby reading doesn’t seem to help babies with much at all and may do the opposite. The jury has decided definitively on the side of phonetic processing (decoding parts of words) as being the key to successful reading. Because memorizing shapes flexes different brain muscles than decoding phonemes, a child who receives a high dosage of “Your Baby Can Read” could possibly be in for a shock, or even a delay, when it comes to real reading. Of course I’d need empirical evidence to test my hypothesis – at least I say so.

But the thing that gets me the most about someone like Dr. Titzer, honestly, is how he can live with himself, knowing he is profiting from the anxieties of parents by twisting facts about child development. His promotion says that “the best and easiest time to learn a language is during the infant and toddler years.” – but notice how he does not specify spoken or written language. Then he cites statistics about the poor average reading skills in our country, leading parents to believe that if they don’t teach their infant to read now, they too will be just another statistic. When real early childhood researchers criticize his work, he says they are being ridiculous because “babies gain by learning new words, and learning new words helps their thinking skills.” Notice how he plays fast and loose with the words “reading” and “words”. Yes doctor, WORDS are great for babies, when they come from the vocal chords of an invested social partner, not when they are written on a non-responsive TV screen.

That reminds me, real developmental researchers have shown that babies learn best when they have influence on the environment, meaning, the person or the object with whom/which they are interacting changes in response to things the baby does. This is why a video will never be as good as a person, and probably explains why many parents report children being bored or even distressed by “Your Baby Can Read” videos. Phew – I’m exhausted just thinking about the number of levels on which Dr. Titzer’s product is smoke and mirrors.

WE INTERRUPT THIS BLOG POST TO BRING YOU THE FOLLOWING: This is great. While I was on his website doing research for this post, a live chat agent tried to get me to stay:

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Jenny Says: Fantastic... just CLICK HERE to get back to the order page.

You: I'm seriously cracking up. Okay, g'night Jenny.

Jenny Says: For more questions or information, please call us at (800) 741 8083 or email to contact customer service.

Well that was fun, sort of. Since my old pal Jenny brought it up, let me just address the whole “reading earlier is better” idea. I honestly don’t know what research they are referring to there – I haven’t seen anything like that, but that doesn’t mean no studies exist supporting that claim. But what I do know is that in Sweden (I know, the neutral countries are just a caricature of the-grass-is-always-greener), they don’t teach reading until age 7, and by age 10, Swedish children
have the highest literacy scores in Europe. Maybe this means there is something to be said for a brain being just ripe for a particular thing, and when the learning of something fits well with your brain, it goes more smoothly, and you feel better about it and want to do it more. Wow, self-esteem and learning in a mutually reinforcing positive feedback loop – oh, Swedies, you’re so cute!

It was actually Priscilla Dunstan who got me started on this whole idea of parenting “experts” needing to put a sock in it. Ms. Dunstan is not a researcher of any kind, but a singer who claims that her sensitive hearing allowed her to decode the five sounds that 0-3 month-olds make when they cry. She was on the Oprah show, and unfortunately, the part of the show that infuriated me the most can’t be found on YouTube. Aside from the ridiculousness on the face of it, aside from the fact that her “research” is 100% parent satisfaction surveys, aside from the fact that there are easier and faster ways of telling if a baby is hungry, tired, or needs a new diaper (Hellooo!) than trying to decipher ambiguous syllables (Hang on pumpkin, can you say that one again? I didn’t quite catch it… Was that “eh” or “eeehoowah”?), what made me mad, and sad really, was seeing Ms. Dunstan “work with” a roomful of moms and babies. At one point, Ms. Dunstan took a crying baby from its Mom and it stopped crying. The oohs and aahs, and where-have-you-been-all-my-life ‘s abounded. THAT was what brought a tear to my eye – that these moms were anxious, self-doubting, and sleep-deprived enough to believe that the “magic” of knowing their baby lay with someone else. Let that sink in for a moment. Please, please, never believe this. I was once a certified infant massage instructor, and the first rule we learned was to demonstrate the movements on a doll, and never on the baby, for even though it is not true, a parent might come to think that you are better at soothing her baby than she is. This is a good lesson for friends and grandmas too.

I have yet to discover a single, credible commercial baby genius product or parenting magic video that lives up to its claims. So the answer is yes, if it seems far-fetched, it is. If they claim you have to BUY THIS NOW to make your baby smart or make you a better parent, don’t believe them. Your relationship with your baby is far more magical than anything that can be bought. But you knew that. See? I told you, you didn’t need this blog.
Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Banned question: Does your baby sleep through the night?

OK, I can’t possibly talk about sleep in only one post because sleep is related to other issues such as co-sleeping, breastfeeding, cry it out (or not), and others. I will address each of these eventually but one thing I first want parents to understand is this:

Human babies are not designed to sleep through the night – quite the opposite. They are designed to wake up often in order to increase their amount of interaction with you.

Now, while this may do absolutely nothing for your sleep-deprived insanity, you can at least be prepared to answer this ill-informed question, and be absolutely sure that, not only is there nothing wrong with you or your baby, you may actually be more evolutionarily fit! Remember I talked before about the imperfections in biological systems? Well, the biological systems involved in parenting are very, very clever, but not QUITE clever enough to put YOU on a baby sleep schedule for as long as your baby needs it, and then back to the grown-up one later. You are always on the grown-up schedule, which is why babies’ sleep patterns have driven most parents I know to the edge of cuckoo at one time or another. Thus, James McKenna has said, “Infants rarely have sleep problems, parents do!”

Never heard of James McKenna? Let me introduce you to
your new BFF. McKenna is the foremost, and perhaps only, real expert in this country on adaptive infant and parent sleep (thought that was Ferber? I have some thoughts about him, too – not all bad – which we’ll discuss in a future post). McKenna has an actual lab, where he observes mothers and babies sleeping. He is the only expert commentator on these issues that I know of, who has real empirical data to support his claims.

McKenna taught me that human milk is the reason that babies are not supposed to sleep through the through the night. If you have ever expressed milk or seen it, you have probably noticed how lightweight it looks, especially relative to formula. Human milk also has a high sugar content, causing it to metabolize (burn off) quickly. All this means that human infants (as well as other primates) have a rapid and frequent feeding cycle, which was biologically built in to us to promote near constant contact between babies and moms. This does not become any less true at night.

You might wonder, but what if I don’t breastfeed or what about when breastfeeding ends? For babies 6 months and under, hunger cycles are still close enough together so as to promote more contact with you – breastfeeding was simply the built-in mechanism to try and insure this, but it exists either way. Starting after 6 months, hunger cycles begin to spread out a bit, so you might be lucky enough to have only one night waking during the second half of the first year.

After this point, sleeping and eating become even more “de-coupled”, but a child’s self-regulatory system is nowhere near fully cooked until 18 months, or maybe even 2 or 3 years of age. I can’t tell you how many times friends of older babies or toddlers have called me, crazed from sleep deprivation, believing that their child had un-learned everything they knew about sleep, and had entered into a hellish abyss of wakefulness, crying, or getting up out of crib/bed that would never, ever end. Even if you have experienced this, if you are not currently IN one of these phases, I promise you, you cannot fully call up the intensity and dread, which is why you too likely have asked your friends the banned question. (This is similar to the evolutionary reasons why we can’t truly recall the pain of child birth.)

For fear of sending my friends completely over the edge, I do not say, “Don’t worry, it will be better tomorrow”, or next week, or next month. But inevitably, it is. These are just hiccups in a child’s perfectly normal, but zig-zag process toward self-regulation. Perhaps just knowing this could lower the intensity just a smidge? Okay, don’t throw something at the screen.

For families in one of the hiccup phases, other than just knowing that it is normal, here are a couple of other things I always recommend:
-Wear a t-shirt around the house for a few days and don’t wear deodorant. Put this t-shirt next to your baby during sleep times (while assuring the baby cannot pull the t-shirt over his face, of course. If it is a crib, you can tie it to one of the slats). Maternal smell has been shown to reduce rats’ distress (hey, man, rats are people too) 70% toward what an actual mother would do.
- Even if you don’t regularly co-sleep, sleep next to your child. In other words, show your child how to sleep. If she is crying, do not constantly try to shush her or rock her or rub her. Just put your hand quietly on her, close your eyes, and try to relax, or fake it as best you can, during the crying. This gives your child nothing to fight against, and just gives a calm, constant presence. If she is old enough to get up and away, hold pretty tight until her body relaxes even a little– give her instant reward for this: Relax yourself, give a sleepy sigh and a quick back rub. If relaxing is nowhere to be found, just close the door, and lie calmly by yourself or perhaps grab a children’s book. This is bound to eventually at least pique your child’s curiosity. Maybe you start to play the “pretend to sleep” game. You get the picture.

In other words, you are not sending any message of “The way you are being right now is not OK” for your child to react against. None of this will “work” (you know why this is in quotes if you read the previous post) right away, but if you see your job as demonstrating what being relaxed looks like, you won’t be able to get to the usual level of crazed, and your child will eventually see the merits of sleep – I promise.
Thursday, April 22, 2010

WEAN is not a Four-Letter Word (or Growing Up is Hard To Do)

wean (verb)
1. to accustom (a child or young animal) to food other than its mother's milk; cause to lose the need to suckle or turn to the mother for food.
2. to withdraw (a person, the affections, one's dependency, etc.) from some object, habit, form of enjoyment, or the like

By far the greatest concern that parents seem to have, and the one that cuts across all domains of child development, is that a wrong choice they make now could have lasting negative effects on their child. If we are not worried about traumatizing our child, we still tend to worry that we will never be able to break our child of one habit or another. If we are not worried about habits being permanent, we are still worried that the weaning process itself will be difficult and drawn out. You have probably said, or heard a friend say something similar to: "If I let my baby cry it out, he could be scarred for life." or, "If I cuddle my baby until she falls asleep, she will never learn to fall asleep on her own.", or, "If I let my toddler get up and walk around at dinner time, he will learn that it is ok to not be sitting while you eat." While these anxieties are certainly understandable, they are not based in reality when you consider what it means to develop. The one thing that babies do reliably without any help from us is change.

Fortunately or unfortunately, growing up is a process of getting used to things and then having to get un-used to them so you can get ready to get used to the next thing. Yes, children are "creatures of habit" in many ways, and that is exactly why growing up is hard. But it is hard all by itself, not because we parents make it so. More accurately, we parents cannot make development not hard. Say it with me now – "No matter how great of a parent I am, and no matter which choice I make among the many appropriate parenting choices, I will not be able to remove all of the pain associated with growing up."

I do not have a grim view of childhood. Rather, I see that we parents need to embrace all the different aspects of parenting, many of which are joyful, some of which feel more like a struggle, and a few of which feel downright demoralizing. Perhaps we’d all feel a little bit more sane if struggles with raising our children didn’t always have to cue us that "something must be wrong", either with our children or with the parenting choices we have made.

Take crying for example. We are evolutionarily programmed to find our children’s crying unpleasant, which motivates us to alleviate their pain, discomfort, fatigue, hunger, etc.. But, like all biological systems, the "cry-and-response" cycle is imperfect, and is mostly there to insure that really serious problems don’t go unnoticed. So when I hear a friend say that they tried such-and-such idea to help their child with something and "it didn’t work", I always ask them, "What was happening when you knew it didn’t work?" The response almost inevitably comes down to the fact that their child cried.

When we are helping our children get used to something new, or get un-used to something old, they will cry. It is the best tool they have available for releasing the stress involved in developing. It doesn’t mean that our helping "isn’t working" and it certainly doesn’t mean we are traumatizing our child.

So, just as we would not use a potentially difficult weaning process as a reason to think that breastfeeding isn’t good for children in the first place, we should not use this faulty logic in other areas of parenting either. If you see a bit of yourself in any of this sort of anxiety, that alone tells me that you want to provide a nurturing and healthy environment for your child, and you are likely to know deep down whether something is really in your child’s best interests.

Will stress get the best of you sometimes? Will you sometimes make parenting choices you wish you hadn’t? Of course. But my guess is it doesn’t take more than 30 seconds of hindsight for you to know that too. You can right the ship – children are very resilient. But struggles, crying, and even the raised eyebrows of outsiders are not an indication of a lack of smooth sailing. Embrace the choppy ride. As Ship’s Captain, you don’t get to set sail only when the waters are smooth, but you can feel proud for navigating the waves.

Be a calm mom too.

Welcome to my blog. This is an essay that I contributed to NPR’s "This I Believe" series back in 2007. It sums up my inspiration for helping my friends, and parents everywhere, to throw the parenting books out the window. I realize the hypocrisy involved in giving people advice to not follow advice, but stay with me – I really think there is something to this. Where modern parenting is concerned, people seem to need permission to do what their gut knows is right. I have seen people’s parenting self-efficacy (the fancy term for a parent’s belief that they know how to be a good parent) steamrolled by conventional wisdom, stupid Facebook posts of well-meaning friends, and ulterior economic motives (selling books, cribs, videos, drinking formula, magic formulas of all kinds) more times than I can count. Join me in bucking the system and getting back to common sense. Let’s discuss all the parenting techniques you have used that you wouldn’t tell your mother about, and why they worked for you. Permission granted.

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Amanda J. Moreno
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