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I have been studying Infant Sleep Consultancy over the last 3 months and have delved into dozens of parenting books as well as what the research has to say about this confusing topic. As a mother of a 20 month old who never slept through until 14 months, I often wondered what was the “norm” for babies and if what we were doing “was working”.
The recent Paleo push on the diet front got me thinking about Paleo babies – they were wired the same way as our modern babies yet were raised very differently. For thousands of years, babies were carried until they could crawl, shared a family bed, their cries received quick responses and parents had the support of a wider community. Jean Ledlioff discusses this in her enlightening book The Continuum Concept.
That made me think – was I parenting according to my child’s biological needs or was my parenting style revolving around the modern cultural “norm”? Let’s delve into the world of self regulation and hormones for more explanation.
When we are tired it is easy to want your child to fit around your needs, and to a certain extent this needs to happen. But imagine if we had an extended network of family and friends that could fill the gaps when we were too exhausted? As a single mum with family interstate and overseas, it would make an enormous difference to my day-to-day life.
Paleo babies had the very same biological needs as our modern babies – to be touched and reassured frequently. Babies and young children need to learn how to self regulate and they learn this survival skill through the responsive care of their caregivers.
Dr. Allen Schore is one of the world’s leading authorities on how the brain’s right hemisphere regulates emotion and he works at the UCLA Center for Culture, Brain, and Development. His work integrates neuroscience and attachment theory and he strongly recognizes the importance of children learning to self regulate their emotions in a positive manner.
5 tips to implement healthy self-regulation:
- Use a calm voice
- Recognize and name the emotion “I can see you’re feeling sad”
- Understand and make sense of the emotion by talking about what happened “ I think you might be feeling sad because you wanted to stay at the park and play for longer
- Offer comfort and soothing “your sad – lets sit down quietly together”
- Provide ideas or solutions for dealing with the problem
The lowdown on hormones
Hormones literally help us to survive and this is incredibly evident in babies. The interplay between a baby and their caregiver is driven by hormones.
Oxytocin – released when we experience social contact, oxytocin promotes bonding and the number of oxytocin receptors in pregnant women dramatically increases during the last weeks of pregnancy. One of the easiest ways to get an oxytocin hit is skin-to-skin contact with your baby. It is like a glue that binds together mother and baby in the first few months.
Prolactin – the main milk promoting hormone, prolactin promotes nurturing. Interesting to note, fathers experience higher prolactin levels during the mother’s pregnancy but levels peak in the first few weeks after birth and support bonding.
Opioids – these pleasure hormones reduce pain and promote elation. Nurturing, and being nurtured, causes the release of opioids in both mum and bub and this naturally promotes close family relationships
Pheromones – we are instinctually programed to react to pheromones, which are made in the skin. Newborns are very sensitive to pheromones.
We are programmed to instinctively respond to our babies in a certain way, and babies are programmed to instinctively react to their environments. So what happens when there is a mismatch between the two?
This is what I call the phenomenon of Stone Age babies and their modern day mothers. Mothers who are often wearing so many hats it’s almost impossible to even hear their gut instinct. Mothers who feel the push from society to have their baby sleep through the night by three months. Mothers who are information rich yet still confused.
Many families turn to different sleep training methods to help deal with this mismatch, with crying it out (extinction or the Ferber method) being a common choice. It is up to every family to work out what is best for them and I always advise a holistic approach to removing any impediments to healthy sleep before embarking on sleep training. This could involve ensuring the bedroom is nice and dark, ruling out any medical conditions or establishing a happy bedtime routine.
My primary concern with CIO is the subsequent effect on the baby who goes through three distinct phases:
- Phase 1 – “protest”, consists of loud crying and extreme restlessness.
- Phase 2 – “despair”, consists of monotonous crying, inactivity, and steady withdrawal.
- Phase 3 – labeled “detachment”, consists of a renewed interest in surroundings, albeit a remote, distant kind of interest.
It is phase 3 that is seen as a “shutting down” response that I feel would encourage the development of abnormal stress responses to normal situations.
Anyway, enough of my musings but I hope this has got you thinking about your parenting style, expectations of your relationship with your child as well as tips to make things smoother.