Throughout our 30 years of working with parents and babies, we have grown to appreciate the correlation between how well children thrive (emotionally and physically) and the style of parenting they receive.
First-time parents Linda and Norm brought their four-month-old high-need baby, Heather, into my office for consultation because Heather had stopped growing. Heather had previously been a happy baby, thriving on a full dose of attachment parenting. She was carried many hours a day in a baby sling, her cries were given a prompt and nurturant response, she was breastfed on cue, and she was literally in physical touch with one of her parents most of the day. The whole family was thriving and this style of parenting was working for them. Well-meaning friends convinced these parents that they were spoiling their baby, that she was manipulating them, and that Heather would grow up to be a clingy, dependent child.
Like many first-time parents, Norm and Linda lost confidence in what they were doing and yielded to the peer pressure of adopting a more restrained and distant style of parenting. They let Heather cry herself to sleep, scheduled her feedings, and for fear of spoiling, they didn’t carry her as much. Over the next two months Heather went from being happy and interactive to sad and withdrawn. Her weight leveled off, and she went from the top of the growth chart to the bottom. Heather was no longer thriving, and neither were her parents.
After two months of no growth, Heather was labeled by her doctor “failure to thrive” failure to thrive and was about to undergo an extensive medical workshop. When the parents consulted me, I diagnosed the shutdown syndrome. I explained that Heather had been thriving because of their responsive style of parenting. Because of their parenting, Heather had trusted that her needs would be met and her overall physiology had been organized. In thinking they were doing the best for their infant, these parents let themselves be persuaded into another style of parenting. They unknowingly pulled the attachment plug on Heather, and the connection that had caused her to thrive was gone. A sort of baby depression resulted, and her physiologic systems slowed down. I advised the parents to return to their previous high-touch, attachment style of parenting to carry her a lot, breastfeed her on cue, and respond sensitively to her cries by day and night. Within a month Heather was again thriving.
We believe every baby has a critical level of need for touch and nurturing in order to thrive. (Thriving means not just getting bigger, but growing to one’s potential, physically and emotionally.) We believe that babies have the ability to teach their parents what level of parenting they need. It’s up to the parents to listen, and it’s up to professionals to support the parents’ confidence and not undermine it by advising a more distant style of parenting, such as “let your baby cry it out” or “you’ve got to put him down more.” Only the baby knows his or her level of need; and the parents are the ones that are best able to read their baby’s language.
Babies who are “trained” not to express their needs may appear to be docile, compliant, or “good” babies. Yet these babies could be depressed babies who are shutting down the expression of their needs, and they may become children who don’t ever speak up to get their needs met and eventually become the highest-need adults.