There are so many old beliefs that are still persistent and told to new parents with burning conviction, such as “a baby must be taught to self-soothe” or “you’ll spoil your baby if you go to them every time they cry”.
Listening to this well-meaning – but outdated – advice, parents could be forgiven for worrying that if they pay too much attention to their baby, they will grow up to be too dependent, incapable of finding their own way in the world.
Yet attachment theory tells us that babies are born demonstrating innate behaviours called social releasers such as crying and smiling, which are there to stimulate natural caregiving responses from other humans around them.
The natural response to a baby crying is to soothe them, hold them, feed them, sing to them – pretty much anything apart from leaving them to cry alone. Research now shows that babies who are left to cry, for example during sleep training, have high levels of cortisol in their body, even after they have stopped crying and seem to have self-soothed.
These babies are left in a stressful state for some time after the actual crying has stopped, with the potential for long-term damage to their well-being. Studies links an increase in stress hormones to attachment problems, trust issues and physical ailments such as irritable bowel syndrome.
For many parents, too, this feels like going against every instinct in your body. I have heard many mothers talk about how awful this sort of training makes them feel. The parenting instinct is there, but more and more parents are not encouraged or empowered to listen to it, instead told that babies need to be trained – just like a wayward puppy.
Some even go as far as describing babies as ‘manipulative’ and ‘trying to wrap you around their little finger’. This is such an outdated and dangerous belief, left from the Victorian days when children should be ‘seen but not heard’.
The fact is that a baby is not born with the cognitive development to understand cause and effect or manipulate their parents – they are born, very simply, wired for survival, with the instinctive behaviour to ensure that if their health is threatened, they can quickly attract their caregiver’s attention.
Hungry? Cry. Wrong temperature? Cry. Wet? Cry.
For the first few weeks, and even months, the only way a baby can really communicate their need is by crying – this is perfectly normal! Most other mammals are able to walk, so they can follow their parents or hold on tightly to the fur of their mothers. A baby would simply not survive if they didn’t cry to get the attention of someone who can pick them up and make them safe.
Babies will feel happiest and most settled in the arms of their parents, close to their smell and voice and heartbeat (for this reason investing in a comfortable, ergonomic sling is one of the top pieces of baby kit you can buy).
Most parents’ instincts tell us this is the case, but as new parents, it is easy to listen to the voices telling us we need to put the baby down “for their own good”, or that we are making “a rod for our own back”. The truth is, you cannot spoil a baby!
The challenges and hurdles that parenthood brings are not as easily dealt with as some of life’s other problems. Today, we are all used to finding a quick fix for problems: we ask Dr Google about everything from our medical symptoms to whether or not we have found “the one”.
We are the same with babies, searching for everything from nappy contents to sleep (or more accurately, lack of), and it could be easy as a parent to live your life feeling like a failure with constant issues you wish you could fix: teething, weaning, illness, sleep, tantrums, starting school problems, first fall-out with friends, first broken heart.
There is no goal line where everything all of a sudden becomes easy and issues never crop up. Being a parent is for life and there will always be things to love and other things to overcome.
These are not always things we can fix, or should even try to fix. As a new parent you may hear the wise words this too shall pass, and most of the time, you know what? It does! Suddenly your baby cries less, sleeps more, eats more, starts walking and talking.
Sometimes the most helpful thing is to stop fixating on the problem and to learn to surrender to the moment, and to our instincts – because most of the time, they are right. Enjoy every stage of your baby’s and child’s life! It goes far too quickly and it’s only when you look back that you might wish that you had enjoyed it more!