Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Parenting When it Matters Most

Why is it so hard to be an effective parent at the times it matters most?
There is something I have noticed among parents, especially new parents. The ones that complain the most seem to be trying to make their child/baby fit into their world. The other parents, the ones that mold their world to suit their baby, seem to have it "easier".

Lets back up a bit.
How often do you hear "My baby won't sleep" "My baby has it's days and nights confused" "She wants to eat every 2 hours!" "He hates the crib" "I can't get anything done!" What if we turned these statements around: "My baby likes to be awake" "Our ideas of when to sleep are not the same" "Babies sure have tiny tummies" "How wonderful to snuggle while we sleep" and "Everything else can wait, babies are tiny for such a short time".

Why would we do this? We're the adults; shouldn't baby conform to our lives? But why should baby?
Imagine his life before being ejected. Constant warmth, constant confinement, constant noise, constant nourishment. Sleep when sleepy, awake when energized. Never have to feel hunger, a wet diaper, cold dry skin. The birth process is a rude awakening for most babies in our 'modern' culture. And then we want them to eat/sleep/wake when WE want them to?

How many parents look at a newborn's life from an anthropological viewpoint? Sure, you might know your baby likes to be swaddled, but have you thought further back than that? Why should your baby "want" to sleep alone in a crib? How can we think a baby should "want" to eat only every 3 to 4 hours? Sure, we know they have a tiny tummy, but do we know why? Why do we get upset if baby "wants" to be held all the time?

These aren't "wants" to a baby! They are biologically programmed needs to ensure baby's survival. Unfortunately, what baby needed to survive 10 000 years ago is what makes parents feel like they're not going to survive this stage, LOL.

I used to feel, before having my own children, that I understood them quite well. But what it really was, was that I knew how to respond to them. I still had some crazy ideas before Hugh came along.....we were going to have a schedule (except for nursing), we would have firm routines, we would have experiences and opportunities for educational exposures. But what he taught me was that what I wanted was not the same as what he needed. I could mold to him more easily and sanely than making him mold to me.

Before Lucy was born I heard about Dr Harvey Karp and "The Happiest Baby on the Block". I read the book while pregnant, and again in her first few weeks cause, dangit, I was NOT having another "Huey". Sure, Lucy was a happier baby, but is it because she's got a different disposition, or is it because I learned that humans are the only species born not able to support their own head? Was it the 5 "S's" that made her happy, or did they just make it easier to be a parent?

Ah. Easy parenting. Lazy parenting. Some say it's letting the dog lead the walker. But it's not. It's doing the things that make life easier for everyone, based on knowledge of the why's and when and your own child. Some children co-sleep well, and this makes them happy. Some babies do not co-sleep well, and forcing them to makes everyone unhappy. Doesn't mean you're not following attachment parenting if you don't co-sleep :) Breastfeeding is a LOT easier than bottle feeding, AND it's better! (Except for in those 10-15% of cases when it's not). Babywearing is SO much easier than carrying a carseat, or a stroller, or letting your baby scream in a bouncy chair because you're "afraid of spoiling him".

When Hugh was quite little still (around 4 months), I finally got to the library to see if there were any parenting books that could explain him. I found Dr. Sear's and his "High Needs Baby" book. Aside from the "7 B's of AP", I learned the one bit of info that has played the biggest role in my parenting: "A need that is filled will self-extinguish, a need that is suppressed or forcibly extinguished, will remain a need but perhaps unrecognized as a subconscious driver of behaviour". (Not a direct quote!).

Think about yourself. Ever had a craving for potato chips? The "experts" say to have some popcorn or some carrots, for the crunch. You eat the whole bag of carrots and what do you feel? That you still want the chips!!!! If a baby needs to be held, they will continue having this need until THEY feel it's been met. So, if you leave your baby to cry in the stroller, or bouncy seat, or crib to "teach" them....what they are learning is that you don't care about their needs and won't meet those needs. Babies will then go one of two ways. Some will rev it up. Others will withdraw. It's okay to say, "I'll give it a few minutes to see what happens" but when it goes on and on, repeatedly, or your attitude is "he's got to learn", then their need never gets met, and it doesn't go away. I have a "signature" on my emails that says "Children should be held by people, not things; Try a sling". What the "cry it out" baby has "learned" is that being held by a THING is better than being held by a person. Isn't that sad? Now think about how that gets internalized as the child grows and starts to form relationships with others.....

This idea of filling needs doesn't stop with infants though. Dr Karp has another book "The Happiest Toddler on the Block" and really, I think it applies to people of all ages! This Christmas break was a hard one for Meg. Although she's not the best kid to get into bed at a decent time, her behaviour over the break, at bedtime, was out of her normal repertoire. The days weren't too bad, but she was suddenly having tantrums again. But then every night at bedtime there was screaming, coming out of her room, total defiance, screaming, night we had a disagreement right before bedtime. I knew she'd never go to sleep unless we resolved it, so we did, and I told her that a talk and a snuggle could solve anything. So, the rest of the two weeks, she'd start screaming "I want a snuggle" instead of going to bed. Well, after two hours of this, who wants to snuggle?! I explained that I wasn't going to 'reward' her bad behaviour that way.
Finally, on the second to last night of the break, I "gave in". About an hour earlier than she had been at least getting quiet the previous nights, I laid down and rubbed her back. She was asleep in under 10 minutes and slept all night! The next night was now a school night, and I tried it even earlier. She has a music player that goes for 6 minutes....longer than it took her to fall asleep! Of course, now I'm feeling horrible for the rough two weeks when I didn't "give in".

Would it have been giving in? I thought about what life was like for her during the break. She went from having me alone all morning, to sharing me with the entire family (even Daddy was home for a week). Asking (screaming) for a snuggle was her way of saying she hadn't met her need of mommy-time. She has a need for one-on-one time with me. Perhaps all the kids do, but they don't express it so vehemently.

So, next time you find yourself in a 'battle' with your child, especially over something that seems out of ordinary, dig a little deeper. Has something changed? Even something simple like a different cereal for breakfast or having to wear a hat. Children really don't want to be "bad". They really just want things easy too. But because they operate more on a biologically driven basis, rather than a knowledge driven framework, they have a unique way of expressing things, LOL.

Editted to add:
I just want to say that Meg wasn't wandering around for two hours every night for two weeks screaming "I want a snuggle". It was more hour and a half of trying to get her to at least stay in her room, settle down, stop tantruming about something, etc....and THEN she'd start with the "Snuggle me". If she had just skipped all the rest hubabaloo and just started with teh "Snuggle me", I would have just laid down and snuggled with her, like we did for the last couple nights of break. Hindsight....but even last night, the snuggling did not work until 11pm when she finally laid down and was asleep in under a minute.

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