I wrote a letter recently in reply to an article in the Archives of Disease in Childhood (Education and Practice Edition -June 2014, Volume 99, Issue 3, p. 97) entitled What I have learnt from Toddler Taming: Help for parents and doctors! It seems that the editor has declined to publish it, which is not entirely surprising as it refers to the controversial issue of co-sleeping and Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). There is no controversy amongst medical professionals: co-sleeping increases the risk of SIDS and is not recommended. That much is clear, and yet informed and intelligent parents continue to choose to co-sleep. I suggested bedside co-sleepers may offer a safe and viable compromise, and also believe that doctors should be informed of safe co-sleeping practices, in order to be able to best advise those mothers who do choose this route. More information on the research evidence surrounding this issue can be found here: UNICEF Baby Friendly: Bed Sharing and Infant Sleep.
I do feel a bit sad that the journal has declined to allow a debate on this subject and the related issues of compassionate/attachment parenting practices more generally. I would welcome any thoughts you may have however, so I am posting the letter below:
I read with interest Deborah Shanks’ article on the book Toddler Taming by Christopher Green (Vermilion, 2006). Senior colleagues recommended that I read this book during my community paediatric placement, and several of my peers also told me they found it useful both personally and professionally.
I would like to offer an alternative for those who, like me, seek gentler, more compassionate parenting methods, and would prefer to recommend these to patients too. Happily, many excellent books exist which address this need and the evidence in support of its application.
Controlled crying may be effective in achieving the desired outcome, but if it works by inducing a state of learned helplessness following prolonged, unrelieved distress, then it surely cannot be recommended.
In her well researched and extensively referenced book Why Love Matters (Routledge, 2004), Sue Gerhardt, a psychoanalytic psychotherapist and founder of the Oxford Parent Infant Project[i], comments in her chapter Corrosive Cortisol that (p.66-73) “the stress response system is affected by how much early stress it has to deal with, and how well the system is helped to recover […] a well-resourced and well-regulated infant becomes a child and adult who can regulate himself or herself well. […]Probably the most stressful experience of all for a baby or toddler is to be separated from his or her mother or caregiver, the person who is supposed to keep him or her alive.”
A more readable alternative with plenty of photographs and diagrams is child psychotherapist Margot Sunderland’s What Every Parent Needs to Know: The Remarkable Effects of Love, Nurture and Play on Your Child’s Development (Dorling Kindersley, 2006). In this she explains (p.38-42) how periods of prolonged, uncomforted distress can develop an over-sensitive stress-response system, resulting in a constant sense of threat and anxiety in later life, with the associated potential for depression, addictive behaviours and stress-related physical illness.
Our children are not animals to be tamed. They are human beings with valid feelings and needs. However difficult it may be (I am the parent of three-year-old twins – I know how difficult it can be), it remains the responsibility of parents to consider and respond promptly to those feelings and needs, day and night. Issues of maternal isolation within the nuclear family in our western culture are clearly relevant here, but beyond the scope of this letter.
In addition the conflict between healthcare professionals and those advocating attachment parenting styles as regards the issue of co-sleeping and the risk of infant death must be noted. The imperative to put babies to sleep on their backs in their own cots, which goes against the instincts of both mothers and babies, results in crying babies and exhausted parents, and when help is sought from doctors there may be a strong felt pressure to supply a functional solution. Bedside co-sleepers, or a cot next to the parents’ bed are safe alternatives to full co-sleeping that enable a baby’s needs to be met to a far greater extent than if they are put to sleep in the next room. For older children full or partial co-sleeping represents a viable option, and toddlers may prefer to sleep in their parents’ bedroom for some time.
Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life (Puddledancer Press 2003), and its companion title Raising Children Compassionately: Parenting the Nonviolent Communication Way (Puddledancer Press 2005), by Marshall B. Rosenberg PhD offers a practical framework for approaching a multitude of parenting issues, and is also a useful tool for positive communication in clinical settings. In his introduction to the latter, Rosenberg comments (p.1): “I’d first like to call your attention to the danger of the word “child”, if we allow it to apply a different quality of respect than we would give to someone who is not labeled a child.”
Imprisoning children in their bedrooms (the ‘rope trick’) solely because they wish to leave and their parents or carers do not want them to, is an example of one human being exerting their will over another by means of force (to be distinguished from the protective use of force that is sometimes necessary to prevent an individual from causing harm to themselves or others), and by virtue of their greater size and strength. Such behaviour would likely be illegal were it perpetrated on another adult, and would certainly constitute an infringement of their basic human rights.
In her book Raising Our Children, Raising Ourselves (Book Publishers Network, 2005), Naomi Aldort PhD offers an alternative to commonly taught coercive parenting practices, stating that (p.xiv-xv) “Most parents already know how to control children gently; what we don’t know is how NOT to control them and live in peace and joy with them. We know such gentle controls as natural consequences, an agreed-upon “non-punitive” timeout, engaging cooperation, bribes, and praise. Yet obedience, compliance, and even engaged co-operation mean the child succumbs to the will of the adult, even if she seems content to do so (because she wants your love and she is relieved to earn it). […] An autonomous child, whose life flows in her direction, acts productively because she wants to. […] […] giving up her will is the cause of most of the difficulties with children.
[i] Oxford Parent Infant Project: http://www.oxpip.org.uk/ Accessed on 25th May 2014.