It is not possible to spoil your baby. Anything that your baby wants, your baby needs. If that is food, if that is sleep, or if that is just your attention.
Attention is not inconsequential to a human’s life. Because we are social creatures, others attention a is fundamental to our survival.
We are used to saying that babies only have one means of communication: Crying. That is not quite the truth. Read anything about breastfeeding, and it will tell you to look for other signals before they start to cry. Rooting, chewing on their fingers, behaving restlessly. The quicker you are to respond to these small signals, the easier it will be for baby to remain in a state of emotional regulation.
We know that extreme deprivation of parental care causes huge problems for an infant. Famous studies were done in Romanian orphanages where they found out that children who were not touched or paid attention to had higher rates of criminality and drug use. They were in worse health and more likely to suffer from mood disorders.
The literature is less definitive on sleep training and other practices that involve the intentional decision to allow your baby to cry without responding.
What the literature is very clear on, though, is that responding to your child’s cues is never going to be the wrong thing to do. Especially not for an infant.
The point of argument is whether or not cry-it-out, as it is know, is negative or neutral; not whether or not responding is a bad thing. There are some physicians who will tell you that without sleep training, your child will fall into sleep dysregulation–some go even as far as to call co-sleeping or nursing to sleep a “sleeping disorder.”
We all use what are called “sleep association” to get us to bed. Very few of us just conk out where ever and whenever. If you look for tips on the best way to get a good night’s sleep, you will again and again come across two suggestions: (1) Make your bedroom only for sleep; and (2) create a routine. Because our brains are association machines, you will automatically be put into a state of ease if you use these tools.
Anyone who is calling using your mother as a sleep association a disorder is drawing an arbitrary and unhelpful line.
While evolutionary psychology is often just-so, I think it is useful to note that babies would have slept with and been nursed by their mother’s for most of human history. While we should be wary of people using naturalistic arguments to push their view, using our past is not a bad default to move from.
What made the children in Romanian orphanages ill equipped to handle life?
It has to do with their cortisol levels. Cortisol is a chemical that is released in response to stress. Too much of it is linked with bad health outcomes.
Since we know at least one of the mechanisms that leads to poor life-outcomes, we can ask specific questions. Does cry-it-out release enough cortisol to produce negative, long lasting effects?
One of the most fascinating things about babies and young children is that they actually don’t produce much cortisol, even when they are crying a lot. This is called the period of hyporesponsitity, and you can read more about it here.
Hyporesponsivity essentially means that while you see your baby or toddler getting red in the face, crying, or having a tantrum, their brains aren’t reacting as if they’re in a stressful situation. It is hard to illicit a boost in cortisol, even if we can see that our children are having a very difficult time.
We don’t know why the brain does this in those early years of rapid neurological development, but we know it does. We also know that brains bathed in cortisol early in life set up their organism for failure, so it makes sense that it has some way to protect itself.
There is one easy way to get a baby or toddler’s brain to start producing cortisol, though: Remove their caregiver.
Our small ones use us as a buffer against stress. We mediate their emotions because they can’t.
Distress vs. Eustress
But isn’t stress good for us?
We will encounter stress throughout our lives. Some of that stress will make us more likely to develop cardiovascular disease, and some of it will make us better, stronger people. We can distinguish between these two kinds of stress. One is distress, which is negative; and the other is eustress, which is positive.
Eustress is short-term stress where we believe that we can cope with the demands on us. It is motivating. Taking on new job or hobby are examples of good stress. Distress can be long-term or short-term and it makes us feel like we do not have the tools we need to be successful. Unemployment and a death in the family are example of bad stress.
Are babies experiencing eustress or distress during CIO? Is it chronic stress or does it get interpreted as acute stress?
There is a phenomenon called stress inoculation. If you are exposed to a small amount of stress, you will slowly grow the ability to deal with more and more stress in your life. That is, you’ll subjectively perceive instances as eustress that you may otherwise have perceived as distress, if you have encountered similar struggles before. You will grow your window of tolerance for difficulty.
Studies have shown that baby monkey’s who experience short periods of separation from their mother’s in early life tend to be less anxious later in life.
This information my awareness of the need to focus on integration. My children and I need to be linked but distinct parts. Sometimes that calls for closeness and comfort, and sometimes that calls for standing apart.
As much as I’d like for the answer to fall definitively on my side–that what my gut tells me is right, is right–humans aren’t that simple. We might never have the answers we need to rest comfortable in our judgementalness of other’s choices.