It can be so difficult as a parent to sift through a minefield of conflicting advice, can’t it? Who do you trust? Which advice is ‘right’? Where is this advice coming from? Almost as soon as you baby bump begins to show, it seems that everyone is an expert about YOUR baby!
Whenever you hear advice that doesn’t feel quite right to you or if you hear about a new approach and you aren’t quite certain about it, it is good to put this through your filters and do a check in. To make this simple I have three questions you can ask yourself:
Is it safe? Is it respectful? Does it feel right?
You can also ask, what messages do I want to give my child? (this one is great at any age).
Let’s take a look at how this works with advice around baby sleep, for instance , since this seems to be a huge issue for most new parents. A lot of advice about baby sleep, is presented in a very authoritarian or patronising manner with dire warnings that you will set yourself up for ongoing problems if you don’t follow whatever ‘proven advice’ is being recommended at the time.
There is a range of options to help you create a positive sleep environment and the responsibility for deciding which options will suit your child and your family is yours. But here’s how to apply these three questions as you make your decisions regarding your child’s sleep environment:
1. Is it safe? Obviously, your child’s safety is the number-one prerequisite for making any choices about sleeping practices. From choosing a sleeping environment to implementing a bed time routine, you will always need to assess whether this is safe for your baby at every level: here’s an example for you – although you are certain to hear various advice about leaving your baby to cry for a prescribed length of time, nobody has actually researched how long this is safe, if at all. That’s probably why advice varies so much – from six minutes to ten minutes to an hour or whatever! Babies – especially small babies – can become over heated when left to cry and this can lead to febrile convulsions or there is a risk that they may choke on saliva or mucous.
Even if these potentially life threatening risks don’t eventuate, there are potential risks to infant mental health through leaving your baby to cry. This is partly due to elevated levels of stress hormones on a developing infant brain and the possibility that the only ‘learning’ your baby will be doing through this kind of ‘teaching’ is that there is no point crying for help because nobody is coming: this is learned helplessness.
Crying is your baby’s language and a communication that he needs something or someone to help him feel safe and secure
Your BABY”S sense of safety is important too – he is biologically programmed to feel safe when he is in proximity of his carers. This is a deep and legitimate need and when we consider a stone-age baby it is easier to grasp how important being close to a carer is to your baby: if a stone age baby was left alone in a cave to sleep, he would be at risk from predators – lions, eagles, crocodiles perhaps. This is why babies are programmed to cry out when they are left alone. They are saying – where are you? And they are desperately stressed because being alone could be life threatening – at least from a baby’s perspective.
Even though our ‘stone age’ baby is safe from predators in this space age world, HE doesn’t know he is in a safety standards approved cot, in a warm room inside a safe house with a monitor on the wall so his carers can hear every tiny whimper. To a baby, feeling safe is knowing somebody is nearby and he will do this through his senses of smell, touch, sight and hearing. And, if he needs help to settle or he feels ‘unsafe’ he will let you know through his cries.
2. Are we being respectful? We do many things to small children and babies without even considering how intrusive or disrespectful it might feel to them. For instance, can you imagine being woken from a sound sleep and having food stuck into your mouth, regardless of whether you are hungry or not, just because somebody else decided it was convenient for them to feed you right now? Or having your legs whipped up in the air and your pants pulled down without even a please or thankyou? And yet this is often how we approach every day tasks such as changing a baby’s nappy – talk to your baby about what you are planning to do whether this is dressing, bathing, or implementing a bed time routine and please remember, you are the grown up here –your baby is a small vulnerable person whose most important task in the first year is learning to trust. This is a prerequisite for future relationships and he needs love and respect to develop this trust in you.
3. Does it feel right ?
If anything you are advised to do with your baby doesn’t FEEL right to you, step back and listen to your inner voice. Notice how you feel – you may feel tight in the stomach or a bit goosebumpy – or the feeling may just be a kind of ‘knowing’ that this isn’t right for your baby right now.
Another thing to consider if you are still a bit confused or if you have energy to go a bit deeper is WHAT ARE WE TEACHING?
It may be difficult when you are utterly exhausted, but try to think about the bigger picture and consider what messages you want to send to your child. Will you be teaching your child that sleep is a lovely, nurturing space where he is safe to go, and that he can trust you to soothe his fears and mend his hurts whatever the time of day or night? If you can do this, you will not only be investing in sound sleep, but you will be creating a precious bond with your child that will outlast these early sleepless nights.
So, is it safe? Is it respectful ? And, Does it feel right? If you can answer these three questions and you would like to try something new with your baby, go ahead and see how your baby responds. If you and your child are happy and it is working for you without creating stress for your baby or you, then it’s probably just right for you both.
Pinky McKay, International Board certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC), runs a private practice in Melbourne specializing in gentle parenting techniques. A sought after keynote speaker and best-selling author with 4 titles published by Penguin, including her recent book Parenting By Heart, she’s an expert source for media appearing regularly on major network TV and quoted in various publications. Pinky’s books, parenting resources and her free newsletter ‘Gentle Beginnings’ can be found on her website www.pinkymckay.com.au