A rod for your own back

It's important to listen to your own instincts, Pinky McKay points out.
It's important to listen to your own instincts, Pinky McKay points out. 

“I was on the phone this morning and the person at the other end heard my baby crying. When I told her I was cuddling him she said, ‘Well, you’ve created a rod for your own back now’,” says Jody, mother of an eight week old.

When your competence as a mother comes under scrutiny and you feel judged, it’s easy for the doubts to creep in – you just might be ‘giving in’ to your baby, or she really is a cunning rascal plotting to wrap you around her proverbial little finger. It then gets difficult to resist the advice to ignore your baby’s cries in order to teach her to cry less or sleep more – or whatever your critic’s definition of what a ‘good baby’ happens to be.

Really, there’s no sense in entering a power struggle with your baby. Her cry has been designed for her survival and you’re programmed to react: during the last trimester of pregnancy you begin producing a ‘mummy margarita’ of hormones that make you crazily protective and responsive to your baby. By the time your baby is born, your pituitary gland (a normally pea-sized gland at the back of your brain) is double its normal size; it takes about six months for this to get back to normal again (of course, after you have a baby, there’s a completely new ‘normal’ when it comes to your brain, your body and your life!). So you’re churning out hormones designed by nature to make you take care of your baby – that’s why every cry pierces your heart.

And when your baby cries, your body chemistry changes: the blood flow to your breasts doubles and you have a hormone-induced urge to respond. This is why advice to ‘leave her to cry’ or that ‘you’re making a rod for your back’  is easy for others to say – because they aren’t biologically connected to your baby. This is why you feel so confused – you feel sensitive to criticism of your mothering skills, and you feel torn between your urge to respond to your baby and advice that’s at odds with what you’re feeling deep within your soul.

Really, you’re the expert about your baby, regardless of where the advice is coming from. And please relax: you can’t spoil your baby. The part of her brain that can make conscious connections and create scams to manipulate you isn’t even online yet. When you attend to your baby promptly, you not only get better at ‘reading’ her crying language, but also come to learn her pre-cry signals – and, as you respond accordingly, you’ll be able to avert full-blown crying.

In the early months, your baby’s cry is automatic. If you leave her to cry, she’s likely to become even more upset as her crying picks up momentum. And after a little while she won’t even know why she was crying in the first place – she’ll just be crying because she can’t stop, so she’ll be much harder to settle.

If you’re breastfeeding, it’s particularly important to respond quickly to hunger cues: a baby left to work up to a full-blown cry will have a more disorganised suck and may have trouble latching on correctly, or she may only suck for a short time before she falls asleep with exhaustion.

Leaving your baby to ‘cry it out’ may have longer term consequences for mental health, too: there’s emerging evidence that distress at being left to cry changes the physiology of the brain, and may predispose children to stress disorders such as panic, anxiety and depression later in life. Paediatrician William Sears has said that, “Babies who appear to be ‘trained’ not to express their needs may appear to be docile, compliant or ‘good’ babies. Yet these babies could be depressed babies who are shutting down their needs. They become children who don’t speak up to get their needs met and eventually become the highest need adults.”

By not responding to your baby’s signals, the only things being ‘spoilt’ are your relationship with your baby and your own self-confidence. As your baby fails to fit whatever regime you’re trying to impose, you feel more and more inadequate and possibly angry or resentful towards your baby, who is just trying to tell you her needs in the only way she can. And as you struggle to teach your baby that you’re in control, she may also learn perhaps the saddest lesson of all: that she’s helpless and has no power to communicate – so what’s the use of even trying?

Give me a cuddle

Cuddles make your baby smarter
Neuroscientists and clinicians have documented that loving interactions that are sensitive to a child’s needs influence the way the brain grows, and can increase the number of connections between nerve cells.

Cuddles prime your baby’s brain for good mental health
Studies show that a baby’s brain that’s protected from stress is likely to develop more cortisol (a stress hormone) receptors, so that he’ll be able to respond to stress more quickly and appropriately later in life.

Cuddles stop the crying
Research shows that babies who are attended to promptly during the first six months cry and whinge less in the next six months, and even later. Responding now could be cheap insurance against a demanding toddler!

Pinky McKay, International Board certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC), runs a private practice in Melbourne, specialising in gentle parenting techniques.Her books, parenting resources and free newsletter can be found at www.pinkymckay.com.au.

Really, you’re the expert about your baby, regardless of where the advice is coming from