It’s been a long time since I had little babies
to take care of. But the work I do with new parents reminds me how
confusing, delightful, exhausting and wonderful those times were.
My years of experience as a La Leche League Leader and my years
as a homeschooling mother of four children give me a practical base of
experience to draw on when discussing parenting issues. As my children grew,
my understanding of good parenting grew as well. Now that my four children
are all adults, I have more flexible ideas about what good parenting is and
realize that there is no one-size-fits-all style.
But what about new parents? There is so much
information and advice available. Often, this information is
contradictory. One source will say that you should never take a baby to bed
with you because then this baby will sleep with you forever. Another source
says that co-sleeping helps to regulate a baby’s heart rate and stimulates
him so that he doesn’t fall into such deep sleeps. Some sources say that
co-sleeping causes SIDS and others say it prevents SIDS. How do you decide
who to believe? How can you make sure you’re doing the best for your
I’m going to
list four steps, which I’ve found helpful when I need to assess the value of
advice or information. Then I’ll go through each step using an example.
Although the example involves advice for a three-month-old baby, these
steps can be applied to parenting advice for all ages of children:
1. Check out the credentials of
the person or persons giving the advice or information.
2. Look for the underlying reason or issue that
this information or advice represents.
3. Place this suggestion into the context of
Evaluate this advice through the lens of your value system.
Here is an example to use to understand these
critical thinking steps: “Babies need to learn to self-soothe to sleep well
and should not be rocked or nursed to sleep.”
Step 1. Check out the
credentials of the person making recommendations. Who is this person? What
background does he or she have that leads to this recommendation? What
information backs up this suggestion?
Childcare, like childbirth, has
become the domain of medical experts and is seen through the lens of a
medical model. At one time, grandmothers, mothers and/or aunts were
consulted and assumed to have a wealth of practical knowledge about how to
care for babies and children. Our mobile society and the loss of family
contact often make a child’s doctor the one parents turn to for very basic
everyday childcare information. I don’t mean to discount the
importance of doctors, pediatricians and other professionals regarding a
child’s well-being, but it is important to remember that the medical model
focuses on pathology.
Step 2. Think
about the underlying issue regarding the baby or childcare advice. What is
it? Is it appropriate or physically possible for a three-month-old to learn
self-soothe? What is the harm in rocking and nursing a baby to sleep? Is
this about harm for the baby or about setting up limits to parental care?
What is the fear here? I see this piece of advice as an expression of our
culture’s fixation on independence.
receive many subtle messages that say that a “good” baby is one who doesn’t
disrupt our lives or make demands on our time beyond what we are willing to
give. The fear is that if we rock a baby to sleep, it will set up a pattern
of dependence. Perhaps we will need to rock and nurse our baby to sleep
everyday of her life! (By now you might be able to see my bias. For a
delightful look at rocking a baby to sleep forever, see Robert Munsch’s book
Love You Forever). Sometimes projecting the underlying issue into
the future like this can help you to see the absurdity or value of the
Parents receive many subtle messages that say
that a “good” baby is one who doesn’t disrupt our lives or make
demands on our time beyond what we are willing to give.
Step 3. Place this advice into the context of child
development. There are many sources of information about brain development
and ages and stages, both in print and online. Keep in mind that whenever
anyone presents information, they present it within the context of their own
value and belief system.
I found the book Why Love
Matters – How Affection Shapes A Baby’s Brain by Sue Gerhard a
fascinating look at the intricate dance between a baby and his or her
mother. Mutual gazing, cooing and other exchanges affect a baby’s brain
development and shape his or her neural pathways. Babies whose cues are
responded to in a timely manner learn to regulate their emotions. They learn
that while there may be cause for alarm at a particular moment, someone will
help them regain a calm, comfortable state.
done in the last half of the 20th century and the first part of this one, it
has been shown that babies need to be held, cuddled, rocked, physically
comforted and touched. Babies’ heartbeats are regulated by their mothers’
heart beats. Babies’ brains develop in a relationship with the primary
caregiver. Public Health departments often have easy to read informative
handouts about responsive baby care and attachment.
are carry type mammals. Our babies need to be fed frequently because the
protein content of human milk is lower than cache animals like deer who feed
their babies and then leave them for a few hours while they graze. Human
babies, like all carry species, need frequent feeding and therefore need to
be in close proximity to their mothers by being carried from place to place.
Carrying babies and children stimulates their vestibular system. Being held
stimulates their sense of touch. Being carried gives a baby stimulus for all
of his or her senses with sights and sounds that he or she may not otherwise
I used to
work with a child who has sensory processing disorder (SPD). According
to the Sensory Processing Disorder Network (www.sinetwork.org) sensory
processing refers to our ability to take in information through our senses
(touch, movement, smell, taste, vision and hearing), organize and interpret
that information and make a meaningful response. “For most people, this
process is automatic. When we hear someone talking to us or a bird chirping,
our brains interpret that as speech or an animal sound, and we respond to
that information appropriately. Children who have SPD don’t experience this
process in the same way. SPD affects the way their brains interpret the
information they take in and also how they act on that information with
emotional, attentional, motor and other responses.”
with SPD often respond well to treatments designed by occupational
therapists that stimulate their senses such as wearing weighted vests or
placing small sandbags on their legs, making information processing easier.
After working with the child with SPD, I realized anew how important it is
for any child’s development that sensory systems are stimulated in the early
years. Rocking, swinging, being held and carried all contribute to
stimulating that development.
Step 4. Look at this advice through the lens of your
philosophy of life, your own value system. I’ll close with a quote from
Jean Vanier’s book Becoming Human. His words sum up what I often find
missing in parenting advice – the importance of the quality of one’s
relationship with a baby/child. Jean Vanier, CC, GOQ, Ph.D. is the
founder of L’Arche, an international organization that creates
communities where people with developmental disabilities and those who
assist them share life together. Vanier has been awarded the Order of
Canada and in 2006 received the prestigious Beacon Fellowship Prize for
his lifelong commitment to the care, well-being and independence of
people with disabilities worldwide. He says, “Love has a transforming
power. It is first and foremost a revelation of a person’s essential,
fundamental beauty and value. If nobody reveals to children their innate
beauty and value, they will never know the importance and the meaning of
Marty Layne is the mother of four adult children and the author of Learning
At Home: A Mother’s Guide To Homeschooling, Newly Revised Edition. She
has also recorded a children’s music CD called Brighten the Day – songs to
celebrate the seasons. You can read more about her at