For all the new parents out there… I write this with love in the hopes it helps with an important distinction: Caretaking vs Parenting.
The other day at the park I overheard parents discussing their newborn baby woe’s, to which one responded “oh, he’s just trying to manipulate you”. My blood boiled, but I kept quiet. Although I’m still relatively new on the parenting journey, one thing I’ve come to respect is the vast difference between caretaking versus parenting.
With newborn infants, we act as caretakers. We are there solely to respond to their needs, react to basic survival instincts, and dive in to the crazy world of little sleep, figuring out their cries, and endless amounts of poop. We are there to take care of our baby’s every need so they are well fed, well rested, and – most importantly – imprinted with feelings of safety, love, and open communication to set a stable foundation for the years to come.
As our daughter is now a toddler, I’m seeing how clearly the role of caretaker is changing. Now, we are truly becoming parents. We must dive in to the world of actual parenting – teaching her right from wrong, deciding how we react to emotional outbursts, building her vocabulary and creative skills, and responding to all the other myriad of rapidly expanding experiences she is processing. Seeing this I’ve come to realize where some parenting styles make a mistake: They see newborns in need of “parenting” – thinking their infant is manipulating, trying to get their way, or trying to ‘work’ the parents, and so its the parents job to “teach them lessons” like self-soothing, crying it out, or molding their behavior to fit the parents lifestyle based on the desire to keep life “as is” pre-baby. The basic assumption seems to be that a newborn has the cognition and emotional sense of self that is in need of parenting and thus knows how to reason, and that we can “teach” the baby how to process information a certain way and behave differently – the way WE want them to. But I firmly believe this couldn’t be farther from the truth.
Babies, at least for the first few years, only know they need nourishment (breastmilk / food / water), sleep, comfort and love. To get all technical, they have underdeveloped neocortexes (the part of our brain that helps analyze and rationalize our emotions), but already active hindbrains (the “fight or flight” part of our brain that is responsible for basic survival instincts). Their limbic system (also responsible for feelings and emotions) takes about 3 to 4 years to fully develop. And so, with their basic hindbrains they let us know when something is hurting or uncomfortable, or when they feel scared or tired. That’s pretty much where it stops. A parent puts a newborn in a crib alone in the dark in a separate room and they cry? Guess what – basic instinct tells them “I have no protection, no one is here, I’m not safe” and their stress hormones skyrocket, their fight or flight response is activated – but they can’t flee, so they cry. They have no cognition that you may be only 20 feet away. Or say they cry out to be fed (even if its the fifth time in an hour) but instead a mother or caretaker is too tired or annoyed and sticks a pacifier in their mouth, conveying to them they will not get the nourishment their body is needing and craving.
I recently read an excellent article* about the absolute false notion of “self soothing”. It explained in great detail about the brain chemistry and psychology of infants, and that although sleep training works – the baby eventually does learn to stop crying – that does not mean they are “soothed” such that their hormones and brain chemistry are in a relaxed and calm state. They simply do not physically have the necessary brain development (neocortex and limbic development). Its quiet the opposite — yes, you absolutely can get a baby to stop crying with “training”, which is why so many parents will yell “but it works!” and stick to it for their own sleep deprived sanity. But all you have taught them is a basic reactionary autonomic response that their needs will not be met, so they stop expending the energy to call out for help. Their stress levels remain high for often hours after, which can translate in to other stress based symptoms in behavior, physical illness, low immunity, and so forth in the years to come. And I’m not implying these types of kids will grow up to be little terrors or serial killers, but if we’re here to raise children with incredible compassion, love, independence, and emotional stability deep within their core, then it needs to start in infancy.
I won’t deny its incredibly challenging with a newborn as we learn to adapt to full time care of a little human being, especially if you’re a single parent or have no help or have multiples. But its our job as loving care takers to do everything we can to give them what they need so they are not left with imprints – both biologically and energetically – of being alone or feeling their needs will never get met (and who hasn’t met adults with these issues at their core?).
With our daughter now at the toddler stage, I see the shift happening: the brain development, the awareness of self and others, and the ability to start asking for what she wants, when she wants it. She is far from a functioning child with emotional reasoning, but the parenting now begins. The basic survival instincts are still there and she is still very much in need of love, support, and a quick response to her needs, but gradually its becoming more of a delicate balance between love and care combined with structure and boundaries. Parenting is now going hand-in-hand with care taking.
As parents we have their entire childhood and teenage years to figure out what parenting style works for our beliefs and family values. But one thing I know for sure: we will always be caretakers of our children until adulthood, and parenting will be a crazy, emotional, ever-evolving, but highly rewarding tight rope that we walk. It will make the job easier, however, if we take full responsibility for our role as care takers in the early days and imprint our children with the basics of responsive love and nurturing.
*ps. The article I referred to can be seen here: Self Settling: What Really Happens When You Teach a Baby To Self Soothe by Sarah Ockwell Smith