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How to grow your baby’s inner teddy bear – while out in the buggy

How to grow your baby’s inner teddy bear – while out in the buggy

In my last blog, I told the story of a baby who was having a tough day.  Some commentators wrote to say they felt unsettled by what I’d written.  They wished I had ended the piece with ideas about the kind of steps readers — especially parent readers – could take to guard against the possibility of a baby’s distress.

So that’s aim of this blog.  I’m going to suggest five simple steps parents can take to grow their baby’s inner teddy bear when they are out and about in the buggy.

But first…

First, though, let me start with a preamble.

I’m always reluctant to provide advice.  Parents are practically drowning in advice these days, and often it achieves the opposite of what it intends.  Advice can easily undermine parents’ confidence, because it feels like someone else knows better than you what to do.

I’m not there when parents have to make decisions.  I don’t know what challenges are going on in a parent’s family or a parent’s life.  Knowledge about children development in general is not the same thing as a knowing a particular child.

So I don’t like providing advice because it can seem like the advice is more important than a parent’s curiosity.  That is never the case.  Parents are the experts on their children.  My only real advice to parents is: “Be curious. Be kind.  Be gentle.  Remember connection.”

On the other hand, I realise that parents often find suggestions helpful.  Being in a relationship with a child is tiring and relentless and confusing – and, yes, sometimes joyous.  (Note that I have not used the word ‘parenting’ in that sentence, because I don’t like that word.  ‘Parenting’ sounds like a task to be performed.  Making a relationship with a child is not a task.  It is a process.  Being in a relationship with a child or a friend or a partner is a way of being.  It’s one aspect of walking through life.  Relationships are not tasks.)

Since suggestions can be helpful, I have crafted the ones I will shortly discuss.  I don’t see them as advice, but more as pointers. They are tips that I hope can make parents’ lives easier and babies’ lives more secure.

Let me reinforce that last observation by turning to one other hand  (if there can be such a thing as three other hands).  It is really important that we keep babies’ emotional security in mind.  Attention to babies’ emotions quickly slips when life become busy and pressured.  That’s partly because babies’ emotions are subtle and fleeting.  It’s easy to overlook them.  Their body movements can be hard to read.  This interpretive process is made much more difficult if you don’t even know that babies have a biological, absolute need for emotional connection.

The struggle I find regularly myself facing is how to balance suggestions against baby’s imperative need for connection.  The suggestions I offer never sound complicated.  Rather, they sound simplistic: “Connect.  Take the baby’s lead.  Connect.  Meet the baby’s need.  Connect.  Reassure.  Connect.”

Until you understand how tremendously important connection is for babies, my suggestions don’t sound vital.  Connect?  Smile?  Laugh?  Cuddle?  Pay attention?  Those suggestions don’t sound serious.  They sound sweet.

I’m not trying to be sweet.  I’m trying to help us understand that without connection, babies suffer.  That’s why I tell stories of distress and disconnection, like the one I told in my last blog, entitled ‘How not to judge families sitting next to you in the café’.  If we are brave enough to see babies’ distress, without turning away from it or denying it, then we begin to really understand what the science of connection is telling us.

But it takes courage to look upon a child’s discomfort.  The things I write and talk about are unsettling because they confront us with our own limitations.  We realise that, even as loving parents, we could cause discomfort in our children.  We could do this without ever intending it or even being aware of it.  This possibility easily tips us into guilt or anxiety.

Guilt and anxiety, though, are not helpful to parents or to their children.  Nor are they what I ever intend.  What I have come to accept is that they are always a risk when I talk about connection.

Thus, the challenge for all of us interested in raising happy children, and in embedding connection in our professional practice, is how to balance:

1) babies’ need for connection…against….

2) our wish to be good parents and professionals and people….against…

3) the knowledge that sometimes we fail to meet babies’ needs.

That is why is compassion and curiosity are so important in this learning process.  Compassion for ourselves, as much compassion as for others.  Curiosity about what is happening inside ourselves, as well as curiosity about what is happening for others.

Compassion and curiosity get us through the moments of anxiety and guilt and doubt.  We become comfortable with the idea we don’t have to be perfect.  No one has to be perfect, including parents sitting next to us in a café.  We forgive ourselves when we ‘mess up’.  We forgive our children when they ‘mess up’.  We are less critical of other parents who ‘mess up’.  We begin to replace blame and judgment with a search for opportunities to help.

We begin to really believe that making up is more important than messing up.  We strengthen our own inner teddy bears.

And then, finally, we begin to relax.  We believe that being a good enough parent is good enough.  We don’t have to be perfect. Even if others criticise us, we have confidence in our own ‘enoughness’.  We do not have to feel ashamed of moments of imperfection.  ‘Parenting’ stops being a task you can fail or succeed at.  Making a relationship with your child becomes a process you live every day.  Some days are better than others.   There is an awful lot of learning involved.

I have come to believe that discarding the anxiety about failure is key to balancing the three key components I listed above:  babies’ needs vs. parents’ hopes to be good enough vs. fears we aren’t good enough.  When we are confident that, even in our imperfection, we are still good enough, then we become better able to cope with scary ideas.  And the idea that babies have an overwhelming need for connection, and that we sometimes fail them, is indeed scary for many parents.  Perhaps ‘scary’ is not a strong enough word.  Maybe the idea that we could fail our children is better understood as shameful.

So here is the good news:  Babies do not need connection all the time.  Even in healthy human relationships, people spend only about 33% of the time in connection.  But we do need that 33%.  Babies absolutely need that 33%.  And they need extra-strong doses of connection when they’ve had a moment of fear – when they’ve found themselves fighting sabre tooth tigers.

The discoveries science is making about emotional trauma tell us that many babies don’t experience connection 33% of the time.  And many of them don’t get extra doses of connection when they are scared, because their parents didn’t realise they were scared in the first place.

That’s why I was worried for the baby in my last blog.  For the 25 minutes I sat in the café near he and his family, there was never one moment of connection, no moment that would have helped him to relax and feel that the café was a safe place.  He turned to electronic technology for comfort because, for whatever reason, his parents weren’t able to offer him the emotional comfort he needed during that half hour.  I say this believing that it was never their intention to ignore his needs.  I fully believe they love him.  I also know he will have suffered, when, at only 18 months old, he went 25 minutes without feeling connected.

This is the courageous balance we need to achieve as individuals and as a society:  to stand in the knowledge that parents who deeply love their children can damage them.  When we can accept that these two things go together, without laying blame on the parents, then we can move into the compassionate place that lets us think about how to help other parents.  Parents can move themselves into a curious place about what else they could do to support their baby’s need for connection.  They don’t have to protect themselves from fears of their own imperfection.  They have already become comfortable with its reality.

I know scientists don’t usually talk this way.  It sounds more like I am speaking from what I humorously sometimes call ‘Dalai Lama Land’.  Nonetheless, it’s still true.  The science of connection ultimately leads us to lessons in forgiveness and compassion.

And with that very long, very essential, preamble, here are my suggestions for five simple thing parents can do to help build their baby’s internal teddy bear when they are out and about in the buggy.

Five steps to guard against causing your baby anxiety

1. Change the language in your head:  Use the word ‘baby’, not ‘buggy’.

Experiment with never using the phrase ‘pushing the buggy’.  Instead, try always using the phrase ‘pushing the baby’. This simple linguistic shift reminds you that inside that piece of mechanical technology is a real live baby, with a brain and body that needs to feel safe.  The baby’s sense of safety comes only through their confidence that you are always nearby, that you haven’t forgotten them.  The problem with buggies is that they too easily interfere with a baby’s sense of connection to trusted adults.  There is a mismatch between babies’ brains and buggies’ design – especially when buggies face outward.

2. Don’t park the baby far away from you.

If you are going into a café, or a bus, or a shop, don’t park the baby across a large space.  Take the baby, in the buggy, with you.  (Better yet, lift them out and carry them.  This gives their muscles a chance to stretch.)  They will feel safer, because you are nearby. They won’t have to wonder when you will come back.  They won’t have to worry whether you might never come back.  Their physiology doesn’t have to start gearing up for sabre tooth tigers that might sneak into the café or bus or shop before you get back to them.  All unfamiliar environments are, for babies, settings in which a tiger might spring out and gobble them up.  The only way to prevent that fear is for them to feel confident that their trusted adult is looking out for them.

3. Be sure the baby can see you.

If you do have to park the baby far away from you, be sure you have oriented them so that they can keep their eyes on you.  Being able to see you will keep them feeling a bit safer.  You can keep turning around and talking to them, smiling and nodding at them.  That responsiveness will comfort their brain.  They will know you haven’t forgotten them.  They will believe you are keeping your eyes out for any sneaky, dangerous sabre tooth tigers.  If the baby starts to cry, go back and lift them out of the stroller.  Your cuddle will be the reassuring comfort they need.  If they are crying hard, don’t take the stroller by the handle and rock it.  Being soothed in a stroller is not the same as being soothed in your parent’s arms.  Babies recover more quickly from fear when they have the warmth of human touch to help them

4. Touch the baby before you leave and when you get back.

Another thing you can do if you have to put space between you and the baby is to make physical contact with them before you leave and as soon as you get back.  Talk to them at that moment as well.  Tell them where you are going and when you will be back.  Point to where you will be.  Do all this even if your baby can’t talk yet.  They will hear the tone of your voice as reassuring.  That moment of physical connection will boost the hormone oxytocin, which will give their physiological system a boost in coping with the anxiety of your distance.  The conversation will also slow down the speed of your departure.  Remember, babies didn’t know you were both going into this space.  They weren’t in on the planning, so they have little expectation about what might happen.  Your departure to the other side of the room will be one more surprise.  Try to ensure it isn’t an abrupt surprise.

5. Tell the baby you are about to lift them out of the buggy.

When you go to lift the baby out of the buggy, don’t life the baby abruptly.  Give them a chance to realise a change is about to happen in their body.  Hold out your hands and tell them you are about to pick them up.  This lets them be an active participant in this transition, rather than experiencing themselves they as a passive being in an unpredictable world.  If you are surprised by my suggestion that you speak to the baby in this way, please rest assured many parents find this suggestion surprising.  Most parents do not know that by the unbelievably young age of 2 months, some babies are already beginning to anticipate when their parents are going to pick them up.  If a parent doesn’t make that move too rapidly, and gives the baby time to read the parent’s signals, then babies adjust their own posture to ‘help’ parents in picking them up.  You can see babies making these astounding postural adjustments in the photos below, which come from a 2013 research study by Professor Vasu Reddy, where she reported on this ability.  If you like, you can even watch videos of parents and babies participating in the study, on this link here.

 

Finally

As a human species, we didn’t always need to ‘know’ consciously about connection.  In our evolutionary past, we just lived it.  That’s because we lived in a way that allowed it to happen naturally.

Nowadays, our modern way of life too often interferes with connection.  We need to use the knowledge that science is providing to guide our thinking about the way we relate to our babies.

I like knowing that understanding the science of connection helps us not only in relating to our babies, but also to ourselves.  Whatever the problem, curiosity is the answer.

 

 

How not to judge families sitting beside you in the cafe

How not to judge families sitting beside you in the cafe

I spend most of my time these days thinking about how we, as a society, get information to parents about infant brain development.  ‘Brain development’ isn’t the right terminology, though.  The English language doesn’t have a word for what I mean.  I mean something more like the intersection of brain and body, self-awareness and self-regulation, anxiety and comfort, and the way that relationships underlie the development of all these systems.  That’s the most crucial point for parents to understand: relationships matter.

Our Western society does not begin to comprehend the importance of relationships for children’s development.  Our modern way of life damages our children – and ourselves – in ways we don’t realise.  It happens without our intending or being aware of it.  It happens because we are increasingly cut off from one another and from ourselves, even from our own bodies.  We end up surviving, rather than thriving.

Let me tell a story to illustrate what I mean.

I was sitting in a café last week, watching a family who had come in to have a meal.  Mum pushed the baby in his buggy, about 18 months old, over to a table.  Dad, Mum, and Big Sister put down their bags and coats.  The three of them went over to the counter to choose drinks and food, leaving the baby parked beside the table. 

The baby immediately got agitated, wriggling and holding out his hands toward them, scrunching his face, and protesting very quietly.  They didn’t notice, though, because their backs were to him, while they read the menu at the counter.  Plus, they will have believed him to be safe, strapped into his stroller and parked near their things at the table.

As minutes passed, the baby’s arm movements and face got more frantic.  His cries did not get louder, though; they stayed consistent and pleading, in their rhythm and tone.  I found myself getting agitated.  His family couldn’t see or hear him.  He needed help to get their attention. 

So I tried a technique that sometimes helps solve things, when a baby is in need and parents are distracted.  I like it because the parents don’t feel offended or blamed.  I simply said to the baby, in an empathic voice loud enough for his parents to hear, “Oh, are you feeling lonely?  Are you missing your Mummy over there?  She’ll be back in a minute.” 

My brief interjection helped Mum to turn around and realise her baby was needing her.  She smiled at me as she came back to the table, and I smiled back at her.  As she neared their table, the baby’s arms quit waving so frantically, and he relaxed a tiny bit, although his arms remained up in the air, as if he was hoping to be picked up.

That made sense to me.  He’d been missing her, far across the room in this unfamiliar place, so stress hormones like cortisol would have been rising.  His brain and body would instinctively have been craving a cuddle, since the reassurance would have brought the cortisol levels down.  Oxytocin would have been boosted too, by her touch, and that would have relaxed him even more.

However, a cuddle is not what happened.  Instead, Mum reached for the handle of the stroller, and moved it back and forth, trying to comfort him by the swaying of the buggy.  I knew that wouldn’t work fully for him, because the swaying of your buggy isn’t the same as the warmth of your mum’s hug.  But I didn’t know how to help the baby this time.  No parent wants an interfering busybody of a stranger telling them how to care for their own child. 

But the baby was still distressed.  His low-level cries of protest continued; his face scrunched; his head hung down in a kind of defeat.  Mum continued to ‘rock’ the stroller with one hand, leaving her other hand free to adjust the coats.  She was now focused on making space at the table, and so she wasn’t looking at his face any longer.  He had neither her gaze nor her touch to draw on for comfort. 

Watching all this, I found myself thinking that her physical closeness would be helping him feel somewhat safer.  The cortisol in his system should at least be levelling off, rather than rising higher.  His overall state wouldn’t change rapidly, though.  Cortisol stays in your system for at least 20 minutes – which is why reassuring touch in this situation is so helpful.  Cuddles kick-start the decrease.

Very soon, Dad and Big Sister came over to the table, having made their choices.  I wondered if the baby might now get a cuddle, or even a hand-hold, since there were more hands available.  This seemed hopeful, because his distress hadn’t ceased.  He was still quietly moaning and looking at the ground.

Let me pause in the midst of my storytelling.  Before I go on, I want to consider what might be happening for you, Dear Reader.  If I am telling this story vividly enough and compassionately enough, then maybe you will be feeling something of the anxiety I was feeling for that baby.

If he can’t get the comforting attention he needs from his family, then he has a problem.  At only 18 months old, his brain is still too immature to fully comfort himself when he is distressed, so he has to look to an outside source for that comfort.  Right there, in that café, in that very ordinary moment, he is learning lessons about where comfort comes from.  It isn’t from his family.

Perhaps, in order to cope with your anxiety for the baby, you might be feeling frustrated with the parents.  Why aren’t they giving him the attention he needs?  That reaction of frustration or exasperation or even anger makes sense to me, because these emotions signal that a situation we are witnessing requires some sort of action.  The trouble is that these emotions easily lead to judgement, and judgement is everywhere these days when it comes to parenting.  Modern parents live with the constant anxiety of being judged harshly.

Consider, for instance, what recently happened to political correspondent Robert Kelly, when was he “interrupted” by his two young children while giving a live television interview to the BBC from his office at home.  His spontaneous response, along with that of his panicked wife (or perhaps nanny – the internet can’t decide), solicited all sorts of criticism from observers.  Commentators on social media began arguing with each other over what response would have been most appropriate, and even the couple’s use of a baby walker was criticised.  My own response was to wonder how I would have reacted as a parent, handling such an unexpected, personally exposing situation, being broadcast live on international television.

So, returning to my story, what happens if we counter any rising sense of judgement with curiosity?  What happens if we wonder what was going on in that moment that kept this little boy’s parents from noticing his distress?  Were public places uncomfortable for them? Had they had to walk a long way in the cold?

What happens if we expand our curiosity even further and wonder what might have happened for them within the last hour or earlier in the day or within their general family interactions?  Had they just had an argument or come from a difficult doctor’s appointment?  Was Mum suffering postnatal depression?  Were they on the edge of divorce?  Did they believe that electronic devices help young children to learn?

And what happens if I search for the words that help this story to prompt curiosity in readers, rather than judgement or anger or blame?  Here are a set of ordinary parents, busy and tired and distracted by the tasks of modern life.  They probably have no idea how scared babies can get, parked far away across the café in a stroller, or that cuddles have a biological impact on a child’s brain.

In that case, how would it be helpful to them if I were to get frustrated about something they did unintentionally?  My curiosity will be more helpful than my frustration could ever be.

And, as it turns out, curiosity is going to be incredibly important for all of us, if we are to reach the end of this story in a compassionate place.  Because it’s about to get worse.

The whole family is now at the table, with Dad sitting next to the baby.  Mum and Big Sister are across the table, stretching out, having taken off the last of their coats.  The baby, though, is still strapped into his stroller, unable to stretch out or shift his posture.  His low level protest cries haven’t stopped, either.  His head is still hanging down, moving slowly back and forth in a restless fashion.

Dad must have noticed though, because he moves to offer the baby a kind of comfort.  He reaches into a bag and brings out a phone.  He hits a couple of buttons, and hands it to the baby.  It must be playing a video.

Sure enough, the baby’s whimpering stops, his head comes up, and his hands cease moving as they grasp the phone.  His agitation fades almost immediately.  He is intensely focused on the display on that phone.

I imagine that the father thinks he has comforted his child.  Outwardly, he does appear calmer and happier. 

As I watch the child’s fierce concentration, though, I think of the dopamine being sparked in his brain.  Dopamine is the hormone of novelty.  We human beings crave it.  It’s the feel good factor.  Dopamine is what gets triggered when we fall in love.  Our brains and bodies yearn for it.  We get addicted to it.

I knew I was watching a father comfort his son’s distress by fostering a biological addiction to technology.

And I knew the father didn’t know that. 

And I knew that when the father would eventually try to take the phone away, the spike in the baby’s disappointment and distress was likely to cause a terrible, wailing conflict – which would further distress everyone in the family. 

And I had no way to explain any of this to them.

Dear Reader, how am I doing? In telling this story, I am trying my best to turn you into a watcher, rather than a reader.  I am trying to have you sit with me in the midst of that café, trying to decide what you would do, how you would feel, what you would think.  I am aiming for that because, of course, we sit down next to ordinary families every day, whenever we walk into cafés.

How do we help ordinary families to understand what science is discovering about children’s development?  How do we help tired parents feel more curious about their baby’s emotional needs?  How do we help them to connect the dots, so that they realise their responses hold long-term, biological consequences for their children?  If this little boy’s brain becomes addicted to the dopamine hit his father’s phone is supplying, the parents will soon have major ‘behavioural issues’ on their hands.  And their little boy will suffer.

The points I am making are not novel ones.  They are part of the reasoning underpinning recommendations by the American Academy of Paediatrics that children under 2 years of age should never view screens alone.  Other organisations have used language shifts to emphasise the biological impacts, arguing that early technology use should be regarded not as an ‘educational’ or ‘cultural’ issue, but as a ‘medical’ one. The author Mary Aiken dedicates several chapters in her new book, The Cyber Effect, to exploring what is happening across our society as children encounter a mismatch between their basic physiological needs and their parents’ technology habits.

I found myself thinking about all this guidance as I watched the final stage of this family’s interactions.  The story doesn’t end happily.

With the baby now (apparently) settled and engaged with the phone, Dad again reached into a bag.  I realised he was taking out his son’s lunch, probably because there was a gap of time available before his own order arrived.  He could feed his son before eating himself.

And that’s what Dad proceeded to do.  He fed his son, spoonful after spoonful of packaged food going into his mouth — while his little boy never took his hands off the phone or his eyes off the display.

The baby didn’t protest.  He didn’t shake his head or refuse.  He passively accepted each spoonful of food the father delivered to his mouth.  His father looked relieved it was going so smoothly.

I knew, though, that this experience meant the baby was not engaged at all with his own body.  He wasn’t developing a conscious awareness of hunger or how to take care of feelings of hunger.  He wasn’t consciously learning about feeling ‘full’ or about ‘relief’ or about ‘companions’.  What he was learning was that you solve uncomfortable feelings with technology. 

The more the baby’s brain experiences that solution, the more the child will be out of touch with his own body.  His internal teddy bear (to use the language I frequently use) will be weaker, less able to comfort him from internal, self-regulatory sources.  He will become more dependent on external sources of comfort, turning to solutions like videos or games or drugs or alcohol or food.  It sounds extreme, to knit these outcomes together, but it is exactly what the research on addiction is teaching us.

I knew I was watching a father nurture an addictive personality within his infant son.  I also knew he had no idea that’s what he was doing.

As I stood to leave the café, 15 minutes later, the rest of the family’s meal was being delivered by the waitress.  Dad could relax.  His son was fed and was engaged in an activity.  He could have his own lunch in peace.

I have no idea what havoc may have descended when it was time for Dad to take the phone away.

That family has clearly stayed with me.  A week on, I’m still thinking about them – and now I’m writing about them, telling their story to a wider world, in the most compassionate way I know.

My hope is that their story, unknown even to themselves, might help other parents feel more curious about what’s going on in their children’s brains and bodies.  And I hope it might help those of us trying to support families, to feel more curious about the unknown struggles going on in parents’ lives.

Curiosity is always more powerful than judgement.

Celebrating a year that kicks off with a Baby Box Row

Celebrating a year that kicks off with a Baby Box Row

The year 2017 has started with a row that might surprise many people.  On 1st January, the Scottish Government distributed the first of their new Baby Boxes, designed to support families and babies’ development.  Immediately a row erupted on Twitter.

Baby holding parent's handJames McEnaney asked about the evidence that the boxes would fulfil their stated aim of reducing infant mortality.  Lucy Hunter Blackburn queried the allocated budget of £6 million, wondering why the figures were not more clearly delineated in the Scottish Parliament’s budgetary documents.  Scottish Labour criticised the contents as a missed opportunity to promote breastfeeding.  Ian Smart sneered at the poem included in the Box, written by Scotland’s Poet Laureate Jackie Kay, branding her “a woman from Bishopbriggs writing doggerel.”  By 4th January, articles had appeared in the mainstream press, criticising the poem itself as “insensitive” because it risked putting pressure on mothers with postnatal depression, who might not experience welcoming feelings toward their babies.

Some of you may, at this point, find yourself wondering what a Baby Box is, having missed this debate because you were out enjoying holiday walks with loved ones in the winter sunshine, rather than hunched over social media streams.  The Baby Box is an idea that has been imported from Finland, where it has played a role since 1938 in promoting social equality.  The box, suitable as a first cot, comes complete with mattress, bedding, clothing, thermometer, nappies, book and other essentials for a baby’s first weeks of life.

In Finland, the scheme (which is accompanied by a parent’s agreement to engage in medical checks) has been credited with helping to reduce infant mortality and benefitting low income families.  Such assessments have led to related schemes popping up in rural Canada, the USABirmingham and Liverpool, amongst other places. Private companies, including the Baby Box Company and the Finnish Baby Box, have even sprung up, marketing the boxes to individual parents and sometimes working in partnership with London hospitals.  Here’s a video of a mum in 2015 delightedly unpacking her box.

Such enthusiasm!  What’s not to love?  What’s driving the doubtful debate unfurling in Scotland?  Several commentators have been quick to offer analyses.

Jason Michel, of the Random Public Journal, attributes it to old class-based prejudices, a “comfortable no-voting social elite” frustrated by seeing Scotland’s “plebs” receiving more free handouts.  Joan McAlpine, of the Scottish Daily Record, sees the scheme as a convenient new football in the political game of Labour vs the SNP.  James McEnaney, of The Common Space, can’t see strong evidence of effectiveness of the scheme, and Jane Bradley of The Scotsman thinks that a universal programme is a poor use of £6 million in the first place.  Julia Rampden, of the New Statesman, sees the debate as a reflection of the social division that still haunts Scottish society, from which Finnish society does not suffer.

Scotland's Baby BoxI am choosing to celebrate this row.  At its core is a debate about what babies need.  It is too seldom that our wider society pays any attention at all to babies’ needs, let alone kicks off a new year with people defending­­ them.  I’m cheering…

…because, ultimately, the Boxes aren’t about poems or parenting or even babies themselves.  The Boxes are about building relationships. 

That’s what will matter to the babies: what their relationships with their mums and dads feel like.  If that’s what matters to the babies, then that’s what needs to matter to us.

Relationships are not abstract things.  They are real, lived things, grown out of tiny moments:

  •             How gentle or rough it feels, being helped into a onesie by your mum.
  •             How cold or warm it feels, with your nappy being changed around you by your big brother.
  •             How predictable or surprising it feels, to have a thermometer placed against your body by your grandma.
  •             How familiar or odd it is to hear your dad’s voice, reading a story out loud.

What matters for a baby is the emotional sense of these tiny moments, these moments that the items in the Baby Box will facilitate: comfortable or uncomfortable, safe or alarming, shared or lonely.

Baby BrainWe now have a huge amount of evidence available about the fundamental importance of relationships in infant development.  Babies’ brains develop more rapidly in the first year of life than they ever will again, with approximately 750 connections between nerve cells being formed every second.  Those connections are driven largely by babies’ experiences of the world – and especially by their experiences of other people.  Relationships shape a baby’s very biology, especially the self-regulatory system that underpins everything from a child’s behaviour to learning to friendships.

Stories about these processes appear all the time in the press, even though they may use none of the language I’ve chosen here.  For example, during December, in the run up to the launch of the Baby Box, one widespread story concerned the latest report from the Dunedin Study, affirming that brain functioning at age 3 can predict behavioural patterns in adulthood.  That means that the way children had been loved left lasting biological consequences.

Economics also featured, with Nobel Laureate James Heckman releasing yet another study showing that family support from the age of 8 weeks increases a child’s eventual chances of gaining school qualifications and staying out of prison.  That means that the way families had been supported in loving their children had left lasting consequences.

Yet most of the public, parents and non-parents alike, do not realise just how important babies’ early experiences are.  They have no idea how fully babies’ brains are tracking patterns in the environment.  The ‘Tuning In Report’, released last summer by the US organisation Zero to Three, starkly illuminates this gap.  More than half the 2000 parents interviewed didn’t know that babies can sense parents’ moods by the age of 3 months or that language skills start at birth.  A quarter of new parents thought that shouting in the home didn’t matter until a child was two years old.

Look closely, slow things down — and we can see babies tuning in to their environment, in the most ordinary, unremarkable of tasks — like nappy changing:

It is overwhelming for most of us to comprehend just how important a parent’s love is.  In fact, some authors have argued that all this talk about brain development isn’t helpful to parents.  It only makes them more anxious.  Instead, they argue, we should simply concentrate on emphasising love and warmth and joy.  I want to agree.  And yet, I think we live in a society that undervalues precisely the things that help babies grow into healthy, happy children:  love and warmth and laughter and play.

The importance of the Baby Boxes being distributed by the Scottish Government derives not from the things they contain.  The importance is the way those things will facilitate relationships between babies and parents, reducing the stress on many parents’ ability to meet their babies’ earliest physical and emotional needs.  Mark McDonald, Minister for Childcare and Early Years, has pointed to that himself, when he said that “the box contains materials that will promote attachment.”  Most of the public, though, has no idea what the word ‘attachment’ means.  So let me translate:  It’s basically a scientific word for how emotionally safe love feels.

And for many babies in Scotland, love does not feel as safe as we would hope.  Over the course of 2017, approximately 10,000 babies will be born into poverty.  Poverty creates stress for babies, because it creates stress for their parents.  Stress causes human bodies and human brains to change – for the worse.  Our whole society pays the later costs of that change, drawn from the budgets for education, health and criminal justice.

Heckman CurveHow much do we pay?  James Heckman’s analyses suggest that for every £1 invested in early intervention, the returns start at £3 and rise.  So it is possible that by spending this £6 million now, the Scottish Government could be saving us £18 million (or some other figure) in future years.  Let’s get busy figuring out how to incorporate such calculations into our impact assessments.  We so seldom take into account this second part of the equation when it comes to evaluating public spending.

The decision in Oxfordshire to close 44 children’s centres is a terrible illustration of such blinkered thinking.  I wonder how long before the ‘savings’ the Country Council thinks they are making come back as other costs, driven by unnecessary suffering.

Early intervention?  How can I describe a Box of things as ‘early intervention’?  That sounds odd, given that we usually think of ‘intervention’ as a ‘programme’.  But that’s my point.  A baby doesn’t think of early intervention as a programme.  He or she experiences intervention as cuddles and kisses and attention and laughter and play and feeling safe.  If the Baby Box helps mums and dads to ‘deliver’ more of these, then the Boxes will have served our newest citizens well – and we will all benefit.

So when you reach your own conclusion about the value of the Baby Boxes, be sure you have taken into account this wider context, missing from the stories offered us this week in the press.  The Boxes aren’t just about £6 million spent on other people’s bairns.  Parenting is hard.  We all end up paying greater costs when we overlook the importance of supporting the people doing the work of connecting.

That’s why I want to do all I can to say to Scotland’s babies of 2017, in the words of our national Makar, Jackie Kay:  Welcome wee one.

Changing nappies is as much about babies’ brains as their bottoms

Changing nappies is as much about babies’ brains as their bottoms

We are conflicted about nappy changing these days. As a society, it makes us uncomfortable. It is distasteful, involving dirty, smelly bodily substances. It is anxiety provoking, requiring the exposure of babies’ genitals. It is inconvenient, necessitating a pause in the midst of whatever other activity a parent has underway. And it frequently emotional, with babies refusing to lie still or staring intently into their caretaker’s face.

For all these reasons, nappy changing is something we don’t usually talk about in polite circles. It may be a necessity of life with a baby, but it’s not exactly a subject for the dinner table, is it? It might therefore seem too inconsequential a topic for a whole article, especially when you consider that other pieces in this blog series have focused on ‘serious’ subjects, like terrorism and abuse and brain development.

SuzanneZeedyk-Blog-ChangingNappies1Yet, to my mind, that is exactly the reason for writing a piece on nappy changing. Babies’ brains grow more rapidly during the period of life during which they need their nappies changed than will ever be the case again. Approximately 1000 synaptic connections are formed every second during this period. Astounding. And it is the emotional experiences that babies have over and over again that build the most robust neural pathways. Nappy changing is undoubtedly an activity that babies encounter repeatedly. Indeed, over just the first six months, there are approximately 10 changes per day, each lasting, say, 5 minutes. That’s 9000 minutes or 540,000 seconds, and thus half a billion synapses.

So nappy changing isn’t quite as inconsequential as we might at first have thought. It has an impact on babies’ brain development. More specifically, the emotional experiences that caretakers give babies whilst changing their nappies are being built into babies’ brains.

I thought, therefore, that it would be interesting to reflect on the ways in which modern society encourages us to approach the task of nappy changing. This is an appropriate moment for such reflection, given that Real Nappy Week is taking place this very week in London. Most people won’t have any idea there is a group of committed individuals who want to celebrate the benefits of real cloth nappies. This article is my way of supporting their efforts.

So what are some of the big messages we get about nappy changing in today’s society?

SuzanneZeedyk-Blog-ChangingNappies2One message is that nappies are disgustingly funny. Take, for example, the videos that regularly travel the web that show fathers wretching whilst changing nappies. In August 2015, a tattooed, uniformed father gained international attention when the video of him vomiting as he soldiered on with nappy changing went viral, featuring eventually on television and in newspapers.

Why is it always Dads? I know that we regard ourselves as having ‘moved on’ as a society, because once upon a time fathers never changed nappies at all. But this humiliating form of humour says something darker about the way we frame modern masculinity. We are either laughing at dads’ incompetence – or turning them into heroes for coping with something ordinary. Indeed, if you want a gag gift for new fathers, you can buy a doodie apron, which comes complete with nose peg, face mask and gloves, all designed to help a father keep the disgusting productions of his baby’s body at bay.

I know it’s supposed to be funny. And I know I sound like I need to get a life if I’m not laughing at the innocent joke. But I find myself wondering about the baby’s experience. Is the baby scared when confronted with Dad clad in a face mask? Does the baby feel ashamed when Dad looks disgusted in reaction to the substances that her body produces? Does the baby feel embarrassed when parents start laughing whilst filming ‘poo faces’ to send to Pampers as part of an advertising campaign?

Here’s my point: we feel okay about all this laughter because we think it’s only about the adults. We don’t think it matters to the babies. We wouldn’t laugh at older people with dementia who are pooing, because we would think that was disrespectful. But when it comes to babies, we think they don’t notice. That why the joking seems innocent and can’t do harm to anybody.

Except it’s not true. Babies are born with a connected brain. That means they are already aware of and attuned to and reading other people’s emotions, facial expressions and behaviour. Babies learn about themselves by the way we treat them. This includes the way we treat them during activities as ‘inconsequential’ as nappy changing. If we react often enough to babies’ bodies with disgust, then they start to see themselves as disgusting. It is ominously fascinating to realise that we can build a sense of shame into our child’s brain by the way we treat them during nappy changing. As parent, we can do that without ever realizing or intending to. And modern society makes it more, not less, likely that we will do just that.

SuzanneZeedyk-Blog-ChangingNappies3What’s another message that we get in today’s world about nappy changing? How about this one: the less it happens, the better. Pampers and Huggies make disposable nappies designed to last 12 hours without the need for a change. The idea is that parents don’t have to be interrupted in the midst of other activities with their wee ones. Babies can remain strapped into car seats and strollers and carry cots. They don’t have to risk being woken at night.

Modern society creates more and more devices that reduce babies’ opportunities to feel their parents’ touch. Of all the senses, touch is the most important for babies. It is the first sense to develop in the womb and the most developed at birth. Skin is our largest organ, and the sensations that skin sends to the brain are so powerful that they act as pain relief. In our evolutionary history, babies spent much more time experiencing touch, strapped as they were to a parent’s body during the day and sleeping next to a parent’s body at night. Modern babies experience an extremely different type of infancy than did our forebears.

Yes, babies adapt to the modern world. Skeptics will reply that babies are clearly surviving in today’s world of nappies, transport devices and sleeping arrangements. I agree, they are. But I also know that without sufficient touch and physical attention, babies die. That was one of the points to come out of studies of Romanian orphans. Infant humans depend on the physical presence of another human being in order to survive.

Could the decreasing amount of touch that modern babies receive be one of the reasons that our society is witnessing an increase in behavioural problems associated with emotional regulation? The most fundamental pathways that the brain is forming during the early years are the ones that enable to us to cope with – that is, regulate – our emotions.

So maybe it would be better if disposable nappies weren’t quite so efficient? Maybe it would be better for babies’ emotional health if nappy companies could find ways to inform parents about the crucial importance of touch and cuddling and feeling Mum’s warm fingers on your skin — even while they search for ways to keep urine from reaching a baby’s skin.

SuzanneZeedyk-Blog-ChangingNappies4That’s one of the aims of Real Nappy Week. The celebrations aren’t designed only to highlight the value of non-disposable nappies, but to get us as a culture to rethink the whole business of nappy changing.

So what’s one final modern-day message to which we might pay attention? How about the way in which our fear of sexual abuse now overlaps with nappy changing?

Many nurseries now have a policy that requires two members of staff to be present when nappies are changed, in order to guard against the risk of inappropriate touch. We are scared that the people who have been vetted to take care of our children might harm them, and nakedness makes nappy changing seem a particularly vulnerable setting.

Videos that instruct new parents on how to change nappies are frequently shot from an angle that avoids revealing babies’ genitals, or are edited so that the genitals are blurred out. How ironic that the very parts of the body that generate the need for a nappy change cannot be shown on film. In our struggle to come to terms with the very real risks that children face of being sexually abused, we have further sexualised our youngest children.

In the run-up to Real Nappy Week, my team released our brief film ‘dance of the nappy’. The film is excerpted from our longer feature-length film, ‘the connected baby’, first released in 2011 with funding from the British Psychological Society. We estimate that the longer film has now been viewed by 100,000 people, but this is the first time we have released an entire segment for public viewing on YouTube.

Dance of the nappy

The film shows the intricate emotional dance that goes on between a 5-week-old baby and his mother during an ordinary nappy change. The baby’s emotional responses to his mother’s movements and facial expressions are so nuanced that it would be easy to miss them. That’s why we wanted to make the film: because such moments of connection are happening for babies across the world, but it is easy for parents to overlook them because they are so subtle and fleeting. Video footage makes it possible to slow everything down and reveal what is not apparent to the naked eye.

After filming that session, I realised the baby’s genitals were in full view. The mother realised it too. She commented on it at the time, whilst we were filming. Later, during editing, she confirmed that she was comfortable with retaining the footage. But I had to ask myself: was I comfortable with it? Was it appropriate in today’s society to show a 5-week-old baby’s genitals on a movie screen? What would I say if someone challenged my decision? What if, later, when the baby is grown, he resents having had his bum shown off to the world? What if I was accused of encouraging inappropriate touch because his genitals appear briefly but undeniably?

SuzanneZeedyk-Blog-ChangingNappies5My decision was not to change anything. I decided that real-life nappy changing means exposing and cleaning baby’s genitals. I decided that merely alluding to that, by editing out that footage, actually feeds our modern day fear that genitals are inherently sexual, even those of a 5-week-old baby. I decided that I was making a film that was trying to show how connection is possible at all points in a baby’s day, including during an activity as ‘disgusting’ as changing a pooey nappy. Because that’s exactly what the film shows – not just a Number One, but a Number Two. And the interaction between the mum and her baby is still loving and affirming. The baby gets no sense that his bodily excrement is shameful to her. After weeks of fretting, I decided I could defend such a scene to the world.

This week, I was reminded about my early worries. Since our public release on YouTube last week, I have received queries from three people, expressing unease that the film shows ‘everything’. I was relieved to realise that I now welcomed such debate, rather than feared it. Those weeks I had spent agonizing had been valuable, for they enabled me to articulate the position I take in this debate.

SuzanneZeedyk-Blog-ChangingNappies6And here is my position: Something is emotionally askew in our modern society. On the one hand, the global company Pampers can make an award-winning film that is intentionally designed to make us laugh at babies’ unease and discomfort when they poo. On the other hand, we can be made uncomfortable by a film that shows the real poo and the parts of a baby’s body that produced it. Something is awry in our reasoning.

I like the idea that a scene of something as tediously ordinary as a pooey nappy can become a radical act. A baby boy’s bum can make us reflect in new ways on our own humanity.

So, to the grown man of the future who was once that baby boy, let me offer my thanks and my apologies now. It was your bum that offered us this gift of reflection. Your mother says in the film: “One day you might really hate that I did this in front of the camera.” I hope you don’t. Because every time I show this film, I offer you a silent, grateful thanks for the trust you placed in us that day.

When corporations encourage giggling at children’s distress

When corporations encourage giggling at children’s distress

This summer, Pampers embarked on one of their newest initiatives: the Poo Face Campaign. Pampers are encouraging parents to snap photos of the adorable faces their babies make in the midst of bowel movements.

It kicked off in July with the release of an entertaining film, made by advertising giant Saatchi & Saatchi, to accompany the launch of Pampers’ new product: sensitive baby wipes. Three months on, the advert has been viewed millions of times.

The film has received endless commendations. It won three awards at the Cannes Film Festival, and superlatives have popped up all over the web: ‘glorious’, ‘epic’, ‘hysterical’, ‘hilarious’, ‘brilliant’. Following its release, parents were encouraged to get involved by snapping their own wee one’s poo face and tweeting it to #Pamperspooface, so that everyone else could enjoy the giggle too. The best face is set to win a year’s supply of wipes.

Three months down the line, I find myself wondering where innocence in giggling stops. I especially wonder how all the baby brains out there will be experiencing being the object of another person’s laughter? It’s the kind of niggling question you find yourself asking once you really ‘get’ the science of connection. What’s it like to have your mum or dad snapping a photo when you are in the midst of physical experience that you don’t understand, can’t control, is often uncomfortable and sometimes even painful? What’s it like to have someone laughing at you, when you aren’t laughing yourself?

I realise that by this point in this article, some readers will already be feeling their hackles rising. In the turmoil and exhaustion of dealing with children, it’s easy and understandable that we sometimes giggle at kids’ behaviour. Rest assured I’ve done it myself plenty of times. Maybe some readers may even have taken part in the Poo Face Campaign, tweeting in a photo. Those readers might now be on guard, wondering if I am about to criticize them – or perhaps dubious, wondering if I seriously think this a topic worth writing about.

Therein lies the challenge that seems to be inevitable in talking about the science that reveals humans’ innate inter-connection, trying to render it relevant to the real world rather than leaving it safely ensconced in the ivory towers of academia. How do I increase the chances of inspiring curiosity, rather than defensiveness?

SuzanneZeedyk-Blog-ChildrensDistress1I’m asking that question because it’s not as if the tone of Pampers’ campaign is novel. Amazon carries the Daddy Nappy Survival Tool Belt, which is marketed as “helping Daddy go from novice to pit-stop changer in no time”. The tool belt comes complete with face mask, disposable gloves, plugs for Daddy’s ears, and a peg for Daddy’s nose, ensuring that a father never has to risk getting anywhere near touching the baby or her poo. The baby’s brain will be treated to the scary sight of dad’s hidden face and will hear the tone of mock disgust in his voice. But perhaps I’ve overplayed my point? It’s only a gag gift for new dads, after all.

So how about the campaign of celebrity US talk show host Jimmy Kimmel? He’s been busy over the past few years establishing what he calls “a beloved new holiday tradition”. Every October, he encourages American parents to play a trick on their children the day after Halloween, telling the kids that they (Mum or Dad or both) have eaten all the Halloween candy that the kids worked so hard to collect the night before whilst trick-or-treating. Parents are encouraged to film the child’s response to this ‘confession’ and then send the film in to the show, so that everyone can laugh at the children’s over-the-top reactions. You can watch those entertaining scenes of distress here, alongside 35 million other viewers.

If you find yourself craving more of this holiday tradition, you can tune in to Jimmy Kimmel’s Christmas edition. Every December, he and his team now encourage parents to wrap up a terrible Christmas present and objectify the child’s disappointment by catching that distress on film.

You will discern from my tone that I don’t find these jokes as funny as many other viewers. To see them as humorous, you have to discount the child’s distress.   You have to ignore the fact that their ‘over-the-top’ angry behaviour or crying meltdown stems from a sense of betrayal.

But there I go again: party-pooper me, pouring cold water (and bad puns) on a harmless bit of fun.

Most people don’t yet ‘get’ what the neuroscience is saying. It is perfectly understandable, then, that they would not realise that the response to their child’s emotional distress or their baby’s pooing effort is literally shaping the child’s neural pathways. They would not appreciate how emotionally attuned babies are to other people. They may not comprehend how long-lasting the physiological consequences of distress, mistrust and mis-attunement can be, if it goes frequently unrepaired. Giggling would seem a harmless, passing moment.

SuzanneZeedyk-Blog-ChildrensDistress2And maybe Pampers’ campaign is harmless. Babies poo on a very regular basis – an unremitting, too-regular basis for many parents. There is a mountain-load of 3000 nappies to be changed over a child’s first year alone. What difference will giggling at one poo make, in the midst of 3000 nappy changes?

Probably none. It isn’t a single nappy change that I’m worrying over. Rather, I’m reflecting on the mindset bred by Pampers and Jimmy Kimmel and Amazon’s Macho Tool Belt. I’m thinking about the ways in which they encourage us to relate to our children – and to other human beings too. Pampers might use sweet catch-phrases like ‘Love, Sleep & Play’, but all too often their initiatives are failing to inspire real curiosity about children’s experiences. Rather, they are exercising their global power in ways that normalise the decline in empathy already underway in our society.

That may seem unsurprising for a global brand. I still think it’s worth talking about – because I’m not the only one worrying along these lines. The owner of the London-based company Nappy Ever After, Joy Vick, recently wrote her own blog about Pampers’ Poo Face Campaign. She was brave enough to use even stronger, more uncomfortable language than I have. She tried to get readers to view pooing from an adult perspective.

“Imagine you’re an adult who’s had a stroke.  You can’t talk and you can’t walk.  You’re still continent though.  And you can still communicate. But it takes longer for people to work out what you’re trying to tell them.  You finally make your carer understand that you want to be taken to the toilet.  “Don’t worry,” s/he says, “you’re wearing a nappy.  It’s not time to change it yet.”  So you have to hold and hold and hold.  You don’t want to do it in your nappy and feel your skin burning until the carer’s scheduled time to change you. So how do babies feel?  We’ll never know, but my view is that it’s inappropriate to laugh at a baby trying to empty her/his bowels.”

Joy Vick is brave because she knows that, in expressing such a view, she too is at risk of being branded a tiresome party-pooper — or maybe even an irritating trouble-maker.

Except, she’s not alone.  Even the Metro newpaper’s coverage of Pampers’ campaign used the headline “Its all kinds of wrong”.   When the author at SFTU Parents set out to unpack the fascination with this campaign, she ended by quoting that very headline. A mum wrote privately to me this week, expressing a similar worry:

“Its like the trend for that blog by Greg Pembroke, Reasons My Child is Crying. People find it humorous to point out that their child is crying for something that seems irrational to them, but failing to see that this is a vulnerable moment for their child. It makes me sad, but I usually get told to lighten up when I suggest this.”

SuzanneZeedyk-Blog-ChildrensDistress3I understand the disbelief and defensiveness that can arise when people hear someone making the case we’re all making. No matter how many hours I have taken agonizing over my words, the idea itself can seem silly or judgmental. If you had no idea that babies’ brain development is shaped by the treatment they receive from other people, you wouldn’t know how much your interactions matter. Ironically, once you begin to get a glimpse of that importance, you don’t feel excited, but guilty. Parents are endlessly bossed about by ‘experts’ and told what to do and how to parent. That’s irritating for them, and makes the exhaustion of parenting even more fraught. When you’re exhausted, you are grateful for a good laugh.

It’s just that… there is a difference between laughing AT someone and laughing WITH them. Joy Vick asks in her blog about empathy, compassion, respect: “Don’t those qualities still matter?” Yes, they do. When a baby’s emotional needs are not met with respect and curiosity, then their brain interprets those needs as shameful. Once enough shame gets woven into your neural pathways and your sense of self, it is hard to banish that feeling.

Most of us adults intuitively identify with the difficulty of shrugging off shame. That’s why psychotherapist Robin Grille has been able to build an international career talking about shame. That’s why the organisation Creative Child recently took the risk of saying that shaming doesn’t occur only in abusive homes, but is actually regarded as an “acceptable form of ‘discipline’ in your “average nice family.”  That’s why Brene Brown’s TED talk on shame has been viewed over 7 million times worldwide.

That’s why I decided to write this article. My core concern is not parents who choose to snap a single poo picture for a Twitter competition for wet wipes. It is corporations who created the competition in the first place. Global brands like Procter & Gamble (who own Pampers) and ABC Television (who produce the Jimmy Kimmel show) and Amazon (who market Macho Toolkits) are weaving shame into our children’s brains. They probably don’t know that, and maybe they didn’t intend to. But once you get what science is telling us about the development of emotional regulation, you realise that that is what is happening. We are letting corporations have this impact on our children whenever we buy their products or their message without being able to make a conscious, informed choice.

Pampers positions themselves as a parent’s friend. But they aren’t a good friend if they are encouraging parents to giggle AT their children. If enough shame and mistrust becomes woven into a baby’s brain, then their ‘behaviour’ will be harder to ‘manage’ later in childhood.  Unmanageable behaviour is what results when a child’s brain learns that only some emotions are allowed, and that other emotions must be suppressed.  So It is not too strong to say that Pampers is making the longer-term job of parenting harder for some families, rather than easier.

Do Procter & Gamble and ABC Television care about what I’ve just said? I don’t know. They’ve never called me to ask about the science of connection. I doubt Jimmy Kimmel’s team even knows I exist, so they wouldn’t have thought to invite me as a talk show guest. I doubt Pampers has ever seen the film produced by my little organization, entitled the connected baby, that shows the magic that can happen during a pooey nappy change when a parent – or childcare worker — attunes with a baby’s emotions.

SuzanneZeedyk-Blog-ChildrensDistress4What I don’t doubt is that Procter & Gamble and ABC Television are making lots of money from their campaigns. Who wants to listen to a kill-joy scientist like me, when so many people are having such fun with the campaign?

Perhaps, then, it is sufficient merely to second Joy Vick’s tongue-in-cheek comment: “Don’t worry, Procter & Gamble. So few people read this blog it’s not going to affect your sales.”

Of course, Procter & Gamble, I’m only a phone call away should you ever decide that me and my science could be of help to the millions of families who give your company an average of £650 per year per child in exchange for those 3000 disposable nappies and wipes.

One of the grandfathers to whom I spoke this week said that there was no chance they would ever do that. He was of the view that this advertising campaign is sinisterly clever, because it is able to con parents into laughing at their own exploitation.

Lets hope he’s wrong.  Pampers, please call.