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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.

Stories of loss move us to action

Stories of loss move us to action

This week, Nicola Sturgeon, First Minister of Scotland, made a ground-breaking statement.  No, it wasn’t about political independence.  It was about the political prominence of LOVE.

SNP Conference Care Review AnnouncementIn front of 3000 conference delegates, she said:

“My view is simple: every young person deserves to be LOVED.  So let’s come together and make this commitment: to LOVE our most vulnerable children and give them the childhood they deserve.  That’s what inclusion means in practice.” 

She then promised a “root and branch review” of the Care System.  Essentially, she wants to understand how LOVE got lost from the Care System, and how we recover it.  She wants to know how, despite the efforts of so many dedicated people, being raised in the Care System leads to statistics like these:

  • 50% of children in the care system go on to suffer mental health problems.
  • Half the adult prison population were in care as children.
  • Children in care are 20 times more likely to be dead by the age of 25 than those not in care.

At a personal level, the part of her speech that most struck me were two short sentences:

“Recently I have been spending time with young people who have grown up in care.  Their stories have moved me deeply.”

So it wasn’t the statistics that most moved the First Minister, chilling as they are.  It was real life stories of loss.

I have discovered in my work how powerful stories are.  They are perhaps the best vehicle we have for moving others to a place of action.

I want, therefore, to use this article to tell another story, one that has been lost from our national consciousness.  I want to tell the story of a 3-year-old who went into hospital for a tonsillectomy in 1965.  Her parents’ loss, now long forgotten, played a crucial role in changing hospital practice.  Every parent today who takes a child to hospital benefits unknowingly from that couple’s story of pain and courage.

Why re-tell that story now?  One answer is that, if Nicola Sturgeon’s vision can be realised, then children in the Care System of the future will benefit from the determination that’s being shown now by the young people of Who Cares Scotland.  At their invitation, Nicola has committed to hearing 1000 of their stories over the next two years.  STV’s recent haunting documentary enabled us to share in five of those stories, including that of Laura Beveridge, who gave a deeply moving TED Talk in Glasgow in 2016.

ARCHIE Foundation LogoA second reason for reflecting on the history of children’s hospitals is that, on 3rd November, I’m going to embark on a wee risk myself.  I’m taking to the stage, as they say, with an entertaining show called TEDDY BEARS RULE.  It’s designed to give the public a light-hearted take on the science of attachment.

The evening is being held in support of The ARCHIE Foundation’s campaign for a new children’s hospital in Tayside.  It’s an apt partnership.  The study of attachment began in earnest in children’s hospitals of the 1950s.  ARCHIE’s work in hospitals today emphasises the importance of relationships, of emotional safety, of LOVE, for children’s healing.  Even their logo conveys that message, with their lovable little mascot firmly gripping his cuddly toy.

But it wasn’t always the case that hospitals recognised the importance of relationships.  That’s the point of my story of a child’s deadly tonsillectomy.

We begin in the early 1950s.  The war is over and the National Health Service has been established.  Thank goodness on both counts.  All parents can now obtain medical treatment for their children, whether in moments of crisis, like broken legs and bad asthma attacks, or for scheduled operations, like hernias and eye corrections.

One aspect of the care, though, is that much separation between parents and children will need to be endured.

Children's hospitals 1950sStandard practice for the 1950s was that parents were allowed to visit their children once a week, usually for one hour.  It didn’t matter the age of the child: 2 years or 3 years or 10 years.  Restricted visiting was simply the norm.  Besides, trips on public transportation could be cumbersome, there were typically other children at home who needed to be cared for, and husbands needed someone to make their tea.  (I am not joking.)  In some hospitals, the restrictions were even more severe.  In St Thomas’ hospital, children went one month before being allowed a visit, although their parents were permitted to observe them sleeping.  In London Hospital, children under 3 years old went without seeing their parents at all.  Parents could, if they wished, view them through partitions.

If this historic account leaves you a bit stunned, good.  I want us to be stunned that, not all that long ago, our society took for granted rules that sound unimaginable to our ears today.

If you are looking for someone to blame, don’t.  The system was filled with dedicated, hard-working people who simply did what was regarded as normal.  Curiosity will get us a lot further than blame.

If you are an adult who was once a child in hospital in the 1950s (or 1960s or 1970s), and you can remember desperately wondering where your parents were: THANK YOU.  Thank you for your strength then and your strength now, reading this article.  I know there are very many such adults living in the UK today.  Frequently you spontaneously raise your hands in my training events and share your stories of loss.  Thank you.

James RobertsonBack to my story.  A growing number of professionals and parents were concerned about this practice of restricted visiting.  Amongst these were the psychologists John Bowlby, Anna Freud, and especially James Robertson.  The data they were collecting led to the establishment of what would come to be known as ‘attachment theory’.  But the 1950s were still early days in the study of attachment and emotional trauma.

Robertson found that when he tried to talk about his data, it proved too threatening for medical staff to listen to.  They could not believe that their normal hospital practices could lead to lasting emotional damage.  They felt offended, their professional integrity impugned.  What Robertson was calling ‘emotional deterioration’, they simply saw as ‘settling’.  Once a child stopped crying, they regarded the behavioural problem as having been solved.

In fact, that was part of the reason for restricting parents’ visits.  When parents arrived, they not only brought ‘germs’, but also started off the children’s crying bouts again.  How were a few nurses to handle a whole ward of crying children, once their parents had departed?  Better to keep the parents away.

So James Robertson tried new steps in his campaign.  In 1952, he made a narrated film called A Two Year Old Goes to Hospital, in which he showed viewers what ‘emotional deterioration’ in a toddler looks like.  Did it help?  No.  The medical profession’s reaction was so intensely negative that he had to stop screening the film for a while.

Robertson integrated his efforts with those of others who were concerned.  They wrote letters, published papers, penned editorials, gave lectures, created opportunities for distraught parents to tell their stories. By 1959, the debate had grown so heated that a formal review was commissioned by the Ministry of Health, chaired by Sir Harry Platt, President of the Royal College of Surgeons.  His report called unreservedly for more humane care for children in hospital.  Guess what changed?  Very little.

So Robertson turned to the press.  He wrote a series of articles for the newspapers, inviting parents to send him letters about their experiences.  He collected together hundreds of them, which he published in a book called Hospitals and Children: A Parent’s Eye View.  One particularly harrowing story was told by a mother who re-mortgaged her house in order to pay for private treatment so that she would not have to be separated from her son while he recuperated from an eye operation.  In 1961, Robertson convinced the BBC to broadcast a television series on the “cruelty” of hospital care, which featured parents’ letters and segments from the several films he had by now made.  What changed?  Not much.

Do you know what finally finally finally proved to be the tipping point, after nearly two decades of concerted effort?  A story of loss.  A little girl, 3 years old, went into hospital for an ordinary tonsillectomy, and ended up crying herself to death. Literally.

It was 1965.  In line with usual practice, her parents were allowed to spend an hour with her on the day of admission but were thereafter prevented from seeing her.  They were informed, though, that their child had come round from the operation, as she was crying continuously.  The mother begged repeatedly to see her but was denied permission.  Three days after admission, her little girl was dead, having bled to death, surrounded only by strangers called hospital staff.  In a heart-wrenching letter, the mother wrote that she “could not help thinking that the continual crying caused the bleeding” and that she believed “her presence would have stopped the crying.”

Student nurses in 1950sIt’s a shocking story.  I want us to be shocked.  And I want us to be curious.  How is it possible that well-meaning staff could have failed to realise the importance of LOVE for reassuring a scared child?  How could their lack of understanding be so complete that she ended up drowning in her own blood?

If you think the way I’ve told this story sounds too extreme, that’s okay.  You can read the story for yourself, retold in the 2009 paper written by Dutch researchers Frank van der Horst and Rene van der Veer (pg 135).  The case was much discussed at the time, in the press, in the medical journals and by the Ministry of Health.  Whilst some leading medical professionals supported the mother’s view that her presence would have calmed and saved her child, others subtly blamed the mother for the death, suggesting that she had failed to adequately prepare her 3-year-old for the experience of being in hospital.

Blame.  It is such an easy option for us human beings.

The only light to emerge from this terrible story of loss is that it helped the tide to finally turn.  The Ministry of Health took a harder line on hospital visiting practices.  By 1970, restrictions had come to be regarded as unnecessary and unsuitable for young children.  It had taken two decades of campaigning.  Things still weren’t perfect.  But the tide had turned.  LOVE was being permitted to flourish in hospital wards.

Why am I telling that story in such detail now?  Two reasons.Teddy Bears Rule Poster

First, when I stand up on stage on 3rd November in Dundee, in aid of The ARCHIE Foundation’s campaign for cutting-edge hospital facilities, I want the evening to be entertaining, full of fun and laughter.  I won’t be telling this heart-breaking story.  But I wanted to put it on record, so that, as we walk into that auditorium, we fully appreciate the significance of ARCHIE’s attention to relationships.  ARCHIE gets it, and they are working to help ensure that others get it.  The money we raise that evening will help them continue that work.

Connection.  Laughter.  LOVE.  It is way too easy for us to take these basics for granted.

Second, Nicola Sturgeon’s speech about the Care System has filled many people in Scotland with hope.  Tears were shed as she announced her root and branch review.  I believe Nicola’s intention, and I have no doubt that the determined young people of Who Cares Scotland will hold her to account.  They have claimed their own stories of loss.  They have used their stories to drive long-needed change.

However, even hefty reviews do not automatically lead to action.  My history of hospital care reminds us of that reality.

I do not want to wait two decades to achieve the vision Nicola Sturgeon set out this week.  If our children in care are to experience the LOVE she seeks for them, and the LOVE they deserve, then it needs more than policy change.  It needs culture change.

That part is up to us.  We don’t have to wait for a governmental review.  We can start today.  We start with kindness and curiosity.  We listen to stories of loss.

When we fail to be shocked

When we fail to be shocked

Omran DaqneeshIn August, I wrote a piece urging us not to buy into the language of ‘shock’ when it is used to describe images of children caught up in war.  I was trying to help us fight the dangerous pull of sentimentality, when our human emotions easily cloud our ability to look upon harsh realities.

What do we think war looks like, I asked?  Of course it looks like children dazed and covered in blood.  There is nothing shocking about that image of Omran Daqneesh.  He is a child caught up in terrible war.  Yes, the image is haunting, awful, gut-wrenching.  But it is not shocking.  It is depressingly predictable.

Haiti devastationMy theme was picked up by blogger Tim Dunwoody, writing about the devastation that has occurred in Haiti as a result of Hurricane Matthew.  He asked why the images were being described as ‘shocking’, given that Haiti is the poorest nation in the northern hemisphere.  He wondered whether those of us who don’t live in abject poverty subconsciously protect ourselves from acknowledging its reality by telling ourselves, in times of disaster, that we are shocked by what we see.  He challenges us to be real: “If we are honest with ourselves, surely we know that natural disasters always hit the poor the worst.  Do the images from Haiti really shock us?”

I found myself returning to this theme once again as I looked at another of the week’s news images.  This time, though, I wondered why we were not using the language of ‘shock’.

The answer is that we were, instead, using the language of ‘cute’.   Our laughter at all the cuteness kept us from seeing the possibility of a harsher reality: a child being objectified.

Trump holding up baby

On 10th October, US presidential candidate Donald Trump hosted one of his largest rallies yet.  Nearly 10,000 people gathered in Wilkes-Barre Pennsylvania to hear him speak with anger and vitriol about the current state of America and its leaders.  Approximately 45 minutes into the speech, he spotted a child dressed up to look just like him.  Lots of people had donned costumes for that rally, and the parents of this two-year-old toddler had joined in, dressing him up as a mini-Trump, complete with dark suit, red tie, voting badge and a full head of similarly combed-over hair.

When Donald spotted the child, sitting high on a set of shoulders in the crowd, he invited his security guards to bring him up onto stage.  The rapturous crowd loved it.

Crowd at Trump rally

“What’s your name?” Donald asked.

The child responded with one of the abilities common to all young children learning to talk.  He repeated the last word he heard: “Name!”  Some of the papers explicitly noted that repetitive pattern in their coverage of the story.

“Are you having a good time tonight?”

“Night!”

“Where’s your daddy, and your mommy?  Do you want to go back to them, or do you want to stay with Donald Trump?”

“Trump!”

The roar of approval was deafening.  You can hear that “beautiful moment” for yourself here:

It wasn’t just the crowds who loved it.  So did the media.  ABC News declared that ‘Mini-Trump Steals the Show.”  The Toronto Sun said ‘Mini-Trump upstaged Donald Trump’.  The Daily Mail charmingly called him the ‘Doppelganger Baby’.

So what’s wrong with any of that, you might ask?  It was funny.  The kid was cute.  Nobody got hurt.  The child didn’t even cry.  If you look closely, he was smiling.  His parents were there the whole time.  What is the problem?

My problem is that our collective response was to laugh indulgently as an angry demagogue used a child for his own political purposes.

It’s not surprising.  In fact, it’s a common strategy amongst demagogues.  When they smile at children, they seem more likable.  When they get us to laugh with them, we remember ourselves as having had a good time.

Stalin & Hitler propaganda posters

And if we’re having a good time, we’re more likely to overlook the ways in which a person is being used to manipulate us.  That person (in this case, a small person) has been objectified, used as a pawn in a bigger game.

We have become pawns too.  Donald played us all brilliantly: the crowd, the newspaper editors, those of us who looked at that photo and smiled.

Let me be very clear: I’m not particularly criticising him.  He was doing what all politicians do: kiss babies.  (The Atlantic published a lovely little piece in 2011 on why this “clichéd propaganda” works so effectively.) Donald was also doing what we might expect of a politically ambitious bully under severe threat:  he was seizing an opportunity to shift the public mood.  Three days previously, most folks around the world had been outraged by the way he had objectified women.  He vaporised some of that anger instantly by getting himself photographed being sweet to a cute kid.  It’s a brilliant strategy.

Politicians & babies

I am not in any way reproaching the child’s parents, either.  Loads of parents involve their children in political struggles, using their very youth as part of the political point being made.  The follow-up interviews (and even the pre-interviews) with Hunter Tirpak’s mother made clear that, as a strong Trump supporter, her aim was to bring positivity to a negative campaign.  She is absolutely free to dress her child up as Baby Trump if she wants.

Nuclear & abortion rallies

Rather, my critique is focused on us, the public.  Why were we so easily entranced?  Why did the language of ‘shock’ not appear in any of the papers?  Why was this story dripping in froth and fluff, rather than scrutiny?

headline-short

One answer is that Donald has offered us so many shocking moments during this campaign that we’ve become a bit inured to his antics.  And this moment did come just after the meltdown created by his comments about grabbing women by the pussy.  It is understandable that, in the face of such blatant objectification, we might miss the more subtle objectification involved in holding up a smiling child for public viewing.

So if you didn’t spot this interpretation, don’t feel bad.  Nobody else did either, as far as I can tell.  Donald is a very talented showman.  He’s better even than Derren Brown.

And if you disagree (perhaps vehemently) with my reading of Donald’s performance, that’s okay too.  Debate on the objectification of children would be terrific.  It would let us address my earlier question: “What’s wrong with any of this?”

Headline - long

What’s wrong is that objectification is the first step on the journey to exploitation, xenophobia and abuse.  When we are astute enough to spot objectification, we stand a better chance of preventing things from getting worse.

One other event occurred in the British media this week that highlights how ‘worse’ it can get.  Louis Theroux produced a courageous television documentary exploring how he had failed to spot the sinister depths of his predatory friend, Jimmy Saville.  What signs had he overlooked 15 years ago?

The programme made for unsettling viewing – but not because we were watching a man trying to make sense of his own guilt and gullibility.  It was unsettling because Theroux was compelling viewers to ask themselves what they too had missed, as they laughed along with Saville, during all the scenes of smiling children.  He was trying to help a nation not to get lost in a cloud of guilt and shame, but to have the strength and curiosity to ask:  what signs did we miss?

Jimmy SavilleWell, objectification is a pretty good sign.

The creepy, crazy thing about objectification is that it doesn’t have to feel bad.  It can easily feel like entertainment.

Come to think of it, maybe objectification is at its most powerful when it comes wrapped in sentimentality.  Who could possibly question laughing at innocent cuteness?

stalin-hitler-black-white

 

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.

How attachment helps us make sense of terrorism

How attachment helps us make sense of terrorism

Paris has again been targeted by terrorists. The loss and fear that travelled its streets in January has been renewed.

It was after those January attacks that I last wrote on the topic of terrorism, inspired by the refusal of the people of France to give in to fear. Yet, the human response to terrorism inevitably says that is not enough. We want to do more than simply stand up to it. We want to know what causes terrorism and how to stop it. My own view is that understanding the science of attachment is central to achieving a lasting solution.

The most common explanation of Islamic terrorism focuses on religious extremism and ideology. The colonial history to which the Middle East has long been subjected is often traced. Poverty, racism, tribal identity and jihadist promises of heaven frequently feature. This week on the radio, I also heard jihadist terrorists explained as “thugs and murderers”, “psychopathic nutters” and “simply born evil”.

I agree that most of these are contributory factors to terrorism. But I want to add another to the list, one that usually goes unnoticed and unacknowledged: childhood trauma. Terrorist acts are often the result of unresolved childhood pain. Fear early in life warps your mind, your heart, your sense of self. Early pain that remains unresolved re-emerges later in life, easily taking on a form that is dangerous to others, especially if the cultural context is one that legitimates violence.

How do we know that? Countless empirical research studies have now tracked this link. Toxic stress in childhood leaves a mark — whether the stressful fear stems from family violence or loss or community violence or war.

SuzanneZeedyk-Blog-Attachment1Yes, children are resilient. We need to celebrate and work from that place of resilience. But resilience does not mean that children move on from a period of trauma unscarred. The neuroscience is forcing us to recognise that early distress always leaves a child changed. Even their DNA is left scarred. What we need to do, for ourselves as well as for the children, is work to ensure that those scars are healed, rather than left as open emotional wounds. Festering wounds are dangerous –- for self and for others. So my motivation for writing this piece does not arise merely from a sense of altruism for traumatised children, important as that is. I am trying to help keep the rest of us safe too.

One of the best known contemporary trauma studies is the ACE Study, published in 1998. It has robustly linked a whole range of adult health problems (e.g., heart disease, liver disease, smoking, drinking, suicide) to traumatic childhood events including abuse, neglect, parental mental illness or incarceration, and even parental divorce. In a very real sense then, many terrorist acts can be seen as real-life examples of the ACE Study.

There are other commentators drawing attention to the link between childhood trauma and terrorism. Unsurprisingly, their voices often get drowned out in the frantic debate we’re all having. One of the most vociferous is the psychotherapist Robin Grille, who had this to say in 2003:

“What social forces give rise to the fanaticism that leads to terrorism? The key lies in the perpetrators’ childhoods…. We [may] give such hatred a religious rationale, but always what underlies it is childhood pain.”

More recently, this link has been discussed in a research brief written by the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism.  Their findings, based on interviews with former members of violent extremist groups, reveal a catalogue of childhood traumas:

Nearly half reported having been the victim of childhood physical abuse or neglect; one quarter reported being the victim of sexual abuse. Parental incarceration, mental illness and abandonment featured prominently in their life histories. In later years, attempted suicide, mental health problems, substance abuse and academic failure were present in a majority of those interviewed.

This very week, journalist Joan Smith picked up on the link in her column in The Independent:

 “For the most part, terrorist attacks in western Europe are not being committed by young men (and a handful of women) who have grown up under the Middle East’s brutal dictatorships. The perpetrators are often individuals like the Kouachi brothers, who were born in France and appear to have gone off the rails when their mother killed herself.”

SuzanneZeedyk-Blog-Attachment2I too talked about the Kouachi brothers in my January article. As children, they spent time in the French care system. But the care provided by that system was clearly unable to sufficiently heal their emotional wounds. The draw of inclusion within the jihadist family of terror proved more comforting for them.

These examples reveal that terrorism is indeed all too often a terrible real-life example of the ACE Study’s findings. Terrorists’ aims of shattering communities are, ironically, driven by an attachment need: the search to belong, the search to matter. Joan Smith says that explicitly at the end of her piece:

“Young men, sometimes with pre-existing psychopathic tendencies…are offered an identity and a sense of importance by extreme Islamist organisations….Once we get past anger, reason dictates that we set about breaking the hold religious extremism is exerting on young men with low self-esteem and a propensity towards violence.”

Although Smith’s argument is not framed through a scientific lens, she is offering us a viable solution for the fear our society faces. She is saying we should pay attention to children’s emotional pain. That is a solution based in attachment.

SuzanneZeedyk-Blog-Attachment3In times of austerity, however, it is precisely such solutions that become harder to achieve. Support services for families and children are amongst the first to be cut. Decision-makers treat them as if they are a luxury. An analysis by the Children’s Society in July 2015 revealed that between 2010 and 2015, funding for support services in England had been cut by 25%, with further reductions expected. In Scotland, a recent report, published jointly by the NSPCC and Barnardo’s Scotland, explored the impacts for vulnerable families of £4.5 billion being removed from the Scottish welfare budget over the same 5-year period.

These cuts are stupid, even in a time of austerity. We place ourselves in jeopardy when we make them. Recall Joan Smith’s observation that, for the most part, terrorist attacks in western Europe are being committed not by young people raised in Middle Eastern countries, but by Europe’s own citizens and residents. Like all early intervention, de-radicalisation is most effective when achieved during childhood, not during adolescence or adulthood.

When I try to highlight the link between childhood trauma and terrorism, I am sometimes accused of excusing violence. It makes some listeners uncomfortable to hear I have not gone immediately to a place of blame and outrage, but rather to a place of grief and acceptance. It is hard for them to comprehend how I can stand calmly, if mournfully, in acknowledgment of what the science is telling us: suffering breeds suffering. When childhood pain goes unresolved, it festers, grows, mutates, spreads. If we want to stop that spread, we must nurture healing.

SuzanneZeedyk-Blog-Attachment4It is only by understanding this link that sense can be made of other things I’ve recently said in public. For example, on the Saturday when the terrible news of the Paris attacks broke, I was scheduled to speak at the Annual Conference of an organization called Sing and Sign. I told the 100 women gathered there that by teaching parents to sing silly songs with their babies, they were fighting terrorism. If you don’t understand the link with attachment, then my statement sounds facile and insulting.

Yet my statement carries the same intention as the tribute penned this week by the father of a toddler, whose wife was killed in the attack. His powerful message to the terrorists carries these lines: “Melvil is waking from his afternoon nap. He’s just 17 months old. He’ll eat his snack like every day, and then we’re going to play, like we do every day. And every day of his life, this little boy will insult you with his happiness and freedom – because you don’t have his hatred either.”   It is play and joy and laughter and connection that keeps us emotionally healthy, SuzanneZeedyk-Blog-Attachment5sane and caring. We take these qualities for granted at our peril.

Therefore, let me be very clear. The acknowledgement of pain is not equivalent to condoning violence. I do not think that the deaths of 129 people in Paris is defensible. Nor do I think that the terrorist deaths of people in other countries last week, including Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon, Nigeria and Syria, is excusable. We now know that the 224 lives recently lost on a Russian jet are due to a bomb. The taking of these lives is abhorrent, heinous, reprehensible.

And I completely understand the emotional response of blame and anger to such murders. Blame is excellent as an emotional defense against loss and fear. Blame helps us to feel safe again. It prompts a sense of action — action that feels legitimate and justified.

SuzanneZeedyk-Blog-Attachment6The trouble is that blame is not so excellent as a strategy for preventing future loss. The intensity of its immediacy prevents it from offering anything more than a short-term solution. Blame is an emotional solution, not a practical one. In refusing to turn to blame as a way of making myself feel safer, I have chosen a more difficult emotional path: I have chosen to become curious about the experiences of people with whom I disagree, people who have hurt me, people whom I dislike, people who scare me. I have the emotional space to do that; unlike the father of Melvil, I haven’t (yet) lost anyone I love to terrorism. So figuring out how to prevent terrorism is a better use of my energy than figuring out whom to punish.

I don’t even have to be aiming – as an individual, an organization or a society — to prevent all terrorism in order for my efforts to be worthwhile. If the two Kouachi brothers had had enough support when their mother committed suicide, then perhaps the families of the 11 people murdered by them in January would not currently be suffering the loss they are enduring. Perhaps we would not now be coping with the seismic ripples those losses unleashed on our world.

SuzanneZeedyk-Blog-Attachment7I accept, though, that fighting terrorism cannot be achieved merely by focusing on the life histories of individual terrorists. Daesh is a movement, a culture, a large amorphous group of treacherous people set on causing death and disruption. I am not saying that I believe that negotiating with Daesh would solve the current crisis of violence we face. So how, then, does the lens of childhood trauma still help us in thinking about what is happening?

Robin Grille’s answer is that an attachment lens leads us to face up to the fundamentalist nature of Daesh and extreme Islam. More accurately, he argues we should beware the nature of all fundamentalist groups and religions – Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Hindu, or others.

“Fundamentalist religions engender oppressive, even abusive, family environments. Fundamentalist communities are typically the harshest, most authoritarian and most violent toward women and children. The children of violence and repression grow up to embrace violence, with grave consequences that can ripple across a nation and throughout the world. To look at the impact of religious fundamentalism on the world stage is to study the effects of mass child abuse on society at large. Fundamentalism in all faiths is a danger to humanity – first and foremost because it is a declaration of war against children.”

 If we need a test for the accuracy of Grille’s argument, we need look no further than the photos released this week to the media by Daesh. The images show children enrolled in a Jihadist school, some apparently as young as 6 years old, wearing balaclavas, marching with assault rifles, and training to become militant fighters. I have chosen not to include those photos in this article, as a small act of resistance against the self-publicity strategy of Daesh. If you wish to see the images yourself, you can do so in The Times’ report on the photos.

SuzanneZeedyk-Blog-Attachment8I know we are scared. I am scared. That is exactly what terrorists want. They want us to be afraid. When we are afraid, we are more likely to resort to blame, division, retribution — precisely because action makes us feel safe. All of us human beings are searching for a sense of safety. That is a basic attachment drive. We feel safer when it seems that we have a chance of slaying the sabre tooth tiger bearing down upon us.

To be strategic, though, we have to be smarter than this. We have to be smart enough to realise that creating a sense of safety does not mean that we are actually safe. Figuring out who to blame – and thus whom to make the target of more violence – will not solve the problem. It will merely shift it to another place, to another generation.

Instead, we need to be as smart as the father interviewed this week on French television, sitting calmly with his young son, near to the scene of the Bataclan massacre. “No,” he says to his little boy, “You don’t have to be afraid.” Looking at his worried child, he goes on: “Yes, bad men have been in Paris. And there are bad men everywhere. Yes, they carry guns.”   Looking around at the setting of mourning within which they are sitting, he adds, gently, “In France, we are fighting guns with flowers and candles.”