PARENTS: DOING WHAT COMES NATURALLY

NEW YORK TIMES COLUMN: FAMILIES TODAY:
PARENTS: DOING WHAT COMES NATURALLY
By: T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., and Joshua Sparrow, M.D.

Q. I live overseas and looked into all the parenting books, French and English. Yours were the only ones that showed deep faith in the mother and the child. Can you tell me where you got this confidence? Your guidance helped us through those youngest years and played a large role in helping me raise two wonderful, outgoing and sweet kids.

A. Where did my faith in mothers – and in fathers and children – come from? During my 50 years in practice, I saw more than 25,000 families. They taught me most of what I know. From them I learned that parents are the experts on their children, and that we pediatricians and other professionals had better listen to them.

Except in the rarest of cases, parents want to do well by their children. We professionals may not always recognize the positive intent behind parents’ actions – and if not, we need to look again. Sometimes, for example, we may think parents are harsh with their children. Instead, we may be witnessing parents who live in a tough world and are doing their best to prepare their children to be tough enough to handle it.

For humans to survive, nature had to set things up so that parents would make all kinds of sacrifices – ones they never dreamed possible – to keep their fragile new babies alive. Attachment is a powerful biological process. Even a baby’s gaze or cry stimulates changes in certain hormone levels in both parents that help ensure their nurturing responses.

Parents also must innately know pretty much everything they need to, if they’re going to protect their young. If parents needed books, TV shows or the Internet to raise children, we’d never have made it this far.

Fortunately, new parents are naturally primed to take in everything they can about the vulnerable new beings for whom they are responsible, and babies are designed to draw parents in and give them all kinds of information about how they’re doing.

Parents learn how to become parents by trial and error. They are guided by their babies’ behavior, which actually shapes theirs – right from the start. Some people still think that babies are lumps of clay that parents just shape. But babies guide their parents through their own responses, showing them when they get something right or wrong.

I wouldn’t have much confidence in parents and children if biology hadn’t set them up to be so skilled at caring about and learning about each other.

Sometimes when humans try to improve upon nature, we make things worse. During the 1950s, medical science thought that women would do better giving birth while under general anesthesia. Then we learned that babies were anesthetized for days afterward, interfering with their job of teaching their parents what they needed and when – and sometimes even interfering with their breathing.

Next, medical science teamed up with industry to recommend that breast milk be replaced with formula. But breast milk’s special properties could not be reproduced – the antibodies it contains to fight infection, or the way it varies the kinds and quantities of fats within it as the baby grows. Breast milk adjusts to the baby’s changing nutritional needs.

More recently, infant “brain-stimulating” toys have been marketed to parents. Yet nothing is more stimulating for babies than their parents’ ever-changing voices and faces.

Then there are the rigid baby carriers that interfere with the development of babies’ muscles and balance that takes place when their parents carry them against their own bodies.

Perhaps most concerning right now are the smart phones – and the new behaviors and beliefs that go with them about the feasibility and even importance of multitasking. When parents are talking or texting or checking their e-mail, they may not take in the subtle, ongoing messages that their babies’ nonverbal behavior is sending – about what parents need to know to keep growing in their parenting role.

I still have as much confidence in parents and children as ever, but they must not be misled to think that anything can replace what they do naturally to grow together as a family.

Responses to questions are not intended to constitute or to take the place of medical or psychiatric evaluation, diagnosis or treatment. If you have a question about your child’s health or well-being, consult your child’s health-care provider.

Dr. Brazelton heads the Brazelton Touchpoints Project, which promotes and supports community initiatives that are collaborative, strength-based, prevention-focused sources of support for families raising children in our increasingly stressful world. Dr. Sparrow, a child psychiatrist, is Director of Strategy, Planning and Program Development at the Brazelton Touchpoints Center. Learn more about the Center at www.touchpoints.org.

Reprinted with permission from the authors.