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October 1999

Parenting from the Heart

by Julie A. Brow

When I became a parent, I learned that the shape of my childís life was public domain. People who were little more than acquaintances felt that the intimate details of her existence and the way that my husband and I interacted with her were areas needing their personal attention and scrutiny. We quickly caught on and revealed as little as we could get away with. The truth, however, was that we did want advice.

While we disagreed with much of the common wisdom ("just let her cry it out"), we were determined to find a philosophy that made sense to us. Little did we know that as we poured over books, searched web sites, and inquired of othersí styles, we were becoming conscious parents.

We adults donít always choose to become parents, but I believe that the souls that arrive helpless in our arms have chosen us. This is both an honor and a responsibility, especially in the sense that we must become responsive to our childrenís needs. This responsiveness must begin even before the child is born.

Preparation

Part of preparing for any long journey is to enlist the aid of others both for companionship and for survival. So find out who you can enlist for help. First, be clear about what you value. Is it more important to you to have your child in the comfort of your home in the company of family and friends or to have the reassurance of emergency support nearby? Decide what you need to feel comfortable and happy about the upcoming birth. Then enlist a doctor, midwife, doula, or friend to support your plans.

Attending a class on childbirth preparation is a good start. Many area hospitals offer such classes to expecting parents. Be sure that the class is comprehensive, covering the following topics: a womanís anatomy during pregnancy and labor, when to go to the hospital, normal neonate characteristics, cesarean section, intervention techniques (pitocin, epidural, suction, etc.), and newborn care. These preparation classes may or may not teach labor management techniques such as Lamaze or Bradley method. If you prefer what is commonly called natural childbirth, seek out a class that teaches one of these methods.

If you are planning to breastfeed (more on the numerous benefits of breastfeeding to you and your child later), donít make the mistake of thinking that it comes naturally. While breastfeeding is, of course, natural, it is not instinctual; it must be taught. Be sure to consult with a certified lactation consultant or attend a class on breastfeeding before the arrival of your bundle of joy. La Leche League, International. can point you in the right direction. Inquire about the availability of breastfeeding assistance should you have problems while in the hospital and be sure that the baby can room-in with you. Rooming-in ensures that you can feed the baby as soon as he or she is hungry.

Other ways you can prepare yourselves for the responsibility of a new life would be to learn infant CPR and child safety, including the proper way to install a car seat, and to join a parent advocacy organization like Partners in Parenting or North Shore Parents Network. Such organizations offer many of the classes mentioned above as well as seminars on child development and new parent support groups. These organizations offer opportunities to meet other parents, form play groups, and swap ideas. Relationships with other parents can be invaluable to the stay-at-home parent, who might otherwise feel isolated.

The Newborn

Having said that it would greatly benefit your awareness of parenthood to prepare for your newbornís arrival, nothing can truly prepare you for that mystical moment of birth. Birth is a perfect metaphor for all of life. It is difficult and messy, euphoric and magical, both simple and awe-inspiring. As in the rest of life, we largely forget the difficult and messy parts, remembering only the power the moment held over us. The amnesia is so profound ó or the rewards so worth the trouble ó that we are willing to do it over and over again.

If we are conscious of the beauty of the life we have co-created with the Divine, then it cannot be a hard task to be mindful of the sacredness of our children as we strive to parent them. Remembering that we are blessed with instincts, listening to them assures us that we are on the right path. This principle seems rather simple, but it is surprising how often we are advised to ignore our instincts, especially in the areas of sleep, crying, and feeding of tiny infants.

Crying

This is one of the most controversial areas of infant care. The advice of old was that babies cry because they are being manipulative and therefore, letting them cry without being picked up "teaches" them to sleep, to play by themselves, and to be quiet in their play yard/high chair/crib, fill in the blank. Some, including Dr. Spock, believed that sometimes babies just need to cry. Much current thinking, however, is quite the opposite.

In Your Baby and Child, Penelope Leach argues that newborns never cry for nothing. Your baby cries because she needs something and cannot stop crying until she has what she needs. For newborns, wants and needs are the same thing. In his book, Nighttime Parenting, Dr. William Sears explains that crying is the only method of communication available to the infant and the importance of answering every cry as promptly as possible is clear. Sears asserts that "a restrained response to crying undermines the infantís trust."

Drs. Pieper and Pieper, newly acclaimed authors of "Smart Love" principles, go even further. They reason that "when a babyís crying is regularly ignored, his subsequent unhappiness reminds him that help does not come when he is upset, and the baby learns to respond to discomfort by crying more intensely and more disconsolately." They warn that "if a babyís tears donít predictably evoke a caring response, eventually he will become withdrawn and convince himself that his misery is what his parents desire for him."

Sleeping

The most common question asked of new parents is, "Is she sleeping through the night yet?" Itís a question asked out of concern for bedraggled parents, but often, itís more misleading than helpful. It implies that (1) babies should sleep through the night, and (2) yours is the only baby who doesnít. In fact, babies almost never sleep through the night. Even babies who seem to sleep through often wake several times ó but they donít alert their parents of their wakefulness by crying.

In fact, wakefulness and crying are so often united in the minds of advice-mongers that sleeping and crying advice are often given in the same sentence. One common piece of doubtful advice is the self-serving suggestion to "drop-and-run." Its advocates will tell you that when you put your baby to bed, you should never pick him up again, no matter how much he cries. While even the most humane experts have varying ideas about how to improve your babyís sleep habits, none of them include the above advice.

Both Dr. Leach and the Piepers support the idea of putting your baby to bed when she is sleepy, but not yet asleep. If she cries, go back. Pick her up, comfort her, and put her back in her bed. Do this as often as is necessary for her to feel okay about being separated from you. Both recommend that you always answer cries in the middle of the night, regardless of whether or not you think the baby should be hungry.

According to the attachment style of parenting that Dr. Sears recommends, the issue shouldnít even come up; he argues that the ideal place for baby to sleep is with you, especially if you are breastfeeding. While some babies sleep best in their own beds, many others need the warmth and comfort of their parents to be able to drift off to sleep. Itís true that when mother and child share sleep, breastfeeding during the night is easier. For one thing, you donít have to get up. For another, the levels of the mothering hormone prolactin rise because its release is triggered by the frequency of suckling and touching your baby.

Some researchers think co-sleeping may reduce risk of SIDS. I have heard parents explain that they think their constant joggling of the bed can ameliorate sleep apnea. Others theorize that the motherís breathing and movements help to regulate the babyís breathing and sleep patterns. Co-sleeping often works best with high-need children; however, it doesnít work for everyone. As The Tao of Parenting, by Greta Nagel, Ph.D. advises, "The Way is real but elusive; intuition leads." If there is trust between you and your baby, follow what he is telling you works for him ó and be prepared for it to change six months down the road.

Breastfeeding

The American Academy of Pediatrics recently released its statement that mothers should breastfeed their babies for at least the first six months of life, and longer if possible. There is no question that human milk is uniquely suited to the optimal development of human babies, from specific nutrition for rapid brain growth to immune factors for human illness. Breastfed babies enjoy a reduced occurrence of ear infections, reduced risk of becoming diabetic, a lower likelihood of being sick or admitted to the hospital in the first year of life, and a lower statistical likelihood of contracting meningitis. Breastfed babies are statistically less likely to develop juvenile cancers or asthma, gastro-intestinal or urinary tract infections, and SIDS.

Some of these statistics may lie in the fact that in the United States, it is the more affluent and educated mother who tends to breastfeed her baby. Yet itís true that the protection given by immunity factors in motherís milk has not been replicated in formula. In the United States, formula has the added disadvantage of coming from suspect sources. Currently, no dairy-based formula promises to be BGH-free. And although Gerber has just promised to eschew genetically engineered baby foods, soy-based formulas are not, as of this printing, organic. Thus, the bottlefed baby is exposed to pesticide-laced and genetically engineered ingredients that the breastfeeding mother can avoid.

Breastfeeding also offers immediate benefits to the mother, including decreased hemorrhaging and easier postpartum weight loss (breastfeeding uses up to 800 additional calories a day), decreased risk of breast cancer and osteoporosis, and breastfeeding amenorrhea that can last up to two years depending on how frequently the baby is nursing. (Use birth control anyway; you never know when your first ovulation will occur.) In addition, because breastfeeding triggers the release of prolactin, the "mothering hormone," it can actually help you cope with the stresses of a new baby.

The Older Baby and Child:
Eating


At six months of age, your babyís digestive system has matured enough to be able to handle the introduction of solid foods. However, if you want to be able to detect and avoid the development of food sensitivities and allergies, Martha and David Kimmel, in their book Mommy Made (and Daddy too): Home Cooking for a Healthy Baby and Toddler, advise introducing foods one at a time in a systematic fashion and never giving her the same food for more than three days in a row. Of course, because children are more susceptible to the effects of pesticides and hormones added to foods, organic baby food is best, especially when you make it yourself. The same principles apply to older children as well: organic whenever possible and variety is the key to balanced nutrition. Remember, too, that childrenís nutritional needs are slightly different than an adultís. They generally need more fat in their diet, some of which can come from "whole" versions of milk products.

Mommy! Daddy! Where Are You?

As your infant becomes an older baby, youíll find that sleep issues change ó but they donít go away. The sleep of an older baby and child is more like that of an adult but itís still disproportionately REM sleep. So your two-year-old may go to sleep more peacefully, but you may find him tugging at your arm in the middle of the night. While newborns usually awaken due to physical and environmental disturbances, older babies and young children are more susceptible to emotional disturbances, such as nightmares.

Your final goal might be to get your child into bed for the night, but youíll find that you get there with less trouble if you break that goal down into steps that appeal to your toddler. Form an initial objective to help your child wind down. Happy children naturally are loath to let go of playtime and your companionship, so develop pleasant rituals to ease the transition to bed. Some classic winding down activities include: a bath, story time, a favorite, soothing CD. Keep some books and bedtime cuddlies nearby.

Then help your child let go of the day and surrender to sleep. Talk over the highlights of the day just ended or introduce some plans for the next morning. Sing your child a song or say a prayer. Repeat yourself, using a single endearment or goodnight wish that your child knows he will hear each night. If you create special moments your child can anticipate, and you leave her and your bedroom doors open, bedtime may be one of the familyís best times. And remember, bedtime for your little darling also means down time for you. The more pleasantly it begins, the more you will enjoy your evening free.

Crying and Tantrums

Like newborns, older babies still cry to express their needs. As they grow, however, they may also cry out of frustration or even anger. If the frustration and anger escalate, they may devolve into tantrums. According to Penelope Leach, the most important thing to remember when your child has a tantrum is not to allow the tantrum to affect your behavior toward the child, either positively or negatively. If you were going to take your child to the zoo before the tantrum, go ahead and take her to the zoo after the tantrum. It does no good to withhold the pleasure of the trip as a way of punishing your child because she canít help herself. Conversely, if you were not going to buy him a toy at the store before the tantrum, do not buy it afterwards.

Many parents trip over the suggestion that they can avoid tantrums by keeping their childís frustration level to a minimum. Some think they need to cave to their childís every whim; others think they need to construct a clear reality, but with rigid boundaries. Pieper and Pieper point out that neither tack is particularly effective. Children need to know that they are safe, and that their parents are in charge, but they also need to know that their needs and desires are heard. To achieve both ends, the authors advise that "your child will better accept your occasional need to interfere with her wishes if you honor her requests whenever possible."

In short, they suggest you treat your child like a person rather than a possession. Try not to give your child a false sense of freedom; avoid asking questions unless you really mean to offer a choice. Avoid long discussions about things she canít understand. And when you canít allow your toddler to have what she wants, help her find an alternative.

What Pieper and Pieper suggest you offer your chid is the same thing youíd want if you were powerless: a positive take on the situation and acknowledgement of her feelings. Put yourself in your childís place, and the most appropriate, loving responses will come.

Discipline

Still, the need for discipline will arise, as it arises again and again in our lives. But remember, discipline does not mean punishment. Instead it is more akin to learning, or discipleship. It is a way of teaching your child how to behave. While many parents use the timeout method of discipline ó they remove the child from a difficult situation and allow him to "cool off" before reintroducing him ó and it only works well if it is used properly and not excessively. Additional methods of discipline can help you tailor your response to the situation at hand and your own childís needs.

Leach lists the following principles as guidelines: Treat your child as you would like to be treated; be sure to reward good behavior (with attention) and do not reward bad behavior; be specific and clear, as well as positive; except in emergencies, always give a brief reason for why your child should behave in a certain way; and try to keep "donít" to a minimum.

The Tao of Parenting, has the following to offer: do not be authoritarian; be cautious, reserved, flexible, sincere, and honest; teach by example; use few words; and discipline yourself before trying to discipline others.

In practical terms, all this means that you create for your child an atmosphere of safety and a world that, as much as possible, makes sense. Then you help your child discover and explore that world. As parents, we are guides and teachers meant to protect our children from danger, mentor them in their exploration of the world, and provide a loving atmosphere in which they can develop their unique identities.

Resources

Parents Care and Share of Illinois offers several self-help support groups for parents throughout Chicago and suburbs free of charge. For suburbs, call Susie Kline at 630-837-6445, for city, call Roberta Gonzalez at 847-424-5168.

Rice Community Counseling Services offers Positive Parenting classes, 6:30 pm on Tuesdays. Call 847-424-5170 for more info.

Family Circle of Libertyville offers many services and programs, call 847-367-5991 for more information.

Parent and Child Education Society has branches throughout Chicago and suburbs, each holding educational programs and lectures. Call 630-916-3190, or visit their web site for a full listing.

 


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