Tuesday, May 19

Aware Baby - caveats & critics

Let me begin by making clear something you'd know anyway if you're a regular around these parts. There is only ONE parenting approach that I advocate, only one.

Intuition first.

After that, everything else is just useful to some of the people some of the time.

Ok, as you know I'm behind the Aware philosophy of allowing a baby to cry in your loving arms. There are of course, as with everything under the sun, its critics. Also, I have my own adjustments. I don't want to defend the philosophy, but I do want to clarify some criticisms and put in my 2 pence/cents worth.

The intuitive and thoughtful Cave Mother recently shared with me a site criticising the philosophy. Thanks!
I'm going to ignore what are to me sensationalist and silly phrases in the article, such as 'cult-like' and 'guru', and stick to what seem valid concerns. The author's attitude, terminology, and emotive claims are, for me, enough to disregard her argument. However, valid criticisms or concerns are always worth exploring. This will be in two parts as it became rather lengthy.

The author's main points:

"crying is virtually unheard of in indigenous cultures where babies' needs are instantly met"

I think that comparisons with tribal cultures, for any philosophy, is problematic and can only be useful as a base for ideas. Holding up indigenous cultures as some sort of perfect ideal fails on two counts. Firstly, by failing to appreciate the various child-rearing behaviours across the globe, which include practices that many of us would deem neglectful. Secondly, by failing to appreciate that extreme differences in cultures cannot allow a flawless transfer of methods from one culture to another. I also enjoy Liedloff's Continuum Concept and have been influenced by it, but by no means take it all as a true and unbiased observation. Nor as perfectly transferable.

As far as meeting needs, here is where my own caveat comes in. Despite the great success we've had with the Aware approach, I do not feel comfortable with it for babies under three months of age. Mostly because a baby of that age has a very extreme need to have her needs met immediately. And those needs are almost constant. Another parent with another child might feel more confident though.

Once a baby becomes more connected to the external environment - more alert, more responsive, more interactive - I believe that stresses are being created throughout the day. All babies are easily stimulated, and some more than others. Once they start to look around them more, it seems reasonable to believe that over-stimulation is more likely.
Of course, there is also the mother's stress during pregnancy as well as birth trauma, which I can't discount as valid stresses.

Over-stimulation is also more likely in our modern worlds.

Where do these stresses go? It makes perfect sense that they require release.

To jiggle, rock, or sing to an over-stimulated baby seems counter-intuitive to me.

"Aware Parenting gurus promise that if you follow their path it will provide you with a child who is 'calm and co-operative'. Whatever happened to accepting our children for who they are? Or taking responsibility for our failures rather than trying to 'fix' the child."

Isn't that what a parent is doing, fixing, when they try to quieten a crying baby who may need to cry? 'Provide you with' is a rather manipulative phrase. It's about giving the baby the chance for inner calm. Solter talks about helping older children learn to work cooperatively with others, along with allowing them to express their emotions.

One of my insights into our journey through this has been accepting my baby for who she is. A baby that feels stresses and needs to release them through a good thrashing it out and cry. That's my baby, I accept her rather than try to invalidate what she is feeling.

An awful word this author used there is 'failure'. In other words, if you are unable to anticipate, interpret, and then meet every one of your baby's needs, you have failed. She is lumping every parent of an unconsolable baby together. From those who don't respond, to those who try everything and anything to sooth their little one. My heart goes out to parents of colicky babies. Or when there is 'no apparent reason' for the baby's cry.

"my take is that these 'calm and cooperative' children will feel they weren't listened to; that their cries didn't get their needs met; that they were abandoned by the very person in this whole world who should have helped them"

My take is that a baby who has had every possible need met, and is then allowed to express themselves through crying, in the loving arms of their parent, will learn that their feelings, their voice, is valid.

Does this mean that we are going to get it 100% right 100% of the time? Hardly. But if we are loving parents who do everything and then feel the baby needs to cry and allow them to do so in a safe and loving environment, it seems unlikely that they will internalise feelings of abandonment.

"It is complete rubbish that all babies need to cry or that they need to cry for emotional release."

Hmmm. So babies do not have stress? Babies do not take in their mother's raised cortisol levels in the womb? Birth trauma is a fallacy? Babies are not born with raised cortisol levels? Babies cannot be over-stimulated? Babies don't have emotions?

"If a baby is feeling agitated or taking on the stress from those around them, this can be relieved by carrying them against your body and breastfeeding on cue..."

Solter herself says that neglect and unmet needs are a source of stress, and spends a good portion of her Aware Baby book discussing how to meet your babies needs. Remember, we are not talking about letting a baby cry alone or not responding. The parent is to always respond. A baby that gets no response has raised cortisol levels, whereas a baby that has been allowed to cry in loving arms has reduced cortisol levels.

The author of the article appears confused about the physiological occurence called stress. Stress is not agitation, it's not annoyance, it's not discomfort, it's not hunger. It is an increased production of ACTH (adrenocorticotropic hormone), which causes a rise in cortisol levels. A rise that, if sustained and not released will cause damage (brain damage, suppressed immune system).

You all remember the old school learning right? The fight or flight response. Cortisol is there to help us achieve one of those. If we do neither, we either release it in another way or we internalise it.

part 2 will follow...


  1. SwedishJenn19 May, 2009

    Oh my. Did you direct the author of this article to your response? I certainly hope you did. Though I can't point to any one philosophy I strive to adhere to while raising Joseph, I appreciate those that have one or take something from many. And I certainly learned a lot from reading your response. Good job Mon. Informative read.

  2. I did, but her comments are on approval, it hasn't shown up yet. :)

  3. Really good post. I hope the author acknowledges your rebuttals. They make for a good discussion.

    I wanted to respond to something you said at the beginning of your post - "There is only ONE parenting approach that I advocate, only one. Intuition first. After that, everything else is just useful to some of the people some of the time."

    I was going to tell you that "Intuition was not useful to me at all for my first child (and likely hasn't been for my second and third children either). My intuition was either paralyzed, destroyed, or so well hidden by my childhood that I had no access to it."

    There was a lot more that I wrote, but in the process of writing it, I realized that I *did* have access to it. It was my intuition that wouldn't let me listen to my babies cry even though my childhood training was telling me to. It was my intuition telling me not to hit my kids or exert control over minutia when my training was telling me to.

    I was going to tell you that I had to turn to parenting books (Raising our Children, Raising Ourselves, Playful Parenting, etc) to take the place of my paralyzed intuition, but in thinking it through while responding to you, I realized that it was my intuition that led me to those books and helped me recognize the need for them in my life to counteract what I was taught about parenting and children by my parents.

    What a great gift for today. Thank you, Mon!

  4. Ah, that's a whole other fabulous topic. My intuition too was chaotic for the first three months. Mommy Mystic and I have dabbled in that topic between our blogs.

    I use parenting books, other people's experiences, etc, too! Just making a point because many people become rather enamoured with specific philosophies and although I have found insights in aware parenting, it's only a philosophy. Just another parenting tool.

  5. Thanks for being so articulate, Mon! And YES, what Sarah said! I have had the same experience... I have read a lot of books and spoken with a lot of people in my exploration to "hear" my own parenting self (what can I say, I'm an extrovert!). During my explorations, I ran into many people who tried to tell me they had "THE" answer, and there was always something energetically about the way they talked that set me back (much the way you mentioned "the author's attitude, terminology, and emotive claims..."), but I could often see beyond their own interpretation of the ideas to the ideas themselves, and then use my own intuition to see how the ideas struck me. But that took a while... during my pregnancy and my first-born's early infancy, I simply didn't want to take in much information. I intuitively felt very protective of my nascent mothering instincts.

    My instincts have pushed me forward, and I am grateful for that, and for the ideas I've encountered along the way that have helped me grow... but to be honest, the sloughing off of my own training has been much more intense, complicated, and LONGER :) than I could ever have anticipated.

  6. Wonderfully written and so very valid. Granted my infant-years are long over - my youngest is 4 1/2 but I couldn't agree more...first with the INTUITION FIRST and then with encouraging parents to not be so dogmatic with any one parenting style/philosophy. I find that trying to do any one thing exactly *right* is a recipe for disaster, trust me, I've tried it *grin* - all children are unique and so are their parents.

    I agree also with Sarah when she claims a block on her intuition...I'd say there are few of us that weren't blocked along the way by what the *experts* told us - either those in books or those sitting across from us in the living room or peering into prams.

    Savannah (now 6 yo) was an extremely high-needs baby - looking back I can attribute much to birth stress and, having the benefit of our last six years together, much to her temperament and degree of sensitivity. It is no exaggeration to say that she cried pretty much 24/7 for the first five or so months of her life. (Yes, I was a mess). The only thing that soothed her (and often, she was inconsolable) was singing - ironic since I can't carry a tune in a bucket and now I look back and wonder if all of our efforts to comfort her weren't just making the situation worse. Be that as it may, it was in my loving - albeit dazed, bewildered and shell-shocked - arms that she did most of her crying - much to the tsk-tsking of many well-meaning folk. And she has grown into a bright, articulate and secure child. She is still prone to bouts of crying - usually when exhausted and overstimulated and overwhelmed, but as each year passes, she is more able to process these emotions and cope with them.

    Although I admit to not having actually read Naomi Aldort - I know she's one who encourages the 'supported but not soothed' cry - with the argument that young children sometimes just need to cry. It makes sense to me - Sebastian (4 1/2) had one of those times just last night - he was tired and we'd just come in from playing outside and he just started to sob. I sat and held him and wiped his tears,but that was all. He didn't want or need to be *shushed* or *fixed*, he just needed to let out the trials of his very long day. So why not for older babies?

    Again, it comes back to comfort level and personal intuition. I really *feel* your comfort in this, Mon...and I imagine that your Wildflower will feel it from you also.

    Thanks for another great and thought-provoking post. Sorry for the lengthy 'comment'. *grin*

    ~much love~

  7. Excellent!! I won't parrot all the other comments here, but feel the same as most - love the 'intuition first' mantra, although exploring 'philosophies' to stimulate ideas as you have done with the Aware Baby is so helpful. Re: the stress stuff, I remember reading somewhere that tears actually contain magnesium and some other chemicals that are built up as a by-product of stress hormone production...not sure where, although it was in an article on stress in adult women, not kids...
    You know, when I read articles like this one that you are critiquing, I always have the very uncharitable thought of , 'yea, but was she ever home alone with a toddler and two newborn infants??' I don't want to give a 'woe is me' tale, but I tortured myself at times when the twins were babies because I couldn't physically follow many of the attachment parenting approaches (baby-carrying, co-sleeping, on-demand feeding etc.) that I had been able to do with my first. So not only do some of these philosophies not translate across cultures, they also sometimes don't translate to particular family configurations. We all just do our best. (And a friend who was in the Peace Corps in Africa for four years laughed when I told him about the 'babies in indigenous cultures don't cry' theory, said based on his experience it was complete rubbbish...of course, he can't speak for ALL cultures, but it was comforting to me at the time nevertheless...)

  8. Interesting stuff; the comments too.

    I think the main fear that such criticisms are coming from is that many mothers will likely use philosophies like this to promote their own neglectful parenting. And that I can totally see. Many people hear what they want to hear and take from philosophies what they wish. Many mothers do not read things with an open heart - they are looking to validate what they are already doing. (Not to say validation is always a bad thing.)

    I do think some babies may release stress by being comforted. I know I let go of stress by being comforted still. ;) But as you said, it's about intuition. Sadly, many mothers these days have been taught one way or another to ignore their intuition and have no ide what is intuition and what is ego.

    Overall, I think both sides of the fence have valid points but that it is about finding out what *your* baby needs, not what someone else experienced and says they need. I've had a lot of that lately, even with a nine year old. The idea that because their child is one way mine is too and I'm the one who is clueless as to my own child's needs.


  9. I totally agree with your assertion about intuition. I think all our children are different, and what a mother thinks is right generally is right. I also agree about the idealisation of tribal customs. The Continuum Concept is so often quoted as if it was the bible of parenting - I kind of switch off when I read about it, because it's become such a cliche.

    My fundamental problem about the aware parenting idea is the premise that crying releases stress. As I understand it, a baby's crying causes stress. Cortisol is released when crying occurs so that the level in the body rises, not falls. At the worst extreme, babies who are left to cry too much develop a lessened response to cortisol as a defense, because their bodies are so accustomed to high levels being present. This low cortisol response can cause psychological problems in adulthood. Not that I am suggesting aware parenting has anything to do with this kind of extreme amount of crying! I don't know what the author has to say on this, but I presume she justifies her claims about 'releasing' stress.

    I think in reality that if a child benefits from a bit of a cry, then as a mother you will see that and adapt your parenting style accordingly. It might not fit every child, but if it works for your child then it is the right thing to, whether a book says so or not.

  10. Such a great post! I really like the AWARE ideas you've been educating me about. Still, it's very hard just to let DH cry even in arms because of the concern about raising cortisol...I feel pretty certain that our first two screeching years were all about that dynamic. But, now, I think it's time to consider validating (crying in arms) instead of stopping those tears. Thanks so much!!

  11. I really enjoyed reading this post. I had read the other side, and I wondered what other people thought in response to these beliefs. I had never considered crying to be such a release until I read about it on your blog. But it made sense to me because that's how I have always released my stresses, too. So I saught to do some reading about the subject, and I found plenty to read.
    One friend recently pointed me to a book called "Raising Our Children, Raising Ourselves." This book helped her come to terms with the fact that crying is not "bad" but a natural human reaction.
    I'm very glad to know all of this, and I will certainly point her toward your blog for more insight. Thank you.

  12. I'm right there with you. When my dd was a baby, we lived in a quiet house in rainforest high in the hills. No noise, no stresses, no other people. And still she got over-stimulated, because that's her. And she cried to release the stress of it. I wish I had appreciated this more at the time because I think it was a golden opportunity for me to understand her coping mechanisms and help her refine them as she got older. As it was, I stressed out when she cried, which increased her stress, and it was years until we worked out good ways for her to release the build-up of thoughts, emotions, and chemicals caused by over-stimulation. So go Mon!

  13. Wow, I could write an essay in response to your post and all the comments! I will try to restrain myself. Some past experiences of mine have come to mind. First, when I was pregnant and reading parenting books, one mother told me not to bother because I would develop my own parenting style. I figured that was true, but I also felt I had to learn what my options were, as I had been raised in a bubble of parenting styles that I knew in my heart were not the answer, and I knew I had to unlearn it. I do believe that my intuition brought me to the books that I have read.

    One book, however, was different from the rest--The Happiest Baby on the Block was recommended to me by a friend. I didn't like that it was a "how to" book, but it saved my sanity being able to calm my baby every time he cried. Now I am thinking that I taught him to bottle up his emotions. I had been wondering lately if I would have allowed him to cry as a newborn had I felt the way about crying as I do now. But a friend of mine recently told me her story. She always soothed her first born, but later she had twins and didn't have the energy to constantly soothe them, so when their needs were taken care of, she just held them and allowed them to cry. She said that they ended up being "easier" babies than her first and even as they got older, the first had more difficulty staying calm than the twins.

    I've been thinking about the whole "tribal babies don't cry" thing. I think it's very credible that they would cry much less than Western babies because they are held more, and their needs are attended to quickly. They probably experience a lot less stress being outdoors a lot. But of course they cry. Every book or article I've read about indigenous parenting mentions babies crying--just that they are responded to quickly and cry for shorter periods. Even in the Continuum Concept she mentions babies crying.

    I've been thinking a lot about crying as therapy--for me. I thought to the past--three heart-breaking break ups that I went through. The first, I internalized it, and it was followed by several months of being unable to cry and also being severely depressed. The second, I literally cried for 24 hours straight, and I was able to deal with it after that. The third, I cried and raged quite a bit, and got over it fairly quickly. With the first, I didn't start healing until I was finally able to start crying again. If it's therapeutic for an adult, why not for a baby?

    Of course, it is sometimes difficult to discern whether a baby is crying because of a need or because of a need to cry. With Michael I have been experimenting a lot. If I'm not sure whether he needs to cry, or if he needs something else, I will try the "something else" first. If he continues to be fussy, then we go for the cry. I've also been trying a couple days without crying sessions alternating with days with crying sessions (where I hold him in bed and he just starts wailing), and the days he has a had a good cry, he generally falls asleep easier and sleeps better. When he doesn't have a good cry, he is restless and clingy at night and wakes up a couple times crying. I think that this was previously suppressed with the pacifier. But he can also have really good days where everything is right in his world and he doesn't need a cry.

    Perhaps it is hard to allow them to cry because in the crying we can witness all their pain and anger, but when we stop the crying, we don't have to see it. It's not the crying that is causing the pain, but rather a result of it. When I think of myself and crying, the only times I've felt pain relating to crying is when I have cried loud enough for others to hear, but no one came to comfort me.

    Anyway, I'll stop there, so this doesn't get too long!

  14. Okay, so when I posted it I realized it WAS really long! Just so many thoughts on this!

  15. Firstly, as an aside, the author ended the blog in July 08, so your reply may never get posted :(

    I love reading your posts on anything, and all the wonderful replies they get, as you really open my eyes on a lot of issues.

    I haven't read a lot of these books people talk about here. I went down a fairly "conventional" parenting route in the beginning, yet using my intuition and mummy instincts as much as I could (muddled though they were from both a difficult-ish birth and my own issues from childhood), so it's only recently I have started exploring many of the things you write about here. I think the aware baby posts have caught my attention more than any other though as they echo what I have done instintively since Fidget was born, and one of the few things I have felt really comfortable doing as it feels so right. For this author to say that babies who are given the opportunity to cry to release stress don't get their needs met or are abandoned is truly scary. Rubbish! I'm so glad you wrote this.

  16. The people who have commented above have given such excellent responses to your post, I hardly know what to add.
    So, at the risk of being repetitive, I'll say that this is such a great post Mon. I've really enjoyed reading it and I agree wholeheartedly with a number of your central points and concerns.

    Intuition - yes. For me, it's been an ongoing struggle to centre myself and remind myself to follow my intuition despite the external pressures and multitude of opinions that are constantly thrown at me as a parent. Intuition has played such a crucial role in so many situations for me personally as a parent. And on an every day basis, when my girl was very little, intuition helped me to identify my baby's different cries, and therefore respond according to what I felt she needed.

    I also have a problem with the consistent idealisation of, (and a sense of nostalgia for) indigenous cultures. As diverse as these cultures are, they are usually referred to in vague and general terms as though the many are one.
    These indigenous cultures seem to represent a version of undamaged (and undamaging), pre-wounded wholeness that we, (usually read as damaged urbanised, middle-class westerners) should aspire to 'return' to.

    And then as you point out, even if we could hold these cultural models up as ideals, there is a question of how transferable their practices and philosophies are...

    There's loads here that I could blather about, but everyone's pretty much said it, and so well, that I'll leave it at that.

  17. I came back to read responses to this post because it interested me so much, and am glad I did. Lisa C sounds like she was describing me and my situation exactly (with the eldest and then two twins!!) How fascinating...Also, Docwitch's comments on the idealization of indigenous cultures is something I have also struggled with in much spiritual writing - often it feels like this projection of an 'Eden' state, where everyone is/was peaceful/environmentally conscious/loving/in touch with true spirit, etc. etc. I think we (humans that is) have this natural tendency to project both utopia and apocoplyse. Current 2012 is a great example - some believe it is the end of the earth, and others the dawning of a 'new age'.

  18. I'm back. Again. Not trying to stalk, but I found the article I mentioned on tears and stress in women. Not sure if it's relevant to babies, but interesting nevertheless: http://serendip.brynmawr.edu/exchange/node/1825


No comment is too long or short around here.

Comment moderation on posts older than 7 days.