Is Modern Parenting Bad for Babies?

Raise your hand if you’ve ever done the following: Strapped your baby into a stroller instead of an infant carrier? Let your child cry for a few minutes before responding? Fed your baby a bottle of formula instead of breast milk? Now—raise your hand if you’re already feeling guilty.

If you’re versed in the “attachment parenting” philosophy promoted by pediatricians like Dr. William Sears, then the research conclusions recently presented by Darcia Narvaez, a professor of psychology at the University of Notre Dame, will sound familiar. According to Narvaez, modern-day parenting “norms” like using infant formula, putting babies to bed in their own rooms, or sleep training are doing kids harm by stunting their emotional, moral and neurological development.

“Breast-feeding infants, responding to crying, almost constant touch and having multiple adult caregivers have been shown to positively impact the developing brain, which not only shapes personality, but also helps physical health and moral development,” says Narvaez, who is working on a book on the subject. “We looked at the effects of these and other ancestral parenting practices on 3-year-olds and found that every single one had an effect on empathy, conscience, intelligence and self-regulation.”

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So now, the real questions: How much do you need to pay attention to this research? And how badly have you already screwed up your kid? (Because, let’s face it, most of us—even those who want to breast-feed exclusively, wear our kids in slings or respond to every middle-of-the-night cry—aren’t able to adhere to these philosophies 100 percent of the time.) We asked other experts in child development to weigh in, and, luckily, the answer seems to be: Somewhat, and probably not much (if at all).

“The tricky thing about studies like this is they place a lot of responsibility on parents, many of whom are already doing a lot of self-blaming about how their kids turn out,” says Timothy Verduin, associate director of the Center for Neurodevelopmental Disorders at the Child Study Center at NYU Langone Medical Center. “I see tons of parents who say, ‘My kid turned out this way because of how I parented them as an infant or a toddler,’ and that’s just not accurate.”

Verduin notes that a child’s development is a continual transaction between his biology (what kind of personality and genetic makeup he has) and environment (including how his parents and other adults respond to him). “When parents hear findings like this [Notre Dame research], they get the idea that their children are blank slates, and it’s their job to help them develop right—or else screw them up. And that’s not the case.”

And despite Narvaez’s postulations, it's difficult to pinpoint exactly which events affect your child in particular ways. “Research-wise, it’s hard to hang your hat on whether individual behaviors, like letting your child cry when he’s having trouble falling asleep, have a serious positive or negative impact on brain development,” says Dr. Joan Luby, professor of child psychiatry at Washington University School of Medicine. “The available scientific data certainly supports the idea that supportive parenting is an important element of healthy brain and emotional development in children. But whether you can unpack that into support for these particular practices is another question.”

That said, the experts we spoke with did agree that most parents—including those whose kids are past the stage of breast-feeding and slings—would do well to embrace some of the general nurturing qualities that Narvaez espouses, like engaging in lots of positive touch (think: hugs, tickles, snuggling on the couch), and communicating with your child in a way that shows you’re really focused on him or her.

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“In terms of a child’s development, a primary ingredient of well-being is what we call ‘contingent communication,’” says Dr. Daniel J. Siegel, clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine, and co-author of The Whole-Brain Child. “What that means is essentially: You send me a signal, and I respond in a way that reveals that I’m really listening and taking you in.”

Verduin adds that even the little moments with your child can count big. “When parents make major decisions about things like child care, they tend to think a great deal about how the decision will impact their kids,” he says. “But that’s not always the case when it comes to small day-to-day choices.” For example, he says, “a lot of parents, especially those who work, are so overwhelmed with dinner and homework and chores, that it’s easy to get to the end of the day and realize that you haven’t had just a ‘fun’ moment with your kid.” Scheduling in some parent-child playtime, whether it’s an hour or just 10 minutes, can make a huge difference in your relationship with your child, and in his or her development, he says.

More good parenting techniques, according to all of our experts, including Narvaez? Spend time with your child outside in nature; allow some time for unstructured fun (no violin lessons or soccer practice—just free play); and engage in activities that get the creative juices flowing, whether that’s making up silly songs together or building a fort.

“When it comes to saying the problems you’re facing with your child are the result of the choices that you made when he or she was 3 months old—it’s not helpful for parents, and perhaps not even accurate,” says Verduin. “And even if it is accurate, what needs to change is the way that society supports parents, and the way that health care professionals educate parents. It’s not an individual issue, it’s a public health issue.”

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