What Does a Developmental Psychologist See in a 40th Class Reunion?

When I told people I was going to my 40th high school reunion, I might as well have said I was jumping off a cliff. Almost across the board, the reaction was shock, though the reasons varied. Granted, I hadn’t been in touch with my classmates, so some degree of surprise was legitimate. But my friends and family also projected their own reasons: high school had been the “worst time of their lives”; that they had never “fit in”; they didn’t want to open their present lives to judgment. But I’m a developmental psychologist, and I wanted to understand what a reunion ritual might mean. Nothing is more interesting to me than discovering how children grow up and their lives turn out.

As the date approached, I finally became apprehensive myself. Most of us had been together since kindergarten, but what if I didn’t recognize people after forty years? After all, I now have silver hair and 40 additional pounds; others would also have changed. Or what if we didn’t have anything to talk about? How would I react to an old “flame,” or he to me? Could I finally uncover the story behind a friend who had so traumatically “dropped” me in sixth grade? When nervous jokes started showing up on the Facebook reunion page, I saw that I wasn’t the only one with anxiety. I recruited a childhood friend to go with me.

“I’m only doing this for you, you know,” Vic joked when she greeted me at my hotel. Our mothers went to high school together and been friends long before we were born. Vic remembers the fuzzy socks I wore in second grade and how my father had carried me into school in his arms when my broken leg was in a cast. I remember making vinegar and baking soda volcanoes at Vic’s house and singing soprano next to her in choir.

We arrived at the Curling Club (home to the winter sport of sliding granite stones on ice) to a frenzy of slightly boozed-up greetings. About a third of my class of 140 was there. A current of excitement crackled through the crowd—hails from across the lawn; flying wisecracks and boisterous teasing; and enthusiastic, if somewhat self-conscious, hugging. It was a relief to find my old friend Dave, who was just as unruffled as I’d remembered him—a straight shooter, unperturbed by his surroundings. He had worked for a time for my father, a milkman; his mother had been my beloved third grade teacher. I was happy to meet Dave’s wife, and a meaningful conversation ensued about parents, illness, children, and more.

Sociologist Vered Vinitzky-Seroussi has observed that high school reunions can trigger a sudden threat to one’s identity. In the space of a short gathering, we are called upon to reconcile past expectations with our present reality, among people who shared that past. At my reunion, the actual list of predictions that our peers had made about each other 40 years ago hid amidst the memorabilia. “Diana will run a computer dating service,” it read, and the old memory of craving connection amidst my chaotic environment flashed. Other predictions were equally unpredictive: that a high school romance would end in marriage (it didn’t) or that a career would peak in a grocery store stockroom (it didn’t); and predictions for women centered on marriage and children. Predictions can be entertaining, but since these weren’t about activating our best future selves, I regretted their presence. Reunions are not just happy gatherings, Vinitzky-Seroussi writes. They “telescope the life course” and create pressure to evaluate, or protect, or project our choices, often in the space of a very short, catch-up conversation.

But this was not our tenth or even twenty-fifth reunion, the early ones that Vinitzky-Seroussi studied. This was our fortieth, a time when life achievements are behind for most of us and some are even looking toward retirement. Fortunately, I felt well-anchored in the present, and I think others did, too.

The conventional wisdom about reunions is that people can surprise you, and I found that to be true. Who would have known that the quiet boy in the back of the band would be a pillar of the community as the trusted funeral director? Or that the guy who seemed lost in high school would be so crisp and successful at 58? Psychologists use the terms “equifinality” and “multifinality” to describe how very different paths can lead to similar outcomes, or, conversely, how similar paths can lead to very different outcomes. At the same time, our perceptions of what’s important changes, too: The kids who once dominated in popularity might now appear boring and superficial, and the former “outsiders” often turn out to be the really interesting ones. And yet when I asked Vic if she recognized everyone, she replied, “Not so much from their faces, but their energy—it’s the same.”

Even though we all shared a large part of our pasts, we couldn’t have truly known each others’ lives while we were children. A few kids had seemed to sail through with equanimity—they ran the student council at school and collected maple syrup at home–but even then, there were hints of malaise. I knew that it wasn’t right that the gentle, deer-like boy who sat in front of me in seventh grade homeroom smelled like alcohol and cigarettes. Another child was rumored to have been abused, though there was no action taken to protect her. I was a high achiever but suffered with parents who were in constant conflict; they struggled with mental health and substance use issues. Many parents were alcoholics before the disease was even named.

Psychologists now know that adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) are predictive of later physical and mental health problems, including heart disease, depression, and suicidality.  Research suggests that about a third of kids are lucky enough to escape trauma, but about a quarter suffer such high doses that it affects brain development, immune and endocrine functioning, and can create mental and physical disease systems that reduce the lifespan by an average of 20 years. How different might many students’ lives have been if an adult had recognized their feelings and had the skill to approach them and say, “You look down. What’s going on, and can I help?” Today, innovative schools throughout the country are feathering emotional skill development into their academic curricula, and studies show that both individual kids, and the school as a whole do better. Pediatricians, too, are beginning to screen for ACEs and offer early intervention services to families and children at risk.

Childhood is not easy, even at the best of times, and middle school is an especially stressful period. Conventional wisdom used to hold that it was the changing sex hormones that made kids “crazy,” but scientists now understand that puberty kicks off changes in the brain that make youth more emotionally sensitive, more sensitive to their social world, more willing to take risks, and more vulnerable to mental illness and addictions. Combine all of that with changes in schools, new peer groups, or family troubles, and you quickly get a pile-up of stressors that can be overwhelming.

Jockeying for status in peer groups begins as early as the fifth grade, and, in my day, peer dynamics were raw and lacking any guidance. Consistent with the research, it was the male athletes and the conventionally pretty girls (especially cheerleaders) who were conferred high status, and kids who were “different” were often marginalized—through teasing, exclusion, and gossip. Girls who physically matured earlier than average, or boys who matured later than average, were at greater risk, just as they are today. Too tall, too skinny, too heavy, too awkward, too shy, too country, too slow…the “faults” can be endless. 

Kids naturally form and re-form friendships, but without real social skills, the process can be excruciating. In sixth grade, I was shattered when my best friend of six years decided one day to simply stop talking to me. While it’s natural for a child to feel ready to find new friends, this particular friend had had no skills with which to explain her needs. Her silent treatment left a mark, and I used it both as a cautionary tale for my own children and an illustration in the college courses I taught on teen development. Research now shows that humans are such intensely social creatures that social ostracism lights up physical pain pathways in the brain; it can be more damaging than even physical abuse. Sometimes, I imagine how our friendship “breakup” could have gone differently, had we had the social skills kids can learn in school nowadays to navigate peer conflict. Though my well-being is no longer affected by that experience, I was curious to know my former friend’s side of the story. Yet when we greeted each other at the reunion, we didn’t get much beyond a hello. I took that to mean that it was not likely to be the place—or perhaps the person—where such a conversation could happen.

“Humans are storytelling, story-loving creatures,” says psychologist Matthew Lieberman, author of Social Brain, Social Mind. One of the most powerful ways we understand the experience of being human is by constructing a narrative of our lives. Young children begin this process as soon as they learn the word “I,” and parents begin telling them stories about when they were little. And at the other end of lifespan, elders engage in a “life review,” telling and retelling their stories to help them make sense of their lives.

Reunions—where our past selves meet our present selves—can be a special opportunity to re-weave our stories. I observed it happening all evening. One woman who had seemed defiant and tough in junior high apologized to the PE teacher, telling her that she hadn’t meant to be the teacher’s “nemesis” but in fact was a military kid who got moved around a lot.

“I never knew that,” the teacher breathed, empathically.

A man who had been a geek before geeks were cool enthusiastically shared that he was an inventor, held patents, had designed a part of the space shuttle and a medical device, and had made millions doing so.

A friend divulged her confusion about some same-sex experimentation that had gone on at a childhood sleepover. Of course there had been no framework for normalizing that, or even language to name it.

I, too, had a story to revise. When a popular biology teacher’s name came up, I shared that six years after we’d graduated, he had prevented my Lutheran church from marrying me and my husband, because my husband is from India. “He’s not a good guy,” I grumbled about the teacher.

The life stories flowed, from what it’s like for a Minnesotan to be transplanted to the Deep South, to taking care of grandchildren, to being the youngest in a senior citizen woodworking shop, to losing a child. There was a lot of loss and growth to process, as well as joy to celebrate.

One evening is not enough time together to truly span 40 years; it’s just a sliver of reality. But I happily put new numbers and email addresses into my phone. I want to keep up with some old friends, and I discovered new ones that I’d missed earlier.

And that old flame?

“I learned from you,” he told me. “Your family had high expectations, and I craved some of that.”

“You sheltered me at a stormy time,” I replied, remembering his laughter and easy-going manner.

Class reunion? For me, at least, it wasn’t so scary. What we went through together mattered, and bearing witness to one another’s stories—from our shared past and the years that had followed— felt like a good way to honor that.







How To Soothe a Crying Baby

My most exhausting parenting memories have to do with being unable to soothe a crying baby. My husband and I had two children three years apart, on our own, thousands of miles away from our families. We were both in the startup phases of our careers, and so we took turns: We swaddled the babies, walked the hallway, put them on the dryer, swayed to music, drove in the car, used pacifiers, sat in a steamy bathroom, and rocked in the rocking chair. For a couple of years, I was so tired, I could hardly string complex sentences together at work.

New parents know this drill. And there are two big questions that arise pretty quickly: “How do you get it to stop?” and “When can we start letting the baby ‘cry it out’?”

My own childhood was not a great guide. I grew up in a time and place where the attitude toward crying even among normal parents could be summed up by the dictum, “Quit your crying,” and “I’ll give you something to cry about.” I wanted to take a different path.

Developmental science, though, was a good guide:

photo credit: depositphotos.com

photo credit: depositphotos.com

Crying in the first three months of life

In 1972, Johns Hopkins University researchers Sylvia Bell and Mary Ainsworth conducted a groundbreaking—and now classic— study on infant crying. For two-to-four hours at regular intervals across the first year of life, they went into the homes of 26 mother-infant pairs and took continuous notes on baby-mother interactions. What they found was important news: Babies whose mothers responded consistently and promptly to their babies’ cries in the first three months of life cried less often and for shorter duration in the subsequent months.

These responded-to babies also transitioned more quickly to other, non-crying modes of communication, like facial expressions, gestures, and vocalizations, later in the first year. (A more recent review of studies of infant crying linked less crying to better language skills.)

What about the babies whose mothers didn’t respond to their cries? Some mothers  believed that if they responded, their babies would be encouraged to cry more, becoming more dependent and demanding—in a word, “spoiled.” This view is rooted in advice from the 1920s-‘40s from behaviorists like John B. Watson and promoted by the U.S. Children’s Bureau of Infant Care. Their opinion was that parents should have an emotionally detached, businesslike relationship with their children. An entity as powerful as the federal government advised that parents should not pick up their children between feedings, lest the baby become a “spoiled, fussy, and household tyrant” who makes a “slave of the mother.”(1) This advice was not based on scientific evidence, but extrapolated from operant conditioning and what was understood about the power of positive reinforcement. Today, nearly 100 years later, that advice has been hard to eradicate.

A predictable pattern

 Babies’ cries are important signals, their only communication device in the beginning. The cries are part of a stone-age “operating system” that are designed to draw the caregiver close for protection and survival and to help manage the body, brain, and feelings at the time of greatest helplessness. Just how the caregiver responds to those signals is important for wiring up a nervous system that will be as calm, organized, and integrated as possible; in other words, it’s foundational for later growth and development.

Cries run the continuum from gentle fussing that might start quietly and build up toward discomfort, hunger, or boredom, to loud, high-pitched cries that may be followed by breath-holding that signals alarm, danger, or pain. And there is everything in between.

Babies' cries are both similar and unique. Digital acoustical cry analyses captures qualities like frequency, energy, and signal-to-noise ratio and show that a pain cry has a different pattern from other cries (it’s high-pitched, loud, and sudden, with some breath-holding). Each individual baby’s cry also has a unique “cryprint.” That cryprint is something many caregivers recognize; that is, they know their own baby’s cries from that of other babies.

Though every baby is a little different, “normal” crying in the first three months of life follows a fairly predictable pattern:

  • Crying tends to start up at around two weeks after birth, peak at around six weeks, and gradually decline and stabilize at around three-to-four months. The six-week peak is seen in many cultures (and even in chimpanzee babies): 
Each line represents a separate study of crying. Reprinted with permission from Barr, R.G., (1990). The normal crying curve: What do we really know? Developmental Medicine and Child Neurology, 32 (4), 356-362.

Each line represents a separate study of crying. Reprinted with permission from Barr, R.G., (1990). The normal crying curve: What do we really know? Developmental Medicine and Child Neurology, 32 (4), 356-362.

  • Most young babies have a fussy period. In newborns it’s often around midnight, whereas in older babies, it’s more often in the late afternoon or early evening. Extra holding, cuddling, or swaddling can help.
  • According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, two-to-three hours of crying a day is normal for babies in the first three months of life.

Why do young babies cry?

photo credit K. Merchant

photo credit K. Merchant

Babies under three months cry for many reasons: They’re hungry, they’re uncomfortable, they’re in pain, they’re too warm or too chilly, they want more or less stimulation, they’re wet, they’re transitioning from being asleep to being awake, they don’t like a hard surface or a scratchy fabric, and the list goes on.

For an exhaustive list of possible reasons for crying, and corresponding soothing techniques, see this list at reflux.org.

In addition, some babies just cry more than others, according to pediatric psychiatrist Barry Lester of Brown University, who has seen thousands of babies in his Colic Clinic at the Brown University Center for the Study of Children at Risk. Each baby has a distinct personality and a unique temperament that, in the beginning, have little to do with parenting. Some babies are reactive and easily upset, he says, and once they get wound up it’s hard to help them calm down. On the other hand, some reactive babies are easy to soothe and may even self-quiet after their parents back off for a bit. Some babies are not particularly reactive but are still hard to soothe; so for those babies, it takes longer to trigger crying, but once they start, they’re  hard to bring down.(2) And some lucky parents have babies who are just “easy”; they don’t cry much, and they’re easy to soothe when they do start.

Sometimes there is a mismatch between the baby’s needs and the parent’s ability to respond. Less experienced, first-time caregivers as well as those with less support, can easily overreact. Or caregivers may have personalities, feelings, or beliefs that get in the way of reading their baby’s signals, intentionally or unintentionally. For example, studies show that caregivers with restrictive attitudes, insufficient empathy, or a high stress response respond less well to their babies. On the other hand, too much empathy, e.g., taking on the baby’s cries as evidence of unbearable suffering, can lead to “empathic distress” in the caregiver, and in an attempt to control their own strong feelings, they might withdraw, or become overly-intrusive. Fortunate parents who’ve had positive childhood experiences—or who’ve come to terms with difficult ones—tend to find it easier to respond more sensitively to their babies’ cries.

Depressed caregivers have the hardest time responding to their babies, putting babies at greatest risk for poor outcomes. Pediatric psychiatrist Barry Lester writes that babies are highly attuned to their caregivers’ feelings, and as a result may even cry more in an unhappy environment.(3) Depression can appear in many forms, from the mild depression arising from parenting pressures and lack of sleep to full-blown, biochemical, post-partum depression. We also know that being unable to soothe a crying baby can itself trigger feelings of helplessness and depression. Sooner or later, almost every parent will break down in tears because no matter what she does, she can’t stop her baby’s crying. I remember being trapped in an airplane seat for four hours with hot tears leaking down my cheeks when I couldn’t soothe the baby in my arms. (I later learned that she had an ear infection, but there was nothing I could do in the moment except rock her gently in my arms and whisper calmly in her ear.) It is a humbling, exasperating feeling—and it’s important that parents not blame themselves, Lester urges.

Some babies cry in the first three months for no reason that professionals can understand. Psychologists and pediatricians refer to this as “endogenous” crying, meaning simply that the source is internal. Endogenous crying is uniquely human, according to Debra Zeifman, psychologist at Vassar, in her review of research studies on crying. Even our close relatives the chimpanzees stop crying when their needs are met or they’re picked up; only humans seem to have the kind of crying that can perpetuate itself regardless of the trigger.

Endogenous crying seems to resolve at around three months, when it becomes more “exogenous,” or linked reliably to external triggers. This shift from internal to external coincides with other developmental shifts, suggesting that there is a maturation of an underlying system—a “forebrain inhibitory mechanism,” or some aspect of the central nervous system—at around three months. For example, also at around the three-month mark, endogenous smiling is replaced by more social smiling, stimulated by a familiar face; newborn reflexes disappear and are replaced by more voluntary behaviors; the sleep-wake cycle settles down into a more predictable rhythm, and there are changes in EEG patterns.

And finally, in rare cases, some babies’ distinct cries (often very high-pitched or poorly phonated) may reflect underlying neurological disturbances. Scientists are working to develop acoustical cry analyses that can predict later developmental disorders such as autism.

But one important reason babies cry, Zeifman says in a vast review of studies of infant crying, may be that they have been left alone.

Holding, carrying, feeding: What’s the evidence?

Babies in Western cultures, says Zeifman, spend an exceptionally large amount of time alone compared to babies in less developed cultures. Western parents for the most part are discouraged from physical closeness and frequent feedings, and they’re often encouraged to ignore their baby’s crying. Western babies are carried an average of about 30% of their waking hours, compared to 80-90% of waking hours for babies in non-Western cultures.

Anthropologists think that continuous holding may have been a strategy to reduce infant mortality, the risk of which has been lowered dramatically in the West. Yet, practices that distance caregivers from their infants, many anthropologists and psychologists say, may contribute to more crying. In Why Is My Baby Crying?, Barry Lester points to a survey of over 180 societies that found that babies cried less when they were carried.(4)

In a randomized control study (the gold standard of studies) of supplemental holding, 99 Canadian mothers were randomly assigned to either hold their babies a minimum of three hours throughout the day (whether they were crying or not), or to a control group (where babies spent extra time in front of a mobile or abstract shape). At six weeks of age, when crying normally peaks, the extra holding had the greatest impact—reducing overall crying by 43% and nighttime crying by 51%.  Extra holding made a smaller but still positive difference later, at four, eight, and twelve weeks as well.

Supplemental holding reduced crying compared to a control group. Reprinted with permission, from Hunziker, U.A. & Barr, R. G. (1986). "Increased carrying reduces infant crying: A randomized controlled trial." Pediatrics, 77 (5), 641-648.

Supplemental holding reduced crying compared to a control group. Reprinted with permission, from Hunziker, U.A. & Barr, R. G. (1986). "Increased carrying reduces infant crying: A randomized controlled trial." Pediatrics, 77 (5), 641-648.

When babies are carried, held, or worn, mothers can sense early on when something is wrong, and attend or soothe before a cry even erupts. There is no known downside full-time carrying to babies, either to their health or their psychological outcomes. Carrying and holding is, however, a lifestyle challenge in Western cultures—it is not easy for babysitters, daycare providers, or working parents to provide that extra holding to individual babies. However the benefits of it should just be more proof that we need better policies to support parents since it is unlikely that we’re going to change the way babies’ nervous systems and brains develop!

Feeding intervals also reduce crying in young babies. For example, a correlational study of two American subgroups—one from La Leche League and one control group—found that frequent feedings reduced crying in babies who were two months old but did not make a difference for four-month-old babies.

Given that more holding and more frequent feedings help the youngest babies cry less and be more comfortable, it may be possible that the amount of crying in young babies may be more flexible than we think, more amenable to care practices. If we place infants in playpens and cribs and don’t co-sleep, we may miss the early cues that babies are in distress. In Why Is My Baby Crying?, Lester goes so far as to say that Western caregiving practices actually train babies to cry. When we leave babies physically apart from caregivers until they cry, babies get the message “If you want me, call me.”(5)

Crying it out?

photo credit: K. Merchant

photo credit: K. Merchant

Some babies do defy the norm and stop crying when left to “cry it out.” In fact, a follow-up study to Bell and Ainworth’s classic 1972 work found that a few mothers who ignored their babies had babies who cried less. However, most researchers critique those findings on either methodological grounds or as a sign of “giving up” on the baby’s part—a despair and withdrawal that could ultimately lead to detachment. Modern baby gurus like pediatrician and author William Sears and psychologist Penelope Leach agree. Sears says that when caregivers let babies “cry it out,” babies  can lose trust in the “signal value of the cry” and maybe even in the caregiver relationship. Leach says that leaving a baby to cry it out can activate such high levels of the stress hormone cortisol and can deplete levels of oxygen that it can be toxic to a baby’s brain. “Crying it out” also undermines the important “serve and return” interaction that is the earliest basis of cognitive development.

A 2002 report summarizes the physiological changes that can happen when babies are left to cry hard:

  • Heart rate rises; there can be  tachycardia, i.e., racing heart. Blood pressure increases by 135%.
  • Oxygen levels go down.
  • Blood pressure in the brain becomes elevated.
  • Stress response is activated, with elevated levels of cortisol. If uninterrupted, this creates a cascade of effects that can eventually damage the developing brain, affect the genes that regulate stress, damage the hippocampus, and result in later problems with learning, memory, attention, and emotion regulation.
  • Prolonged crying can lead to aerophagia, or air-swallowing, causing pain and problems with digestion.
  • Energy reserves are depleted due to rapid motor movements.
  • White blood cell count increases with vigorous crying, suggesting the body is preparing a survival response.

What about colic or crying that won’t stop?

Estimates of colic vary, from 10% to about 20-40% of babies in Western societies. Most pediatricians diagnose colic on the Rule of Threes: crying for more than three hours a day, for more than three days a week, for more than three weeks, in a baby that is otherwise healthy. But pediatricians don’t have any solutions; they simply  encourage parents to persevere until the colic runs its course, usually by around three months of age. The real risk of colic, they agree, is the stress it exacts on caregivers, placing those babies at high risk for abuse (and even shaken baby syndrome) when parents “lose it.”

As the Founder of the Colic Clinic, Barry Lester is the nation’s leading expert on colic, and he takes a strong stance. “Crying is normal,” he writes. “Colic is not. People who say that colic is normal not only are wrong; they also are doing a huge disservice to families who have colicky babies.”(6) In Why Is My Baby Crying, he defines colic as “an identifiable cry problem in the infant that is causing some impairment either in the infant or in relationships in the family.”(7)

His colic symptom checklist includes:

  • A sudden onset of crying—the episode seems to come out of the blue
  • A change in the quality of the cry (more towards pain
  • A change in the physical body—pulling legs up, doubling over, tightening of muscles;
  • The baby is inconsolable

The full checklist along with a cry “diary” can help caregivers and pediatricians problem-solve the excessive crying. Though the cause of colic is unknown, Lester has in some cases identified gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), pain, food allergies, and other sensitivities. But there is no predictable common theme, and most often, no cause can be identified. Yet families still need help, since colic can pose some developmental risk and family relationship problems due to the stress it creates.

Colicky babies are more likely to have difficult temperaments and feeding and sleeping problems, all of which can interfere with the settling of the nervous system in the first three months. Their cries and heart rates are different from those of normal babies. They are at risk for behavior problems in preschool as well as attention deficit, hyperactivity, sensory integration, and emotional reactivity.(8)

photo credit K. Merchant

photo credit K. Merchant

Colic can take away the joy of parenting and make caregivers feel helpless and incompetent, despairing, and even angry and hateful toward the baby. It’s helpful if caregivers can know the amount of crying they can handle (their “safe cry zone,”) and what strategies they can use when their coping starts to fail—deep breathing, soft music, walking, rocking—so that they can continue to respond calmly. But when the stress rises, it’s imperative that someone else be recruited to hold the baby and give the parent some relief. This is not always possible, of course, especially for single parents, but it’s important that caregivers find some way to care for themselves as well as their babies’ crying, Lester says.

Crying in later infancy.

Crying in the first three months of life is about regulating bodily needs, wiring up the nervous system, and feeling close to and safe with a caregiver.

Crying later in infancy becomes more complex, as it’s also related to a baby’s growing cognitive and emotional capacities. The graph below shows crying data from several studies over the first two years of life.

Reprinted with permission from Barr, R.G. (1990). The normal crying curve: What do we really know? Developmental Medicine and Child Neurology, 32 (4), 356-362.

Reprinted with permission from Barr, R.G. (1990). The normal crying curve: What do we really know? Developmental Medicine and Child Neurology, 32 (4), 356-362.

  • At around six to nine months, crying due to stranger wariness emerges. This is a normal, healthy sign that a baby understands who her “person” is, though again, different babies have different temperaments and will express more or less concern. Anthropologists think that stranger wariness served an ancient but important safety purpose of removing a baby from an incompetent or unsafe caregiver and reuniting the baby with her safe person. Very often the chosen caregiver that the baby attaches to is one specific person, even when multiple adults have cared for the baby. The baby might look at, reach for, or cry for her person when others are present, and then quiet as she is enfolded into safe arms.. But again, babies vary, and some attach just fine to multiple caregivers.
  • At around nine to twelve months, fear of strangers and fear of separation from a caregiver can peak crying again. This reflects a healthy cognitive growth; the baby can now anticipate the feeling of being alone, and she knows that crying is a kind of tether to the caregiver. This might especially coincide with dropping off at daycare, and skilled providers should be able to offer age-appropriate soothing.
  • Walking at 12-18 months can precipitate another burst of crying. As toddlers’ mobility carries them farther away from the caregiver, perhaps into a different room, they may suddenly realize that they are at sea.
  • Crying has another burst at around two years of age, when a baby’s growing sense of self and control over their own body meets thwarted goals and frustration. This coincides with the cognitive ability to plan action, to have deliberate wishes and intentions. As many developmental scientists say, this crying is not about the parents; it’s about the baby’s healthy growth.

How to soothe a crying baby in the first few months of life

photo credit K. Merchant

photo credit K. Merchant

The scientific evidence is clear: Responding to a baby’s cries in the early part of life is important to the baby’s well-being, establishment of a healthy nervous system, and subsequent growth. The hard part is to figure out how! Once a baby's obvious needs are ruled out, extra holding, frequent feedings, and the skin-to-skin contact of kangaroo care go a long way toward reducing crying. Putting on your own oxygen mask first—activating your own calm response—is crucial, and so is recruiting the support of other caring adults. Ideally parenting is not a solo activity, and we are all invested in the outcome!

Here are my favorite resources for techniques on how to soothe a baby:

  • For a long list of options, see Coping With a Crying Infant by Jeanne Clarey Bruening.
  • Harvey Karp’s book, The Happiest Baby on the Block, summarizes five steps for effective soothing: swaddling, holding, making a shushing sound, gentle jiggling while supporting the head, and sucking. For a shortcut, here’s a video.
  • Here’s how to swaddle a baby. As I write this, a new study has linked swaddling to sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). However, it’s difficult to interpret the limited results. Deaths occurred most often when babies were on their stomach, less on their sides, and least on their back, all of which is true of SIDS when babies aren’t swaddled. Caution should be taken to swaddle correctly. Follow guidelines for back sleeping, and consider other options for infants older than six months (when the risk of SIDS doubled).
  • Pinky McKay’s book, 100 Ways to Calm the Crying, is a compassionate, respectful collection of ideas. It will soothe just in the reading!
  • Barry M. Lester’s book, Why Is My Baby Crying? The Parent’s Survival Guide for Coping with Crying Problems and Colic, written with Catherine O’Neill Grace, is a reassuring read for caregivers struggling with colic. He validates that parents who have babies with crying problems deserve and need support, and he has good diagnostics and suggestions. His Colic Clinic is in Providence, RI.
  • Here are twelve basic reasons babies cry, and how to soothe them, from The Baby Center.
  • Here is a Temperament Tip Sheet to consider the range of preferences for babies of different temperaments.


A final thought: Babies are born in a very immature physical state, with nervous systems and brains and bodies that have a long way to go—25 years, really—until they reach maturity. Parents and caregivers have to be flexible and adaptive in supporting the child’s current developmental needs. Different kinds of responses are important at different ages. For young babies, consistent affectionate responding is about meeting their physical and psychological needs, calming and integrating the nervous system, and creating a loving and trusting foundation to the relationship.

As babies grow—one to two years old and beyond—it may not be appropriate or even possible to soothe every cry. In fact, small bits of manageable stress in the presence of a caring adult help to “inoculate” a toddler for some of life’s vicissitudes and realities. But this is a gradual on-ramp, with a supportive adult. Later, new factors become important for parents to consider, like the development of language and cognition, the neurological ability to inhibit oneself, and the scaffolding of emotional skills. 

Whatever the age, a good cry can always go a long way toward letting off steam, communicating, and healing.



(1) U. S. Children's Bureau of Infant Care. Care of Children Series No. 2. Bureau Publication No. 8 (Revised), 1924. As cited by Bell, S. & Ainsworth, M. (1972). Infant crying and maternal responsiveness. Child Development, 43 (4), 1171-1190.

(2) Lester, B. with Grace, C.O. (2005).  Why Is My Baby Crying? The Parent's Survival Guide for Coping with Crying Problems and Colic. NY, NY: Harper Collins, p 89.

(3) Lester, p. 73

(4) Lester, p. 88

(5) Lester, p. 92

(6) Lester, p. 1

(7) Lester, p. 69

(8) Lester, p. 58





What Newborns Need for a Healthy Psychological Start

When I was a new mom, there were plenty of books about how to physically care for a newborn: how to swaddle, how to change a diaper, and how to treat skin conditions.  But there was next to nothing on how to care for a newborn’s psychological well-being. What’s important for infant mental health? Erik Erikson, the famed psychoanalyst of the sixties, recommended eye contact for the foundation of newborn trust—so I spent a lot of time looking at my newborn baby girl.

That’s a start.

photo credit Sugarplum Photography

Since then, developmental scientists have learned a lot about what gets babies off to a good psychological beginning. And it’s deceptively simple: It’s about breath and heart; rhythm and timing; paying attention.


For nine months of pregnancy, the mother’s body provides everything a baby’s body needs: nutrition, oxygen, temperature control, and waste management. When the two bodies separate, the baby’s body has to learn to regulate all of these processes itself…amid myriad new sensations like sights, sounds, tastes, temperature fluctuations, restrictions, movements, and more. The simple coordination of the first breath with the heartbeat is itself a wonder of biological engineering.

As the baby’s body takes over its own bio-rhythms, it rapidly cycles through different states. In the space of one-and-a-half to two hours, the baby turns a tight schedule that keeps parents on their toes and is completely at odds with an adult sense of time. But how parents respond to these changing states forms a foundation for the baby’s later psychological and social development.

Generally speaking, there are six states, with transitions in between:

photo credit Nancy Kohli Haté

photo credit Nancy Kohli Haté

  1. Deep sleep: The baby sleeps quietly without moving, and breathing is regular
  2.  Light sleep: The baby might move, may have irregular breathing and even startle at noises, or may experience eye movements in the dreamy sleep of REM sleep (rapid eye movement). Babies can cycle between deep and light sleep, even within an hour. Sometimes, in the first few months of life, babies wake between the deep and light sleep cycles and have difficulty returning to sleep. (Newborns sleep about 16 hours a day, and about half of that is in REM sleep.
  3. Drowsiness: In the transition between waking and sleeping (e.g., waking up, or conversely, going to sleep), the baby’s eyes may open and close, or even roll back. The baby might stretch, yawn, or doze.
  4. Quiet alert: The baby’s face is bright, eyes are open wide, and the body remains quiet. This is time when the baby takes in her environment on her own terms. She might be looking, or staring, or simply quietly focusing on what she sees, hears, or senses. This is a good time to give babies their space, to let them get used to feeling comfortable settling alone.
  5. Active alert: The eyes are open and scanning and alert, and both the facial expressions and body are medium-active. Babies are especially open to social interaction in this state, so this is a good time to gently engage with the baby, talking quietly, singing, touching. 
  6. Crying/fussy: A baby cries, screams perhaps, and the whole body and soul can become quite stressed and disorganized. Babies are born nearly helpless, so crying is the best signaling system to recruit outside help to regulate a need. With experience, parents soon anticipate the various needs—to eat, to be comforted, to be changed, to warm up or cool down, for more or less stimulation, to be eased into sleep.
photo credit Rohan Haté

photo credit Rohan Haté

 The underlying biology: oscillators and pacemakers.

Scientists have so far pointed to two biological mechanisms that underlie infant states and that have implications for later psychological development: 

  • The oscillator controls the sleep-wake cycle. It develops in a fetus at about 30 weeks in utero, in a region called the suprachiasmatic nucleus, which is in the hypothalamus just above the brainstem. Even in utero, a fetus begins a tiny sleep-wake cycle: researchers and mothers alike notice that in the last trimester, the fetus is more active at some times and in quiet sleep at other times. The cycle is short (called an ultradian rhythm), but after birth it begins the long march toward a circadian rhythm—one that harmonizes with the light and dark cycles of a 24-hour period. Before birth, the sleep-wake oscillator is sensitive to conditions in the fetal environment, like the maternal hormone melatonin as well as the intrauterine environment such as mother’s diet and exposure to light and dark. After birth, postnatal practices like the skin-to-skin contact called kangaroo care are related to longer periods of alertness and more organized sleep-wake cycles.
  • The cardiac pacemaker regulates the pace of the heartbeat and coordinates the heartbeat with the breath to alternately activate (in-breath) and calm (out-breath) the heartbeat. This is part of the autonomic nervous system (ANS) that originates in the brain stem and connects many organs in the body—the heart, lungs, eyes, glands and digestive tract. The ANS is roughly divided into the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), which goes on metabolic alert when the baby is in need or distress, and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), which calms and soothes and restores the system once again.

Developmental scientists have become especially interested in the calming system arising from the vagal tone. The vagus nerve is the 10th cranial nerve, a complex web of connections from the brainstem and reaching throughout the body that control and put the brakes on stress, shifting bodily resources away from fight or flight and back to “restore and grow.” Like the oscillator, vagal tone is also perceptible in the third trimester, around 33-35 weeks gestational age. After birth, it, too, is enhanced through the skin-to-skin contact of kangaroo care and even infant massage. Not surprisingly, sensitive care encourages a strong vagal tone.

Synchrony: the dance between caregiver and newborn.

 A new parent’s first challenge is to figure out how to react to a baby’s changing states. Granted, there is physical care involved—changing diapers, dressing, bathing, feeding, and more. But it is the process of joining a baby’s rhythm—not just physically, but psychologically, in harmony—that is most important for creating a strong psychological foundation. Psychologists have given this process many names: responsive care, attunement, and co-regulation.

Ruth Feldman, a psychologist at Bar-Ilan University in Israel and at the Yale School of Medicine, calls this coordinated interaction between caregiver and infant, “synchrony.” At first, she says, the relationship is biological: Pregnancy produces surges in the bonding hormone oxytocin in the mother, which primes her to attend to her baby (nonbiological parents generate oxytocin through interactions). In research studies, mothers with more oxytocin reported having more pleasurable feelings with their babies than mothers with lower levels of oxytocin. They were also observed to react in more sensitive ways, more often, to their babies’ behaviors.

In turn, as the baby is touched, or has skin-to-skin contact, or is breastfed, her nervous system is calmed, the biological clock organizes, and the vagal tone develops. Responsive, loving, warm care in the first weeks and months of life can even turn on or off the genes that regulate a baby’s stress.

Caring for a newborn changes parents' brains. As parents gaze at their newborn; talk gently; use soft, higher-pitched voices; and are positive, warm, and encouraging, their brain’s gray matter, or cell bodies, actually grow in the emotion and thought regions that support parenting behaviors.

Timing is important. In one of Feldman’s studies, when mothers appropriately chose the babies’ alert state to talk and touch their babies, the babies remained alert for longer periods of time.

[photo credits Kelly and Sahil Merchant, Mia Divecha]

The physiologies of caregiver and baby harmonize in the process. In one study, Feldman observed the heart rates of mothers and babies as they played with each other face-to-face. When the interactions were synchronized in an easy back-and-forth, the rise and fall of mother and baby’s heartbeats actually tracked each other, with a one-second lag. In other words, the mother—or any sensitive caregiver—helps to regulate a baby’s very heartbeat through loving, synchronous interactions. Feldman postulated that this is likely internalized by the baby as an “emotional sense of security that accompanies the child throughout life.” Other studies show that oxytocin levels, and even brain alpha waves, track between mother and baby in synchronous interactions as well.

Quick timing is also essential for soothing a distressed baby. In a now-classic study on crying, researchers Sylvia Bell and Mary Ainsworth at Johns Hopkins found that babies whose caregivers consistently responded quickly to their cries, cried less often and for shorter periods of time by the end of their first year.

Some parents need help synchronizing.

Many new parents intuit their babies’ needs—and/or learn to identify needs through observation—but others can benefit from some explicit coaching. Jenny Goyne is a postpartum doula who helps new parents through the stresses of the postpartum period and is especially dedicated to helping parents identify and work with their baby’s rhythms.

“I often encourage parents to just observe and watch their babies,” she says. For example, when the baby is quiet and content, she points out to the parent just how the baby is taking in her people and the world around her, and Goyne encourages parents to give the baby space to do just that. “Many parents feel they need to ‘do something,’” she says, “like sing a song, or entertain the baby, or exercise or stimulate them. There’s a lot of entertaining going on.”

“I remind them—this is all new to a baby. They’re just becoming aware of what’s around them and trying to make sense of all of it all. Babies, especially in the early weeks, also tire easily, and parents may not realize that when the baby looks away, or yawns, or begins to fuss or even cry, that they’ve had enough.”

photo credit Nancy Kohli Haté

photo credit Nancy Kohli Haté

Even breastfeeding can require some patience and self-restraint at first. It can take some time for the baby to find her way into it. In some cases, new mothers feel like they have to do something to make breastfeeding happen, which tends to stress the baby, and then the baby picks up on the stress and doesn’t want to eat. Many older mothers who are professionals and used to having answers just want to know what to do to make it work. “I often simply help them relax,” Goyne says. In other cases, mothers and babies benefit from coaching: some babies need coaxing to latch on, and there are strategies for making breastfeeding more comfortable for both mother and baby.  In some circumstances, breastfeeding is not even possible, so helping a mother come to terms with this may be important. “Conversations about what this means to a mother are important. There’s often a grieving process that needs to take place,” Goyne adds.

She also teaches parents to read the smaller nuances they might otherwise miss.

“Most people can tell the difference between smiling, crying, and sleeping, but we’re not so good at the subtleties of what babies are doing,” she says. For example, she points parents to the signs that a baby is about to transition between states, like the agitated movements or jerky motions or even hiccupping that can precede crying. Or the looking away that says she’s had enough. Anticipating babies’ needs can help keep their nervous systems organized for longer periods of time.

And then: Every baby is different.

“Babies don’t go by a book,” Goyne quips. “They have different temperaments. Some babies’ eyes are wide open. They’re taking in the world and are eager to interact. Others may be shy, or even a bit withdrawn. These babies need more space and perhaps less contact. The shy ones, especially, can make new parents feel insecure, sometimes causing them to work hard to get their baby’s attention, which can be quite overwhelming to a baby.”

“New parents might not realize that babies often enjoy having some time to themselves, to observe and experience the world without the parental filter,” says Goyne.

It doesn’t help that each practitioner tells a new parent something different. “The advice is not standardized,” she says. “You have to figure out on your own what works for your particular baby.” She supports parents in doing that by observing the baby and describing to the parent what she sees in terms of behavior and temperament, so that parents understand their own baby’s unique cues.

Some parents want to put the baby on a schedule to hasten the transition to “adult time,” but Goyne discourages that: “Babies don’t go by our clocks,” she says. “Many parents don’t realize that and think something’s wrong. They don’t know how to make sense of ‘baby time.’” Jenny’s job is done when parents gain confidence reading their baby’s signals—a few weeks for some, and up to three months for families with twins.

By three months, patterns of reciprocal interaction are well-established. By this time the baby starts to become skilled, herself, at initiating and sustaining interactions. She offers a social smile that makes the mom happy and the mom talks to her in return; the baby looks at an object in the distance and the father points and names the object; with a little encouragement from the baby, the grandpa excites her to screeching with silly play but quiets down when the baby crosses the threshold to being disorganized or upset. The adult is the baby's outsourced regulatory system.

Just how important this social connection is to a baby is demonstrated through the still-face experiment. Baby and mother face each other, cooing, talking, and touching, until the mother makes her own face stone-still and expressionless. The baby tries heroically to reengage the mother, even yelling and reaching for her, and when the efforts are futile, she falls apart in distress, sensing the connection is completely ruptured. When the mother reengages, though, the baby’s nervous system becomes calm, she smiles and re-engages, and the connection is restored.

The Goldilocks effect: Not too much, not too little, but good enough is best.

A cautionary note is in order for the overly-conscientious parent: Good enough is best. Within a normal range of interactions, babies, especially older ones, benefit from some variations in timings and styles. Babies get the gestalt of it. In normal human dialogue, mismatches and repairs are common. Infants get sensitized early to rhythm of these miscoordinations and interactive repairs, says psychologist Ruth Feldman at Bar-Ilan and Yale Universities.

Different adults have different kinds of rhythms, especially with older babies. For example, in research, fathers and mothers showed different kinds of interactive styles and different modes of co-regulation. With their five-month-olds, mothers typically played face-to-face and coordinated tiny, little interactions at a low-to-medium level of emotional arousal. They looked at things together, pointed, verbalized, and used gentle, affectionate touch. Fathers, on the other hand, were more exuberant: They laughed together and played physical games or games using objects. Their play was bigger, more open, and more exciting. They were just as synchronous, though, calibrating the back-and-forth between themselves and their babies; they were simply more emotionally intense and had different content. And mothers tended to be more synchronous with their daughters, and fathers with their sons, rather than the other way around. It's likely, though, that these kinds of patterns are not fixed but are flexible. The point is that babies can do fine with different styles of interacting.

It’s when the overall pattern is off that there is need for concern. Jenny Goyne described intrusive, anxious parents who feel the need to entertain a baby even when the baby is quiet and content. One study showed that these kinds of parents have higher activation in the amygdala, or fear regions of the brain in contrast to parents who are in synchrony with their infants and the reward regions (the nucleus accumbens) of the brain are activated. Psychiatrist Margaret Mahler has video footage of intrusive mother-infant pairs where the mother ignores the baby's signals that she wants to crawl or play her own way. When seen a year later, that baby is wrapped around the mother’s legs in anxiety, uninterested in exploring her world. Anxious mothers tend to miss the signals that their babies need space. In the process, they not only stress their babies; they also deprive them of the ripe opportunity to be content on their own, or to explore the environment on their own terms. 

On the other end of the spectrum, when mothers are aloof or depressed, they hardly engage at all in the normal back-and-forth that settles a baby’s nervous system. Maternal depression is predictive of some of the worst outcomes for babies. 

Important for future development.

Synchrony between caregivers and babies has lasting beneficial effects into toddlerhood and well beyond into adolescence, in almost every area that matters:

  • Emotion regulation, self-control, stress management: Feldman and her colleagues found that babies whose mother could follow their lead in infancy (3 months and again at 9 months), had better self-control at two years old than babies who did not have a synchronous relationship. This was especially true for babies with more difficult temperaments. Young children who’d experienced early synchrony were both more willing to pick up toys and put them away and more able to resist touching objects they wanted. Long-term studies show that early synchrony predicts lowered stress and better emotion regulation well into the teen years.
  • Social relationships: Babies who experience attunement with their caregivers become kindergartners who have more reciprocal, give-and-take relationships with their peers and they are better at resolving conflicts. As teenagers, they enjoy social relationships more and are more skilled at sustaining them.
  • Cognition: Two aspects of synchrony are particularly important to set the stage for optimal learning. One is the calm emotional state that is required for attention, learning and memory to happen. The second is the “serve-and-return” nature of the interaction, where babies learn cause-and-effect in their world, that the world is ordered, has governing laws, and is not chaotic. They become motivated only when they can make sense of the world and feel that they have some small bit of control and self-efficacy. Studies show that babies who experience synchronous relationships have higher IQs at two and four years old; their symbolic expressions—in language and play—are richer and more sophisticated; and their language refers more often to their own and others’ internal states, e.g., “I feel” and “You think.”
  • Attachment: Greater synchrony with caregiver in infancy is correlated with better attachment at one year, and fewer behavior problems at two years old.
  •  Empathy: One study that followed babies from 3 months to 13 years old found that teenagers who had experienced synchrony with their caregivers as babies had greater empathy, suggesting that, as Feldman says, “synchrony sensitizes infants to the emotional resonance that underlies human relationships across the lifespan.”

You can’t spoil a baby.

photo credit Mia Divecha

photo credit Mia Divecha

New parents often wonder how soon their babies should become independent. The importance of the biological connection between sensitive caregivers and their babies should dispel those notions of independence. A baby cannot be spoiled, in fact the opposite is true. A baby needs a loving caregiver who gives her what she needs, on her terms, in order to wire up the major biological systems that create a foundation for later psychological and cognitive well-being. This synchrony is critical in the first month of life to organize and settle the nervous system, and it continues to remain very important in the sensitive period across the first year.





copyright Diana Divecha 2016



* * * 

Additional Resources

What do doctors screen newborns for? 

What are newborn reflexes?

Developmental milestones in the first month

Tips for grandparents of newborns

How to find a postpartum doula

Books on physical care of newborns and infants:

Mayo Clinic’s Guide to Your Baby’s First Year

Your Baby & Child, by Penelope Leach

The Essential First Year by Penelope Leach

Caring for Your Baby and Young Child: Birth to Age 5, by the American Academy of Pediatrics

The Baby Book, by William Sears

The Wonder Weeks, by Frans Plooij and Hetty van de Rijt




The Transition to Parenthood: What Happened to Me?

photo by Sahil Merchant

photo by Sahil Merchant

"Tell me about the joys of being a new parent," I prompted my niece, whose little baby is five months old. She is 34, works full-time, and is married to my nephew.

The transition to parenthood is profound, as many parents already know. Developmental scientists consider it to be one of the most massive reorganizations in the lifespan, changing the brains, endocrine systems, behaviors, identities, relationships, and more, of everyone involved.

Kelly's answers had a quiet and whimsical grace.

"There is nothing more beautiful in this world than his smile," she said. "Or watching him discover something new. Last night he found the upper register of his voice, so he spent five minutes shrieking at a high pitch, playing around with the newfound note."

Kelly is a beautiful person, so I wasn't surprised to hear her speak appreciatively about her young son. And, in recent and evolving research, scientists are charting a "global parental caregiving network" that gets shaped in a new parent's brain to bring about some of the very thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that Kelly and other new parents experience.

In 2014, Ruth Feldman, a researcher in Israel and at the Yale School of Medicine, conducted an experiment with her colleagues. They went into the homes of 89 new parents, collected samples of oxytocin (the bonding hormone), and videotaped the parents interacting with their newborns. Later, the researchers put the parents in a functional-MRI machine and replayed their videos back to them, observing which parts of parents' brains "lit up" when they saw their own infants (versus videos of unrelated babies) .

The researchers found two main regions of the brain particularly active in new parents. The first is the "emotion-processing network." This is located centrally and developed earlier in evolution than the neocortex (see below). It involves the limbic, or feeling, circuitry and includes:

  • The amygdala, which makes us vigilant and highly focused on survival
  • The oxytocin-producing hypothalamus, which bonds us to our newborns
  • The dopamine system, which rewards us with a squirt of the feel-good hormone to make                    us motivated and enjoy parenting

All together, this network creates a heightened emotionality in parents in response to their babies. In fact, according to researchers Laura Glynn and Curt Sandman, the volume of gray matter (or number of neural cell bodies) increases in the above regions in new mothers and is associated with their positive feelings toward their infants. (See Glynn and Sandman's review article on brain changes in pregnant mothers.)

The second region is the "mentalizing network" that involves the higher cortex, or the more thinking regions of the brain. This area, along with additional superhighways that develop between the emotion and mentalizing systems, focuses attention and grounds in the present moment: Who couldn't stare at a new baby forever? It also facilitates the ability to "feel into" what a baby needs: Areas of the brain that involve cognitive empathy and the internal imaging of, or resonance with, a baby, light up. These regions help a parent read nonverbal signals, infer what a baby might be feeling and what he/she might need, and even plan for what might be needed later in the future (long-term goals). These regions are also associated with multitasking and better emotion regulation. In other words, parents' brains are remodeled to protect, attune with, and plan for their infants.

Other research has found that hormonal changes in pregnant women dampen their physical and psychological stress response, as if to make more space to tune in to their babies' needs.

But along with all these changes, there seems to be a collateral cognitive hit: In a meta-analysis of 17 studies, 80% of women reported impaired aspects of memory (recall and executive function) that began in pregnancy and persisted into the postpartum period.

photo by Kelly Merchant

photo by Kelly Merchant

Mothers aren't the only ones whose brains are remodeled. The brains of fathers, too, light up in ways that nonparents' brains don't. Feldman and her colleagues found that while the emotion processing network is most active in the biological mothers she studied, it is the mentalizing networks that are more active in the brains of fathers who are co-parenting alongside moms. The more fathers engage in caregiving tasks, the more oxytocin they produce, and the stronger the activation in the mentalizing areas of the brain.

Interestingly, in gay dads who are primary caregivers (half of Feldman's subjects), both emotion and mentalizing systems were highly activated by engaging in parenting. (For more on how parenting changes fathers' brains, I recommend the fun read, Do Fathers Matter? What Science is Telling Us about the Parent We've Overlooked, by Paul Raeburn.)

In other words, parenting is a very plastic and flexible process. While pregnancy prepares a mother's brain for parenting, the act of caregiving can produce upticks in oxytocin (the bonding hormone) and create neurological changes that support parenting in many adults--dads, adoptive parents, and other alloparents (any caregiving adults).

photo by Kelly Merchant

photo by Kelly Merchant

Kelly's husband Sahil is open about the new feelings he's having as a dad. "Winnie [short for Winter] is a curious, cheerful little person, and watching him develop and experience the world for the first time brings me endless amusement and joy. With Winnie, I've found new depths of love--it feels like a very biologically driven emotion."

While he is drinking in the sweet elixir of his baby, Sahil is also running his feelings through the thought circuitries. "Besides being afraid of the regular things--injury, illness, and such--I am also sad that his innocence will inevitably be eroded over time, and that he will inevitably experience all the various pains involved in growing into an adult."

Kelly admires her husband's changes and says that one of her greatest joys is "watching my husband develop into an incredibly loving, nurturing, and giving father."

Parents, naturally, continue to develop as individuals, and the arrival of a baby stimulates self-reflection. Observing Winnie moved Kelly to reflect on what must also have been the miracle of her own beginnings. "I'm fascinated by the fact that I, too, floated in a sack of amniotic fluid; that I, too, saw my hand for the first time and probably stared at it for 30 minutes straight, waving it in the air. Or that I, too, might have been startled by my own sneeze, or gas, or yawn."

Sahil says, "Having a child has given my life more meaning. For example, rather than working to earn money just for myself, to purchase various objects and experiences, I now have a great reason to do so. I'm more careful now, too. I have a child who depends on me, so I feel like I need to take better care of myself, so that I can be my best possible self to take care of Winnie."


The joys of parenting are often felt more deeply than almost any other feeling humans are capable of having. But the challenges are great, too. "Every mom I knew was surprised by the impact of becoming a parent and wished she knew more about coping with it," writes Jan Hanson in Mother Nurture: A Mother's Guide to Health in Body, Mind, and Intimate Relationships. Hanson is a nutritionist who co-authored the book with her husband, the neuropsychologist Rick Hanson, as well as OB/GYN Ricki Pollycove.

There are challenges to parents' physical health: recovery from pregnancy and delivery, the adjustment to breastfeeding, disturbed nutrition, fatigue, and insufficient sleep. As you would expect, Kelly reports that trying to stay rational, keep conflicts down, and drive safely are difficult on three hours' sleep and/or when she's been up, exhausted, since 4 A.M. She is experiencing what researchers know: That proper sleep is critical to health and well-being, including mood, decision-making, performance, and safety.

There are psychological adjustments to the new parenting role, too. Some parents need time to recover from a difficult or complicated birth process. For some, parenting demands can trigger strong unresolved feelings from childhood, especially if it was traumatic or troubled. Hormonal changes, along with sleeplessness and the constant demands of a new baby, can create surprising new feelings, too: anger, sadness, feeling trapped or isolated--even guilt, fear, and inadequacy. Some parents have to wrestle with having lost a previous child, or perhaps they are parenting a difficult or differently abled child. Kathleen Kendall-Tackett writes about these psychological challenges, and more, in The Hidden Feelings of Motherhood: Coping with Stress, Depression, and Burnout.

Having a new child introduces new challenges to the parents as a couple. Conflicts often increase in a relationship after the birth of a child, in part due to the "roommate hassles" of who will do what in the household as well as disagreements about parenting styles. Sometimes the sense of intimacy, closeness, and sexuality in a relationship can get derailed with the arrival of a little one. Couples are challenged to re-synchronize their relationship and develop a new sense of teamwork.

The couples who are most at risk for serious problems after the birth of a child, write parenting scholars Carolyn Pape Cowan and Philip Cowan in their book When Partners Become Parents, are those who were on the rocks before the child came along. Becoming a parent amplifies any pre-existing fissures in the relationship. Especially problematic are poor communication patterns--where one stonewalls, digs in, and/or refuses to budge, while the other escalates. In contrast, couples who have productive ways of working out new difficulties and challenges do the best adjusting.

After the arrival of a child, there are new logistics to deal with: new strains in managing a household, financial and legal concerns, when and how to go back to work, and figuring out childcare. Like many contemporary mothers, Kelly experiences the challenges as coming from both sides: the struggle to feel okay going back to work after three months versus the struggle to feel okay staying home without being criticized as a poor worker or an anti-feminist.

New parents also undergo a rearrangement of their social life, including how they interact with extended family and friends. Some friendship networks get reconfigured (not all childless people want to hang out with new parents). Kelly noticed that other people changed in their relationship to her as she became a parent. Many people offered unsolicited opinions, especially on the topics of sleep and clothing: "At times it felt that anyone who had once been a mother felt the need to say that my baby should put on more clothing. Even in 90-degree weather when he was sweating! And I was quite happy to be co-sleeping with Winter, but I was made to feel guilty about this on many occasions. Sleep is such a touchy topic, and many people tried to convince us to get Winter into a crib if we wanted what was best for him." Kelly found support from her sister who encouraged her to be firm about her internal compass in the face of many differing opinions: "Your only option is to learn to listen to yourself and know that you know your situation, and what works for your family, better than anyone else." Kelly adds that the most helpful exchanges are ones where she is encouraged to share how things are going, and in return hear a similar story and outcome. "Not only does it feel good to know I'm not alone in this, it educates me about what works much better than direct advice."

Rick and Jan Hanson and Ricki Polycove have seen so many thoroughly exhausted mothers in their practices that they identified a "depeleted mother syndrome," a condition where the mother's "outpouring, stresses, vulnerabilities, and low resources" are so overwhelming as to "drain and dysregulate her body."

The solution they recommend is threefold, focusing on lowering parenting demands, increasing supportive resources, and building resilience. Rick Hanson is a thorough, compassionate, skilled, and practical therapist, and Mother Nurture is therapy in a book: From one-minute soothers, to resolving childhood issues, there is much help in the way of cognitive, neurological, and commonsense approaches. Among other things, he provides suggestions for :

  • taking care of your body   
  • small daily practices to improve outlook
  • reframing circumstances
  • concrete problem solving approaches
  • transforming painful emotions from the past
  • problem-solving sleep
  • vitamins to help with the nervous system
  • assessing neurotransmitters
  • staying connected to your partner with empathy
  • sharing the load
  • maintaining intimacy
  • healing hurt feelings
photo by Crystal Hanson

photo by Crystal Hanson

Kelly noticed that just as her identity started changing as a parent, there was a tendency for people to converse with her exclusively about motherhood. She was naturally thrilled that her loved ones were excited about Winnie, yet she longed for relationships that also nurtured her individual identity as a painter, a counselor, yoga enthusiast, and traveller. 

As an American, Kelly is not alone in this experience. Kathleen Kendall-Tackett writes that in many non-industrialized countries, the postpartum period is a special time of "mothering the mother." New mothers are considered especially vulnerable so their activities are limited, they're relieved of normal work, and they stay relatively secluded with their babies while other relatives take care of them. Along with that extra care, there are special rituals and gifts that mark this as an important period. American mothers, in contrast, are quickly released from the hospital and are often even expected to entertain guests who come to visit the new baby. That difference in support, Kendall-Tackett says, is why in industrialized countries about 50-80% of new mothers experience the "baby blues," and another 15-25% have full-blown postpartum depression. In more traditional cultures where new mothers are exclusively nurtured, postpartum depression is "virtually non-existent."

Kelly agrees: "A mother needs to be nurtured and cared for because she is doing nothing for herself at this point. Everything is being given to the baby and I find little time to do things like even wash my hair or take a bath. Or connect with a friend. Even getting a hug from my husband can be hard in those times when a baby is especially demanding. When I do get that hug, I need it more than ever before."

The transition to parenthood is a huge transformation. And America, with no comprehensive child-family policy and no federal paid family leave policy--is a particularly unsupportive place to have a child. But the accumulating research is pointing to just how sensitive and important this period is for families. With a little knowledge and some foresight, parents-to-be, and their loved ones, can better plan for the transition. The rise in popularity of the postpartum doula (a person, usually a woman, who is trained to help new families in the home) is a step in the right direction.

Rick Hanson encourages new mothers--and fathers--to insist that others take their needs seriously. "Treat yourself like you matter," he says.


* * * * *


Further reading (some of these are oldies but still goodies):

On coping with the challenging feelings of becoming a new parent:

On becoming a father:

Ten Reasons Teens Need an Emotion Revolution: My Speech to Lady Gaga's Foundation and the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence

Developmental scientists are alarmed about American teens' well-being. Our teens are doing much more poorly, in many spheres, than teens in other countries, and indicators of mental illness have been rising among American teens in recent decades. 

On October 24th, I joined 400 high school student students, educators, policymakers, funders, and parents at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. We were there for an all-day summit to launch the Emotion Revolution--a movement to improve the emotional climate for teens at school.

Last spring, the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence teamed up with Lady Gaga's Born This Way Foundation to conduct a survey of 22,000 diverse teens. The survey asked the teens how they were feeling in school and how they wanted to feel. In the first morning session of the Emotion Revolution Summit, the results were revealed:

  • Students surveyed reported that they are not feeling well at school. 80% of the top ten feelings were negative: tired, stressed, and bored, followed by anxious, annoyed, sad, alone, and depressed. (The remaining 20% was accounted for by "happy" and "good" or neutral.)
  • Students said they would rather feel happy, excited, and energized, along with safe, comfortable, valued, respected, connected, supported, balanced, and contented.

In response the Center, along with the BTW Foundation and Facebook, created a website called InspirED. There, teachers and students can find classroom activities of every size designed to foster exactly the feelings that students said they want to have. 

But it's going to take more than a resource center. Like any great change, helping teens feel good at school is going to take attitude shifts, policy changes, funding, and more.

I gave a talk at the Summit which laid out ten reasons, based on adolescent development, for why a revolution is necessary to bring a greater and more sophisticated investment in teens themselves, and in the environments they move in.

My 15-minute talk is here:

If you don't have time to watch, here are my points in a nutshell:

  1. Compared to teens in other developed countries, American teens are struggling in most spheres that matter.
  2. Developmental scientists, who study child and adolescent development, are calling the teen years the new Zero-To-Three. Zero-To-Three was an effort to pour money, policies, and programs into the first few years of children's lives, founded when the science revealed that what happens in a child's environment affects critical brain development. Well, now we're understanding that the brain changes that happen in the teen years are just as critical--and they need just as intense a focus. Never again in a person's life will there be such a window of opportunity.
  3. Beginning in puberty, the brain undergoes tremendous "pruning" of neuronal connections. The neurons that are necessary, and are still used, remain. The unnecessary ones get pruned, or cut out. ("Use it or lose it.") This means that teens' environments are important--what they are paying attention to becomes entrenched in the brain.
  4. A number of changes happen in the brain to make teens more emotional. They need strategies to deal with this intense emotionality.
  5. Due to imbalances in the development of brain systems, teens are "all gas and no brakes," which makes them take uncalculated risks, for better and worse.
  6. Teens are more sensitive to other people than are younger children or adults, and could benefit from more skills for handling their greater depth of feeling.
  7. Teens want to become independent, but they also want to stay connected to their parents--and have been telling researchers so for decades.
  8. This current generation of teens has strong values. They are less materialistic than earlier cohorts of teens, they care more about others, they are concerned for the environment, and they have progressive attitudes.
  9. Most human rights documents concerning youth give them the explicit right to have a say in the matters that affect them.
  10. Teens have led revolutions before.

If we give teens the skills they need and the respect they crave, who knows what force for good we could unleash?



What Does a Developmental Psychologist See in Burning Man?

When I sent my 86-year old father my photos from Burning Man, he replied that he didn't understand: Wasn't it for "hippie kids"? What was I doing there, and what did the experience do for me?

The Love Bus (photo by Zai Divecha)

The Burn is famously different for each participant. Some Burners go to strut and party, some to share their art, a few to network and get ahead. Approaching our 60s, my husband and I get the most pleasure from camping there with our 20-something kids who extended an open invitation for the second time. But I also go to stay fresh, keep up on emerging ideas, and to prevent the fixed mindset I fear might creep in with age.

Like everyone, I bring my own kaleidoscopic lens to the playa. In my everyday life as a developmental psychologist, I experience much of my social world through a chronological telescope: When I look at children, I see the adults they may become; when I meet adults, I see the children they likely were. I’m keenly aware that we are all developing, all the time.

And I recognize that we are not nailed uniformly to a single rung on some developmental ladder. While some parts of us are reasonably established in adulthood, some parts of us remain deep in childhood. Psychologists call this normal developmental unevenness décalage, a French word that translates to “lag” or “gap.” Many people are not stuck but move flexibly and adaptively—like various spiritual teachers I’ve encountered, whose equanimity is spacious and evolved, yet who can erupt with the laughter and delight of young children.

My headdress (photo by Zai Divecha)

At home, preparing for Burning Man, I gave myself permission to go the craft table and the dress-up corner to immerse myself in the elixir of creativity and make-believe. I emerged wearing a homemade caftan, wooden necklaces, and a medieval horned headpiece, along with a second headpiece of papier-mâché branches sprouting from a drywall skullcap anchored inside a turban. By the time I hopped on my bike at the edge of the playa, I could see my 10-year-old self in the mirror.

In my adult life, I advocate for improving childhood through my research, speaking, and writing. And there's much to do. In the first twenty years of life, we find out how the world works and we wrangle a place in it. For some, the process is kind, and for others it is bumpy yet manageable. For a surprising number, though, it is a tortured and traumatic path and they are deposited at the door of adulthood with handicaps and scar tissue. In a famous study of over 17,000 adults, about a third said their childhoods were free of “adverse childhood experiences” (one of ten serious conditions that can derail a child’s life), but about a quarter reported three or more types of traumas— a number that science now links to emotional and physical problems that persist well into adulthood.

And in a Hansel-and-Gretel world, the places meant to shelter, nurture, and protect children are the ones that do the most damage. Many children are traumatized in their homes, and show up at school unable to concentrate or manage their strong feelings. They are frequently misdiagnosed, drugged, punished or expelled. When adults have emotional problems, they are treated as mental health concerns, but when children have emotional struggles, they are often "behavior problems" to be controlled. Schools, too, can be unsafe:  Punishment is a popular but harmful approach to managing children, while cultivating kind, emotionally supportive school cultures is effective but slow to catch on. About a quarter of kids are bullied or harassed at school--an experience that can undermine the rest of their lives. Children do not enjoy the same relationship rights that adults are privileged with; they're made to return, day after day, to the places and people who abuse them.

Burners are a well-educated, modestly financially secure group, but emotional difficulties are equal opportunity. The playa is sometimes described as a kind of playground, but through my eyes it is unlike the one of our childhoods. This one acknowledges some real developmental concerns. Through installations, workshops, and talks, Burning Man offers a chance for some re-dos. Some rewiring.

And it can start with letting go of some of the grief collected on the journey so far. The Temple of Promise, a stunning Gothic cornucopia rising 97 feet above the playa—is a paean to both the normal and the outsized suffering of being human.

Temple of Promise (photos by Diana and Arjun Divecha)

Visitors walk through its increasingly narrowing form, leaving baggage, burdens, pains, fears, and mementos to be burned away at the end of the week. Messages fill and are hung from every available surface, and this year someone left three small suitcases. One woman vented an angry diatribe of suffering at the hands of an abusive stepfather and a complicit mother. Another message was written to parents who had died in a plane accident: “I have not been in a small plane since yours was taken down,” it said. “A friend has offered to fly me over this temple, and I am going to try to overcome my fear. My love is eternal.” On our fourth walk through the temple, my husband quietly released some of the sorrow of losing his mother three months ago.

Reflect (photo by Diana Divecha)

A giant 20-by-40-foot colored tear drop, called Reflect, was captured at the point where it hits water, to represent all the tears shed by those left behind when someone takes his or her own life.

In childhood, adult power hierarchies—based on social status, gender, ethnicity, even height and attractiveness—are replicated inside the school walls, and kids learn early who’s on top and who’s pushed to the exit ramps. Kids often punish each other for being different, and power structures like schools and other institutions use whatever behavioral control possible to keep kids “in line.” 

A 50-foot chapel called the Totem of Confessions contained dioramas of surreal and dreamlike black-and-white photos, oddities that might pop up from the subconscious into dreams or fantasies or fears, and that would likely be considered shameful by others. And as a reminder of ever-present judgment, there was a confessional in the interior of the chapel.

Totem of Confessions (photos by Diana Divecha)

Time Out Corner (photo by Diana Divecha)

A Time Out Corner appeared out of nowhere on the playa, recalling the frequent punishment—deserved or not—of our childhood transgressions. Timeouts for children are now understood to be ineffective, even harmful. Brain imaging studies show they light up the same neural pathways as physical pain.

Some days, after writing about bullying and trauma, I marvel that most of us make it to adulthood as well as we do. The striving to connect, to still try, to be able to still wonder, was manifest in the sculpture Love. There, two massive wire adult forms were seated back-to-back, heads down in withdrawal, while the glowing child inside each of them reached out for the other, touching hands.

Love (photo by Diana Divecha)

Identity Awareness (photo by Diana Divecha)

Identity Awareness (photo by Diana Divecha)

At Burning Man, there is an invitation to sort out what is personal encumbrance and artifice, from what authentically belongs to us. A giant question mark, barely propped up by a human figure reminded us to question the source of our choices, the source of our identity.

One of the Ten Guiding Principles of Burning Man—radical self-expression—is a direct antidote to the censoring—and censuring—of growing up, making space to question the conventions we take for granted. We took part with our crazy clothes, our go-with-the-flow schedules (some of us got up before dawn when others were just going to bed), and our explorations of new topics (from beekeeping to twerking). We passed the “Dick Parade” where 150 men bicycled through camp, bottomless, while gentle hecklers (a thing) encouraged the liberal use of sunscreen. In its counterpart, women paraded topless in "Critical Tits." Overhead, a man flew a glider, naked. “You’re guaranteed to not be the weirdest kid in the classroom,” the online guide soothes. It would be easy to dismiss the naked experimentation as exhibitionism, but I'm sure some riders may have been struggling with their body image or  health concerns; for some it may have been a healing process from being bullied, targeted, or abused; and perhaps others simply wanted to walk through the wall of a conventional boundary. There are as many possible reasons as there were riders.

(Photos by Arjun and Zai Divecha)

(Photo by Diana Divecha)

But by radical, they mean deep, not crazy: Consent is the cornerstone of a civil community, the Burning Man literature reads. It doesn’t refer to just sexual and physical touch, but anything that “will radically alter the experience of another person.” Prompts to good behavior were everywhere.

Another principle, "radical inclusion," is the antidote to the emotional abuse and social exclusions suffered in childhood. The consistent expectation of kindness is refreshing and softening, and people are just more present. I felt my own guardedness melt just a bit, with hugs, gifts, conversations, and gentle heckles.

Developmental psychologists find that play is the cauldron of intellectual, creative, and social development in childhood, and according to the Burner census, many people come to the playa just for that. The playful mood is their "top priority."

Everything that can be climbed on, is:

(Photos by Arjun Divecha)

You can be a flamethrower, safely:

Serpent Mother (photo by Jordana Joseph); Fire safety rules (photo by Arjun Divecha)

Puns are everywhere:

Burning Man: What Where When (photo by Arjun Divecha); Camp Nevada (photo by Diana Divecha)

And a Disney singalong and Thriller flashmob are open to all comers—not something we normally have an opportunity to attend.

The Bunny March Against Humanity herds humans into a bus and they exit dressed as bunnies. Humans haven’t done such a good job of being in charge, the organizers say. So let’s give the bunnies a chance.

“The only cure for reality,” says the author Gary Lindberg, “is imagination.”

And finally, our sense of wonder was on full throttle much of the time. The location itself is dramatic, and the playa was saturated with one stunning installation after another. 

(Photos by Diana, Arjun, and Zai Divecha, and Julie Light)

The burning of The Man at the end of the week might not just represent an anger toward the political and economic establishment but perhaps a rebellion against the colonization of the heart and spirit as well.

This is a struggle we are all wired for. As we watched a group of young yogis strain, falter, and ultimately succeed in positioning themselves atop giant letters, an observer called out encouragement, shouting “This is what it is to LIVE!”

DREAM LIVE BE OK (photo by Arjun Divecha)


The Only Parenting Model You Need

Do these scenarios sound familiar?  A four-year-old has a meltdown because he refuses to wear his fancy new clothes to his cousin's wedding. Or a middle-schooler quits basketball after an altercation with the coach and announces she wants to change schools. 

These situations, and many more, can challenge even experienced parents. And parents looking around for advice today are met with a barrage of conflicting information.

But one parenting model has withstood fads and changing times. It's an approach backed by four decades of developmental research showing that it is the very best style of parenting for both children and teens. And it works well for all different kinds of families, regardless of their ethnicity, income, education, or structure. It's called authoritative parenting. And it deserves more attention.

Developed by Diana Baumrind in 1966 at the University of California at Berkeley, the authoritative parenting model has evolved over the years. But most importantly, studies show that children raised with authoritative parenting are the most psychologically well-adjusted. They are creative and intellectually curious, and intrinsically motivated to achieve. They have good social skills and remain connected to parents and friends. And they manage themselves well--they are self-reliant, self-confident, they take initiative, and they have good self-control.

What is authoritative parenting?

As Baumrind explains, authoritative parenting artfully combines qualities of responsiveness and demandingness

  • Responsiveness, or nurturance, refers to the warmth, love, understanding, and empathy that a parent offers a child. Responsive parenting accepts the child's unique needs, abilities, and perspectives, taking age and temperament into account. Responsive parents delight in their children and stay attuned to their feelings.
  • Demandingness, or control, refers to age-appropriate limits, boundaries, and expectation that parents set for children. Behavioral guidelines and standards are best clarified through discussion and explanation, preferably ahead of time, which exercises the child's ability to reason rather than blindly obey. Discipline and power-assertion are last resorts--best reserved for issues of safety. Children become more autonomous as they get older (the end goal is they manage their lives themselves), so the authoritative parent celebrates the child's small steps toward independence. Again, skilled authoritative parents keep their expectations appropriate, taking into account the child's developmental skills and temperament.

How might these elements be applied to a real situation? In the case of the preschooler above (a true story), the parents sympathized with the child's distress. They knew he tended toward a sensitive temperament--that he might have been overwhelmed by the new situation and new people, on top of the 18-hour car journey they had just made. (Children with different temperaments react differently to situations.) They knew, too, that children this age are just developing the neurological ability to manage and inhibit their own behavior. So the parents decided this was not a battle they wanted to fight. How he looked, they reasoned, was less important than his comfortable participation in the happy events. So they allowed him to wear what he wanted, and the family met their bigger goal of connecting with and enjoying their extended family celebration. 

What authoritative parenting is NOT

The two dimensions of responsiveness and demandingness can intersect in at least four ways. Each way yields different parenting behaviors and leads to different child outcomes.

  • Authoritarian parenting uses too much control and not enough nurturance. With these parents, it's "my way or the highway." An authoritarian parent might force the preschooler to wear the uncomfortable clothes or punish him for resisting. These parents want the child to "suck it up" without exploring what it feels like for the child. They value rules, obedience, and conformity, and they tend to be punitive, inflexible, and controlling. They do not value a child's growing independence but rather restrict his autonomy--often creating increasing conflict as the child grows. Authoritarian parents are not very interested in their child's point of view, since they are sure they know what's best. In the extreme, this type of parenting can devolve into abuse.

    Children raised by authoritarian parents tend to become more dependent and passive than those raised by authoritative parents. They have fewer social skills and are less self-assured. Not used to following their own initiative, they also tend to be less intellectually curious.
Roz Chast from The New Yorker

Roz Chast from The New Yorker

  • Indulgent or permissive parenting, on the other hand is high in nurturance but low in control. These parents are child-centered to the point of indulgence, offering a lot of freedom but too few expectations or boundaries. Indulgent parents are often overly concerned with their child's happiness, or they may see any behavioral control or demand as an infringement on the child's "rights" (a position popular in the sixties). This approach can also describe the classic helicopter parent: Rather than helping the child to develop her own skills, a parent will overcompensate, doing her child's homework or running interference for a college-age child who doesn't get along with a new roommate. In the example of the middle schooler who has an altercation with a coach, the indulgent parent is sympathetic, allows the child to drive the decisions, but does not help the child cultivate skills: A middle schooler, however, can be better supported by helping her speak up, advocate for herself, or come up with alternative ways to solve her problem. Avoiding the problem, by leaving the school should be a last resort only when the benefits clearly outweigh the costs.

Children raised by indulgent parents tend to be immature, with little self-reliance or self-confidence, and they take less personal responsibility than children raised with authoritative parenting. Lacking their own strong internal compass, they are also more easily vulnerable to peer influences.

  • Indifferent parenting is low on both nurturance and control. These parents are neglectful, "checked out." They are self-centered and take little interest in the child.

    Children raised by indifferent parents have some of the worst psychological adjustment second only to hostile or abusive parenting. With little parental oversight or monitoring, these children tend to precociously experiment with sex, drugs and alcohol. They are more likely to be involved in delinquent behavior.

Why does authoritative parenting work?

Some behaviors and relationships are protective "developmental delivery vehicles," and authoritative parenting is one. It packages together a lot of elements that promote healthy development.

Responsiveness, for example, promotes the attachment bond, and when children have a strong attachment they naturally want to be more aligned with the parent.

Then, too, the discussion- and explanation-based approach helps children understand why to do things a certain way. As such, it promotes intellectual development by helping children to understand, and reason about, how relationships work, and to develop moral judgment and empathy. Back-and-forth discussion that respects the child's perspective is the best way to help her develop thoughts and ideas. In this way, she grows an internal compass of her own--one that will guide her when a parent isn't around.

High expectations are good, but children need the supports to achieve these. I insisted that my children learn to write thank-you notes but I let them pick out their notepaper and we made the writing session fun. They've continued the habit into their twenties. The same holds for the development of bigger skills: taking responsibility, being safe, gaining independence, learning assertiveness, and achieving psychological autonomy. These abilities come step by step, with each step identified and supported. And a warm and light tone helps. (For further reading, try Laurence Steinberg's classic, The 10 Basic Principles of Good Parenting.)

Authoritative parenting results from a highly effective balance of lovingness and high expectations. Depending on the situation and the child's temperament and development, this balance constantly shifts. But if parents can keep both dimensions in mind, they'll hit the sweet spot that enables the best long-term outcomes for the children. 

Safe Cosleeping is Better for Babies' Development than Sleep Training

photo by D. Divecha

photo by D. Divecha

Over twenty years ago, when our children were born, my husband Arjun and I had the sleep debate that many American parents still have today: Where should we put the baby to sleep at night? 

 Arjun grew up in India, and though he'd slept apart from his parents, his ayah (nanny) had always slept close by. I, on the other hand, grew up in small-town Minnesota and had slept alone in a crib at the end of a hall. When it came to our own kids, we each argued that the other's experience must have been better. He believed in the superiority of modern, Western ideas, and I was sure that the ancient practice of sleeping together was the natural state of parenthood.

"We'll roll over on her," he worried.

"We'll sleep better," I countered, thinking breastfeeding in bed sounded pretty good.

Last week, a New York Times blog post reignited the discussion for another generation of new parents. "Sleep Training at Eight Weeks: Do You Have The Guts?" it asked. Sleep training is the process of getting a baby to sleep through the night through a variety of behavioral techniques, and in the extreme by letting a baby "cry it out" in a room without a parent's responsive soothing or feeding. After a couple of days, the logic goes, the baby "gets used to it," and "learns" to sleep alone through the night.

Photo by D. Divecha

Photo by D. Divecha

This school of sleep training, based on operant conditioning, runs counter to the current science of infant development. Here are a few examples:

  • Crying in babies is not a misbehavior to be modified; it is a physiological signal that something is wrong. Babies who are picked up when they cry learn that their needs will be met and they cry less over the long run. On the other hand, if a baby's crying is consistently ignored, she can learn that her signaling system is ineffective, undermining the developing sense of self-efficacy. Her natural demands, then, can escalate into more anxious ones. The general rule of parenting infants is that you cannot spoil a baby.
  • Though many Americans want their children to learn to be independent as early as possible, forcing a baby to manage herself alone is not the way to foster independence. Rather, independence arises naturally out of a secure relationship that builds up after many episodes of having her needs adequately met. For a summary of studies on the relationship between cosleeping and later child outcomes, see here.
  • To a helpless baby (and all babies are), crying and being ignored is inherently stressful. Though mild stress can "inoculate" a little one and help her learn to self-regulate her inner states, overwhelming stress--especially in infancy--can be toxic. Toxic stress can interfere with the expression of genes that set a baby's stress regulation levels in the developing brain.
  • Each baby is different, with a unique temperament, yet sleep training is a one-size-fits-all approach. Just because one baby sleeps through the night doesn't mean that all babies can and should. A vital part of parenting involves learning your baby's unique needs.
  • And finally, a systematic review of sleep training programs for babies under six months, published recently in the Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics concluded that the strategies have "not been shown to decrease infant crying, prevent sleep and behavioral problems in later childhood, or protect against postnatal depression." In fact, sleep training in the first weeks and months of a baby's life, "risk[s] unintended outcomes, including increased amounts of problem crying, premature cessation of breastfeeding, worsened maternal anxiety, and, if the infant is required to sleep either day or night in a room separate from the caregiver, an increased risk of SIDS."

Cosleeping, not sleep training, is what is "biologically appropriate," says James McKenna, director of the Mother-Baby Behavioral Sleep Laboratory at the University of Notre Dame. McKenna has studied infant-parent cosleeping for most of his career.

Photo by D. Divecha

Photo by D. Divecha

Technically, cosleeping is defined as any situation where the infant and parent are within sensory range of each other. It has often meant sharing the same bed, but that has some risks as Arjun pointed out. Nowadays, McKenna, and many others in the United States, recommends separate-surface cosleeping, for example, placing the baby in a bassinet within reach or in a small crib next to the bed. 

"There are as many ways to cosleep with your baby as there are cultures doing it," McKenna says.

Here's why keeping babies close is important:

Following birth, babies and caregivers remain physiologically connected to each other in complex ways, and when this bond is supported, babies do better. Breastfeeding, for example, is ideal for brain growth and future health. Babies who are breastfed have lower rates of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), diabetes, and other serious health conditions, while breastfeeding mothers have lower rates of postpartum depression, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and hypertension. Breast milk is low in calories (but easy on digestion) so babies feed every hour and a half to two hours. When babies sleep close to their caregivers, they sleep more lightly, and wake two to three times more often than babies who are further away. The close proximity offers easy access with minimal disturbance.

Individual babies vary in how often they wake, from two to 13-15 times a night. But feeding isn't the only thing that happens more in the frequent wakings. When babies rouse, oxygen levels and heart rates rise, which is good for brain growth and development and immune functioning. The light sleep and frequent stirring also interrupt and stop episodes of apnea, or pauses in breathing, that can be deadly when prolonged. 

And babies aren't the only ones responsible for the wakings. When McKenna observes mother-baby pairs sleeping in his lab, he finds that mothers wake babies about 40% of the time, and babies wake mothers about 60% of the time. The nighttime cameras show that mothers are often simply reassuring the babies emotionally: They "touch, hug, inspect, whisper"--loving gestures that also in turn raise baby's heart rate and oxygen levels. 

"Remarkable to observe," McKenna says. And, not surprisingly, his cameras show that babies spend almost 100% of their sleep facing their mother.

Staying close to the adult's body helps the baby remain at a more stable body temperature. Physical contact, in close cosleeping, helps babies to "breathe more regularly, use energy more efficiently, grow faster, and experience less stress," says McKenna. Babies, too, who are not necessarily breastfed, as in the case of adoption, will also naturally reap the many other benefits of such close contact.

When babies are artificially put into deeper sleep through formula-feeding and the sensory isolation of a separate room, McKenna says, they not only are deprived of this close interaction and its attendant physical and emotional benefits, but the risk of SIDS rises. By contrast, in cultures where co-sleeping is the norm, incidents of SIDS are far lower or even unheard of. 

Not all cosleeping arrangements are safe, though. Parental smoking, drinking, and drug use make parents insensitive to their babies and can be dangerous. The presence of other children and/or heavy duvets that can smother, are also are dangerous. So are places where a baby can get trapped, like gaps between beds or in couches or recliners. (A list of recommended guidelines can be found here.)

Despite the benefits of cosleeping, pediatricians still frequently recommend sleep training to exhausted parents of infants. This is unfortunate, especially for young infants under six months old. Rather than working to harmonize the mother and baby's biological systems, sleep training begins an adversarial emotional relationship between parents and their children. As McKenna points out, it sets us early onto the course of trying to make our children who we want them to be rather than respecting who they biologically are. And ironically, parents' sleep efficiency is not related to the number of times they're woken, but to their overall stress; e.g., mothers who exclusively breastfeed wake more often but have better quality and duration of sleep. McKenna recommends that  pediatricians provide information on all sides of the issue so that parents can make informed decisions.

In our case, with a little practice and encouragement, Arjun got used to babies in the bed. And he'll be first to admit how addictive a baby's scent is.

Photo by D. Divecha

Photo by D. Divecha

Our girls had different timelines for transitioning to separate beds. By the time they were preschoolers, they began the night in their own beds, often ending in ours. But by this time, a family's values and preferences can be safely in play, and closeness happened to be just fine with us.

Time is always on your side, in parenting. Children won't be twenty and still sleeping with you.

Though in the deepest corners of our hearts, we sometimes miss it.

The US Government Should Step Up and Join the Rest of the Modern World in Helping New Families

photo by D. Divecha

When my first baby was born, I had already studied children's development for seven years. Yet I felt unprepared. When the baby first pooped, my husband and I rang for the hospital nurse; when it came to breastfeeding, I needed to be shown how to position everything. Heading home, part of me was in disbelief that, as two-day-old parents, we could take this little person away unsupervised.

My family was halfway across the country; my husband's was halfway around the world. Both of us worked full-time, and I was on a six-week disability leave from my job. I had no help, and the clock was ticking. In those first few weeks, I couldn't get out of my nightgown. Our bed was an explosion of laundry, food, mail, papers, bills, and diapers. And the shape of the day, once driven by work, flattened to the rapid recycling of a newborn's needs, in addition to a few basic ones of our own.

Three years later I was pregnant with our second child and in a new academic job, in a department of 15 or so men and one other woman. On the advice of a "work-life balance expert," I had requested to teach one fewer course so that I would have some time for parenting--and who better to do this than a developmental psychologist? I felt radical--for a second--until the university countered by prorating both my salary and my progress to tenure. The arrangement was unprecedented there, and my status quickly became labeled The Mommy Track.

Back in 1991, a pregnant academic was rare (unheard of in my department, as far as I knew) and my male colleagues treated me with a curious distance.

"I feel like there's so much estrogen in the room," one commented in a faculty meeting.

"I'm impressed that you can be so pregnant and smart at the same time," another complimented.

It was not uncommon for my lunch to go missing from the refrigerator; most of my colleagues didn't recognize their own lunch bags, since their wives packed them. I not only packed my own but also packed my preschooler's lunch, prepped for dinner, and left the day's instructions for the sitter, all by the time I left home at 6AM.

photo by D. Divecha

When the second baby was born, I took a three-month leave-without-pay from work, and this time I recruited my mother-in-law from India to help us at home. I wanted time to settle in, and now had an idea of what that would take.  I needed to figure out new care arrangements, get to know my baby's signals, keep up with the physical demands of two little ones, recover physically, get some sleep. I wanted the older child to feel secure, I wanted space to learn about the second one, and I wanted to have enough love left to give to my husband. Most of all, I wanted to protect the inner spaciousness that would allow me into the altered state of consciousness that was my children's world, and that would keep me connected to the exquisite beauty of all that was happening.

I let my department know of the successful delivery of our second daughter. One colleague called to congratulate me. The secretary sent a plant. At the end of three months, I returned to work bearing sweets (determined that my colleagues acknowledge this birth) and my breast pump.

Anyone who is employed and has children knows the seismic pressures involved in the transformation to becoming a family. I took a hit financially and professionally, and I absorbed the micro-aggressions, but I returned to work. Many people, however, are forced into the Solomonesque choice between caring for their children and making a living. Unfortunately, American workplaces lag behind--way behind--the rest of the world in acknowledging and supporting this transition. This month, the 22nd anniversary of the Family and Medical Leave Act, I wrote an op-ed piece with my colleague Robin Stern, about why it is so important to children's development that the government protect and support families with adequate paid parental leave.

The thread that begins to be spun between baby and caregiver--that will grow and anchor and support the child throughout life--needs time, space, and attention. The quality of that thread determines the all-important "startup" process, and it also echoes throughout the lifespan in mental and physical health, relationship choices, and more.

Supporting families is an efficient investment in the nation's future.


Family Stress: It's Not All in Your Head

For most of my kids' childhoods, I felt that my ability to guide my family faced direct competition from school, and many forces beyond.

In elementary school, heavy backpacks bent my kids' soft little backs. Homework intruded into playtime, even though research has shown that play is important for cognitive and social development. In middle school, more homework and big projects hijacked precious family weekends--just when my kids needed more sleep, more time to adjust to their rapidly changing brains, and more healthy time with friends, and when my husband and I needed some rest. By high school, the downward pressure from looming college applications threatened to torque my kids' developmental arc.

"Don't do anything for a college resume," I warned. "Make choices because they make sense to you."

As the tsunami of outside competition flooded toward us, I felt like a little mushroom field trying to filter toxins out of a roaring river. The competition over messaging added even more pressure: media was saturated with hypersexualized images, dysfunctional interactions, unrealistic problem-solving, violence, and more. It was hard to stay on top of it all, to teach my kids the difference between our values inside our family versus values in the outside world. This on top of our own adult pressures to manage childcare, two jobs, meals, paychecks, health care and sick days, quality time, extended family, and maybe a few friends.

Adults are stressed, but our kids are stressed, too. A recent survey found that in the United States, teens' stress has now surpassed that of adults. Many young people say that they are overwhelmed, depressed, and sad because of the stress that they, themselves, gauge to be unhealthy. And the mental health of teenagers in this country is declining over time. Many parents are frantic, reaching for whatever levers they can put their hands on: hiring therapists, looking to medications, and trying ancient practices to calm everyone down. If only we could find the right key, we parents think, we can unlock the stress, and our child will thrive. 

photo by Elvin

photo by Elvin

But when the number of kids and families struggling is so large, we have to start asking questions about the systems beyond ourselves. We parents love our children wildly, and ultimately, they're our responsibility. But our ability to care for them successfully also depends in large part on how the wider culture, policies, and values support childrearing. And on that score, America is not doing very well, especially compared to other countries. Last week I published an op-ed in The Washington Post exploring that theme. One of the comments was provocative: "America hates children," it read.

"Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get you," goes the saying. And I'm here to affirm: The stress that you and your kids feel is not all manufactured inside your family. Self-help goes only so far, and sometimes it even deludes us into accommodating to a maladaptive situation. A new election cycle will roll around soon, and it's time to start asking when America will put children first.

My Daughter Took Me to Burning Man

Originally published by the Huffington Post on September 10, 2014.

I checked my packing list for the long Labor Day weekend: antler headpiece, hair extensions, hot pants, fur coat, support hose and estrogen cream. My husband and I were going to Burning Man for the first time -- under the tutelage of our 26-year old daughter, Zai, her partner, Phil, and a large group of their friends.

We packed up the car with food and water for five days, drove to the Nevada desert, and, after a three-hour wait at the gate watching the sunset -- some waited 23 hours while the gates closed for rain on the playa -- it was our turn at the entrance. A distant din and twinkling lights beckoned in the otherwise dark void ahead.

"Welcome home," the young attendant smiled as she took our tickets. "First time?" We told her it was. "Birgins! Please get out of the car, roll in the dust, and ring the bell!"

It's easy to make fun of Burning Man from a distance, and many have. It's even easier up close: People stroll naked or half-naked, in Star-Wars-meets-Mad-Max-meets-Indian-guru garb. Sessions are offered on respectful fisting, penis worship, and making your own greeting cards by stamping your genitals with colorful paint on cardstock -- a craft I typically enjoy, though I've never used that particular stamp.

There is no Internet or cell coverage, no plumbing and no power grid. My husband Arjun gravitates to new experiences, and while I'd rather meditate in a lush forest, I was determined to keep an open mind. I respected our daughter and trusted that what she valued here would be revealed to me. After all, her visit the previous year had inspired her decision to leave a secure job and pursue her passion for metal working and furniture design. I wanted to know -- what could be so powerful here?

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A Developmental Approach to Guiding Young Teens' Technology Use

Scientists are finding that during early adolescence, around ages 12-15, the brain undergoes one of the greatest remodeling projects of any other point in the lifespan. The purpose is to prepare teens for adulthood—to stand on their own, to make decisions, to secure resources, reproduce, form partnerships, and create community. And brain restructuring isn’t the only alteration.They experience changes in all spheres: neurological, cognitive, social, psychological, and physical. Meanwhile, technology is evolving at warp speed. A biological generation is 20-30 years, but scientists estimate that a “technological generation” is only seven years. According to Moore’s law, it could be even faster: The pace of technological change may actually be doubling every two years.

How does this rapid rate of technological innovation intersect with the tectonic changes of early adolescence—and how should you respond as a parent?

1. Inform yourself about technology.

It’s helpful to stay current with technology issues that can affect your teens, both for your own reality-testing and to help “scaffold” kids’ technology use. It’s helpful if parents can sort out fact from fiction about teens’ Internet use: to stand calm in the face of media-generated “moral panics”; to learn how teens are really using social media; and to understand the battle over our teens’ attention, intention, and self-direction.

For a thorough, research-based, and balanced consciousness-raising about technology, check out Howard Rheingold’s book Net Smart: How to Thrive Online. Rheingold’s book is filled with specific and helpful insights. For example: “There is nothing more important than for kids to learn how to identify fake communication.” Websites can be “cloaked” (sponsored in hidden ways by agenda-driven organizations whose involvement is not obvious, for example the Ku Klux Klan hosting a website on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr). Kids need to be detectives, he says, and use multiple strategies to triple-check the authority of sources. Many young people don’t understand how online content is actually generated—for example, that their Google searches are biased by algorithms generated by their previous searches, or that  editing discussions on Wikipedia can be useful to discover controversial themes about a topic.

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