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The Science and Spirit of Gentle Infant-Rearing

Maureen McCarthy | Aug 5, 2020

The views expressed in our content reflect individual perspectives and do not represent the official views of the Baha'i Faith.

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Maureen McCarthy | Aug 5, 2020

The views expressed in our content reflect individual perspectives and do not represent the official views of the Baha'i Faith.

I thought I was prepared for motherhood, but the reality of being responsible for a fragile new life hit me hard. 

I became an extremely light sleeper, and was shaken by some of the (unsolicited) parenting advice I received. Fortunately, I learned of a mothering support group that backed up its advice with good research-based information. The moms there said “Of course your baby doesn’t have to cry to have strong lungs or become “independent”! Of course you want to pick up your son and find out what he needs!” 

Crying baby

With renewed confidence, I practiced a gentle and responsive parenting style as my son grew up. The more I learned and the more I saw positive outcomes, in my own son and in the children of others, the more confirmed I felt in my choices. 

However, my heart ached for all the babies still being left alone to cry uncomforted, and for all the parents struggling to figure out which parenting advice to follow. Thus began my decades-long journey to provide parents and other caregivers with good research-based information. I gathered research findings from neuroscience, psychology, anthropology, primatology and other fields, focusing on the parenting practices that facilitated the emotional, social, moral, intellectual and physical development of infants and children. I then compared them with the Baha’i teachings to see if the science was in harmony with them, or at least did not conflict. 

Spiritual Guidance for Gentle Child-Rearing

In the Baha’i teachings, Abdu’l-Baha said, in a talk in Paris in 1911, that “God made religion and science to be the measure, as it were, of our understanding … Weigh all things in this balance.”

In the spirit of that advice, I applied the parenting concepts and practices supported by both science and religion to my own parenting, and later shared them on the website and Facebook page for the organization I founded, Parenting for a Caring World.

Which Baha’i teachings guided me as I weighed research findings in the balance? I began with the passages from the Baha’i writings about the purpose of existence, as these clearly form the foundation from which to choose goals and methods for child-rearing. The Baha’i writings say that we are here to acquire the virtues we’ll need in both this world and the next – the joy-filled, exclusively spiritual world after death. We are also on this earthly plane, those same writings point out, to know and love our Creator, to love and serve our fellow creatures, to promote the oneness of humanity, and to “carry forward an ever-advancing civilization.” 

With those counsels in mind, Baha’i parents work hard to avoid raising self-absorbed children who think only of themselves and the fleeting pleasures of this world – and strive to raise caring, capable, moral and joyful children who will seek closeness to God, spiritual growth and a life of love and service to humanity. 

But how do we accomplish these lofty goals? The Baha’i writings give us some answers in the following passages: 

The mother must … rear the child gently, in the way of tenderness …– Abdu’l-Baha, A Compilation on Bahá’í Education

The child must not be oppressed or censured because it is undeveloped; it must be patiently trained.” – Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace

Treat all thy friends and relatives … with a spirit of utmost love and kindliness.” Abdu’l-Baha, Tablets of Abdu’l-Baha Abbas

Though the following quotes don’t specifically pertain to the raising of children, I believe they can and should be applied to how we treat children:

The path to guidance is one of love and compassion, not of force and coercion.The Bab, Selections From the Writings of the Báb

It behoveth them that are endued with insight and understanding to observe that which will cause joy and radiance.Baha’u’llah, Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh

All human beings [must] powerfully sustain one another…Let them at all times concern themselves with doing a kindly thing for one of their fellows, offering to someone love, consideration, thoughtful help. – Abdu’l-Baha, Selections From the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá

Of course, children need to face and overcome hardships and challenges. Children donot babies. But regardless of the ages of the children, our overall parenting style should be imbued with the gentleness, tenderness, kindness, love, patience, thoughtfulness and consideration.

The Science of Gentle Child-Rearing

Now let us turn to the science, where I found much that supported a gentle, attuned and responsive parenting approach, and much that showed the harmfulness of ignoring babies’ needs for security and comfort. 

My focus here will be on the advice that so disturbed me when I became a mother – that parents should leave babies alone to cry uncomforted. Many so-called experts endorse the use of callous infant “independence-training” techniques such as “controlled crying/spaced soothing.” The justification for this “sleep-training” is that parents need their sleep and babies need to learn to “self-soothe” and “become independent.” 

Let us first employ the science of logic to examine these claims. How can a baby possibly be “independent”? Even we adults are all interdependent. We must rely on farmers, truckers and others for our physical and material necessities, and on friends and family for emotional and practical support. We adults are also dependent on God and His messengers for strength, guidance, love, joy and tranquility. So it is not only illogical but ridiculous to expect a baby to be independent. Babies grow very slowly into a healthy interdependence … and only if their emotional needs, relationship needs and other needs are met warmly and consistently. Healthy interdependence and appropriate dependence should be the goals – not independence, which is impossible – even for adults.

Regarding “self-soothing,” research findings from fields such as neuroscience have shown that babies only very gradually become able to “self-soothe” or “self-regulate.” Self-regulation can be defined as maintaining or returning to a state of non-stress, whether physical or emotional. Self-regulation involves being able to process our emotions in positive ways. 

An adult who feels hot can take off a sweater; an adult who is upset can take calming breaths or go for a walk in the woods. But adults also turn to co-regulation sometimes, asking a friend for a hug when feeling lonely or calling one’s spouse when upset. Babies experience co-regulation when parents respond to their cues promptly and lovingly, when parents hold them, “wear” them, speak and sing to them, breastfeed, comfort and rock them. This co-regulation helps infants maintain a healthy pattern of breathing, a normal body temperature and even a healthy heart rate. Babies learn self-regulation only through co-regulation that parents provide when needed. As they become children and teens, this need for co-regulation decreases and the ability to self-regulate improves. 

What happens when babies do not receive the co-regulation and comfort they need? Brain-imaging studies show that prolonged, uncomforted crying causes toxic stress chemicals to wash over the brain, opioids to be withdrawn and pain circuits in the brain to be activated. The brains of babies who are not consistently comforted when distressed do not become “wired” for moral or prosocial behavior. Their stress-response systems suffer damage, so they are easily triggered into fear or anger

Since babies deprived of needed co-regulation and comfort are not empowered with a sense of self-efficacy or agency, they tend to feel helpless, and are predisposed to later suffer from depression. Since they don’t receive empathy, they don’t learn to feel empathy for others. Children who don’t feel empathy can easily become bullies, or steal from, hit and otherwise victimize people and animals. Since babies and toddlers often left to “fend for themselves” cannot count on humans for “good feelings,” they tend to turn to objects such as teddy bears and “security blankets” and, later, to cigarettes, alcohol, drugs, “comfort food,” etc. They are also likely to turn for good feelings to activities such as compulsive shopping and gambling. 

The ACE Study has collected a tremendous amount of data regarding the importance of relationships and responsive caregiving in childhood. This decades-long, ongoing study of Adverse Childhood Experiences has definitively shown that negative psychosocial experiences in the early years transmute into organic disease, addictions, social malfunction and mental illness. Individuals with a score of 6 (out of 10) or higher died two decades earlier than a person with a score of zero! Those with a score of 4 had a 400% increased risk of emphysema! A male child with an ACE Score of 6 compared to a male child with an ACE Score of 0 had a 4,600% increase in the likelihood of becoming an injection drug user sometime later in life!

These represent just a few of the scientific findings that show the harmfulness of not meeting babies’ and children’s emotional and relationship needs, or that demonstrate the positive outcomes of gentle and responsive parenting practices. To learn more, go to Parenting for a Caring World’s website, at www.ListenToYourBaby.com.

By applying the Baha’i teachings about kindness and gentle caregiving, and adopting the best practices science has to offer, we will be able to raise children who, in the words of Abdu’l-Baha, “… radiate light, grow in spirituality, [are] filled with wisdom and learning, and take on the characteristics of the angelic host.”

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