The Sleepless Years

Here’s a conclusion from a scientific study that will shock anyone who has ever been a parent:  most babies don’t sleep through the night.  And the study also reaches another, equally startling determination:  most parents pay a lot of attention to trying to get their infants to sleep through the night.

Thank goodness we’ve got scientists around to confirm the obvious!

newborn baby cryingThe study found that 38 percent of babies that were six months old were not getting even six uninterrupted hours of sleep at night, and more than half weren’t sleeping for eight hours straight.  One-year-olds were only marginally better, on average, with 28 percent not yet sleeping for six hours and 43 percent not sleeping for a solid 8 hours at night.  The study also found that many parents worry about their baby’s sleeping habits, with mothers reporting feeling tense and depressed about trying to get their child to sleep through the night.   The researchers offered this reassurance for anxious parents, however:  after following babies from birth until the age of three, they found no material developmental difference between kids who slept through the night at a young age and those who took longer.

The study’s authors seem to attribute parental focus on their new baby’s sleep habits solely to developmental concerns.  I’m sure that some of the attention to infant sleep is attributable to reading the “baby books” about what is normal and what isn’t, but my personal experience teaches that at least some of it is naked parental self-interest.  When our boys got to the point of getting a good night’s sleep — which incidentally meant that Kish and I got a good night’s sleep, too — we felt like we had crossed the Rubicon and should be popping the cork on a bottle of champagne.  When a baby finally starts eating simple solid food (if you can call baby food “solid”) and falls into a sound sleep with a full belly, the mood around the house takes a decided turn for the better.

What’s up next for the scientific researchers trying to confirm what every parent knows?  A careful examination of the joys of changing baby diapers?


Our Two Years With Dr. Brazelton

Yesterday Kish passed along the New York Times obituary for Dr. T. Berry Brazelton, who died earlier this week at age 99.  Dr. Brazelton was a nationally recognized pediatrician, but he had a much more direct connection to our family.  He was the “baby doctor” who wrote the books that we read when preparing to become parents.  Those were the books that we consulted regularly as brand-new parents who were relentlessly scrutinizing Richard, our first-born, for every potential sign of illness, unhappiness,  developmental or behavioral problems, and every other thing nervous first-time parents worry incessantly about as they try to figure out the very basic question that lies at the core of the new parent’s consciousness:  is my child normal, and okay?

51izit41s7l-_ac_us218_Perhaps a day after Kish found out she was pregnant, approximately 50 books by Dr. T. Berry Brazelton appeared on the coffee table at our tiny apartment in suburban Alexandria, Virginia.  As is her wont, Kish had done her research, consulted her sources, and decided that Dr. T. Berry Brazelton was The Man when it came to providing us with guidance about how to deal with the new member of our family.  The physical presence of the books on the coffee table when I got home from work at night helped to drive home the point that, in a few short months, there would be a new member of the family in that little apartment, and we would be responsible for taking care of him or her.  Yikes!

Within days, the once-pristine books bore the physical signs of Kish’s careful attention. The pages sprouted highlighting and post-it notes and turned-down corners, and every night Dr. Brazelton’s books would be the subject of further examination and discussion aloud.  They were a kind of holy writ for new parents, and were treated accordingly.  It was obvious that Kish planned on trying to memorize everything Dr. Brazelton wrote, so that when the new member of the family, whom we had nicknamed “Junie,” emerged into the world, she would know exactly what to do at every instant.

My review of Dr. Brazelton’s books was a little less thorough.  I would read a bit and then shiver inwardly and wonder how in the world I was every going to remember every symptom that might indicate whether Junie had some kind of fatal childhood illness.  But as the months passed, and new maternity clothes were rolled out, and the Special Day drew nearer, and the books were digested bit by bit, I came to find Dr. Brazelton’s voice reassuring.  The underlying message seemed to be that new parents could do this, and that the infant that was going to appear in your midst was in fact a pretty tough cookie who wasn’t going to be irretrievably damaged by the first inept effort to pick him up or change his diaper or feed him solid food.  I remember going home the night Richard was born, while Kish was still in the hospital, and diving once more into the world of Dr. Brazelton for a final dose of common sense and encouragement before we finally brought our tiny baby home.

Once Richard arrived in our household, and was put under the new parent microscope, Dr. Brazelton’s books remained on the coffee table and were consulted anew, and repeatedly, as Richard’s every mannerism and cry and facial expression and rash was compared to the descriptions in the books.  And somehow the three of us made it through.  When we learned that Kish was pregnant with child number two, we’d come to realize that Dr. Brazelton had been right all along — we could muddle through, somehow, and our baby turned toddler was a pretty hardy survivor after all.  By the time Russell joined the Webner family, the Dr. Brazelton books had been moved from the coffee table to the bookshelves, to be consulted in the event of something we hadn’t seen before, but for the most part we were ready to fly solo, and were a lot more relaxed about it.

We spent about two years with Dr. Brazelton and his books as a constant companion.  He provided the encouragement and support we needed, at a time of tremendous vulnerability.  I’m guessing that we weren’t alone in that regard.  Thank you, Dr. Brazelton!

Faking It Since The Crib

Some new research indicates that babies as young as seven months engage in fake crying episodes to get attention. Although the research is based on detailed observation of only two infants and evaluation of their apparent condition before and after crying, it confirms what many parents have always thought was true — at a very young age, children become adept at manipulating their parents. Interestingly, the study suggests that fake crying may be more prevalent when the baby has an older sibling and must use fake crying to compete for attention.

Babies who engage in fake crying must engage in some form of cause and effect analysis. At first they cry only when they are hungry or uncomfortable, and when they cry someone comes to help. The next analytical step is a big one — they decide that even if they aren’t hungry or uncomfortable, they can cry anyway . . . and then they see that someone will come and keep them company. It’s amazingly complex reasoning for an infant, and it also shows that the baby has realized that the universe is not an utterly random series of events. It’s part of the process of learning that the baby is an individual that can exercise some limited control over her surroundings. My guess is that that important realization occurs at an almost intuitive level.

As any parent knows, once the fake crying threshold is passed a child will push the envelope to determine the boundaries of what they can and cannot do — which is why the “terrible twos” are so terrible. The child learns that saying “no” to everything doesn’t work, that you can’t successfully lie about eating forbidden candy with chocolate all over your face, and other trial-and-error life lessons that get incorporated into the child’s persona. The responses change when the child ventures outside the family unit to play with other children and realizes that crying every time they suffer a reversal isn’t going to do anything except get them a reputation as a crybaby. Eventually the child is ready to dive into the much more complex relationships, emotional interplay, and power games of the teenage years and finally emerges as an adult, with scheming, conniving, “faking it” concepts well understood.

It’s fascinating, but not surprising, that “faking it” begins at such a tender age. The fake crying of the newborn is but the first step in a long process of learning how to successfully interact with the human beings around you. Because life is all about how you deal with people, the precise lessons learned from those “faking it” episodes are crucial.

Video Cameras In The Delivery Room

From Pittsburgh comes a story about hospitals revisiting their policies on allowing video cameras in the delivery room.  In hospitals where filming is banned or limited, the stated reasons are to protect the privacy and safety of patients and employees.  There is also the suggestion that, if there are problems with the birth, hospitals and medical personnel would prefer that there be no video record of occurrences in the delivery room.

Some people strongly disagree with the restrictions on filming.  They cherish the video of the birth of their baby, watch it regularly, and like to be reminded of how their child looked at that amazing moment.  One of the people quoted in the article watches the video with their now-grown child.  For such people, documenting that life-changing moment is crucially important; they want to remain closely connected to that instant.  Because some people feel so strongly about it, I imagine that there will always be hospitals that allow video recording of the birth, notwithstanding privacy, safety, and potential liability concerns.

As for us, we didn’t film the birth of either of our boys.  I didn’t even think of it, really, and if I had considered it I would have decided not to do so.  I wanted to be in the moment during the births, not fussing with a camera.  I knew I would be so super-charged with adrenalin that I wouldn’t have been able to take a decent picture, anyway, and in any case I didn’t want to be separated from the event by a video camera, or anything else.  Looking at the birth through a video camera lens just would not have been the same.

Mommy’s Brain

A new study published in Behavioral Neuroscience suggests that giving birth causes the brains of mothers to grow in certain areas.  The study compared brain size soon after birth with brain size months later and concluded that the gray matter of the brain increased by a significant amount.  The specific areas of the brain that were affected deal with maternal motivation, reward and emotion processing, sensory integration, and reasoning and judgment.  All of these areas are relevant to child-rearing (although you could make a case that every area of the brain is related in some fashion to child-rearing).

It shouldn’t be surprising that the female brain reacts to giving birth and caring for a child.  After birth, females are flooded with hormones like estrogen, oxytocin and prolactin, and first-time mothers are learning an entirely new set of skills, including surviving on little sleep, coming bolt awake at the first murmurings of a waking infant, and mastering the interpretation of baby cries to determine whether a child is starving, dealing with a poop-filled diaper, or just lonely for Mom’s smiling face.

Not surprisingly, the study did not include the impact of having a child on the brains of new fathers.  My guess would be that any such study would conclude that the birth of a child does nothing to divert the male brain from its long, gradual slide to eventual senility.  While maternal brains respond energetically to new stimuli, sluggish paternal brains just hope to get some sleep.