“Don’t go to your baby right away . . . let her fuss a little on her own for a few minutes before picking her up,” or “Don’t give her too much attention or she’ll always expect it.”
These messages are still prolific, even if it’s just your stern Aunt Millie making you feel like a “softie." On a larger scale, the writer for perhaps the most-talked-about cover article of Time magazine of all time, "Are You Mom Enough? . . . " got it wrong when she approached her now famed profile piece based on the common assumption that attachment-style parenting is in opposition to developing independence in childhood. In fact, the research (e.g., Stein, J. A., & Newcomb, M. D. (1994) "Children's internalizing and externalizing behaviors and maternal health problems" Journal of Pediatric Psychology, 19(5), 571-593) shows the opposite: Healthy attachment results more often in nurturing the traits of independence and inner strength. (Mommies, I've scoured the research and have yet to find any science that supports the common notion that we can spoil little ones with attachment-inducing care!) To aim high on that healthy-attachment continuum, embrace your inner softie! Always comfort, hold, and soothe baby when she needs help getting back to her happy place. The science suggests in concert: The younger the baby, the more important this is.
A major flaw in our cultural messaging surrounding being responsive to our babies is that much advice better fit for older toddlers gets applied to younger infants. Dr. Harvey Karp, author of The Happiest Baby on The Block series, stated it this way in a recent interview (with me), "Setting limits has absolutely no place in parenting babies under 6 months." Many specialists in the neuropsychology arena would move that bar closer to a year, while emphasizing that responding to distress is the key ingredient in optimum brain development (for at least the first 18 months).
So just how responsive, doting, and attentive should we be? And how is the best balance struck between making your baby secure and fostering a little independence in the short term (as in, please go to sleep already!)? With toddlers and preschoolers we may push a bit for more independent sleep (without leaving them to cry it out). A great example is Dr. Karp's "patience stretching," (explained in his toddler book and DVD) an invaluable tool at the right developmental stage. But in babyhood, the fuse that launches baby into toxic distress isn't just short, it's virtually nonexistent. This is because the parts of the brain that regulate strong emotions are not fully formed.
Once babies have been responded to consistently and lovingly for the first six months, they have built a certain level of trust in the world. Areas of the brain that determine social, emotional, and self-regulating capacities that were not there at birth, are more developed at this age (though they still have a lot of maturing and connecting up to do). Emotion-processing and stress-regulating genes have been turned on, according to positive emotional relations with caregivers, and six months of soothing has provided “scaffolding” (as the science set terms it) for the baby to begin to practice a little soothing on her own. At this point, a few minutes of protest crying to nudge baby toward more self-soothing may be okay in moderation, depending on the individual baby. (Babies develop at different rates and many continue to need parents’ help for several more months or years, at sleep times.) My standard approach with coaching clients is a no-cry one, but for certain individuals, factors like types of cries (because there's a genetic component to baby's sensitivity) and history and age of baby can neurologically and physiologically have very different effects. These factors can be gaged to determine how much, if any, we can safely push baby. This delicate approach is based in part on confirmation I received during email conversations with Dr. Allan Schore, a top expert on emotional and neurological development in the first year, and of course, after my studies of many textbooks and journal articles authored by him. "I agree with your position, and about the importance of age," Schore said when I ran my approach by him. In any case, it's developmentally imperative that baby gets the level of support she needs, despite what your pediatrician may sanction in the name of independence.
The other vital key to surviving natural infant soothing needs involves practices that lay the ground work for future independent sleep. Not nursing/feeding completely to sleep every time and avoiding too strong an association between any one soothing technique and sleeping can help avoid the need for more aggressive sleep training later.
Bottom line, any soothing style you embrace or specific sleep-plan you adopt must gel with your softie sensibilities . . . and your new, myth-busting knowledge of long term psychological development.