Monthly Archives: March 2010

Develpmental science and god: Now there’s a topic I never thought I’d post about

I thought I'd try to tread on ground that is usually considered decidedly UN-scientific. I've been thinking a lot about religion, faith, and the like, given that it's Passover for some of us, Easter's around the corner for even more of us, and spring has most definitively sprung in my neck of the woods. I find it fascinating and troublesome that there is shockingly little research out there on the implications of religious beliefs and/or the belief in a god (or gods) on children's development. There are studies out there that touch on the subject, of course, but systematic programs of research that investigate whether children benefit or are harmed by certain types of religious beliefs vs others do NOT abound (a kind reader pointed me out to this line of research, but it deals more with the cognitive developmental implications of assigning "theory of mind" to human vs non-human agents… in other words, not quite what we're looking for). But there ARE some studies scattered around that might help us think about the question a bit more deeply.

First, I'll back up a bit and give you my personal context which, let's face it, will colour the way I see the research and  the questions I most want answered through science. In fact, that last little bit I just wrote? That is a doozy of a thing to say for some people, I know. Yes, I firmly believe that science CAN and SHOULD inform how we think about religion and faith and its impact on children's well-being. Sam Harris, at an awesome TED talk, said it MUCH better than I could, so go ahead and listen to his talk on the subject and let me know what you think. His basic premise: Morality has for too long been the sole purview of religion and faith. This is a bad thing. A science of morality can and should exist… and the sooner the better.

(Of course, this doesn't mean we shouldn't also talk about what might be outside the bounds of science… and why. The why part is crucial for me. Karen Armstrong is this brilliant woman who does an excellent job of cracking my brain open every time I read another page of her book, The Case for God)

I'll come right out and say that I generally consider myself a hethen in that I was raised a (very guilt-prone, heavily moralistic) atheist. I do not associate myself with one religious institution and although I have stepped foot in many types of places of worship, I do not groc most. Of course, this upbringing and belief system will now heavily inform what my children will learn about religion and faith. There are several studies that have shown that, in general, children and adolescents most often appropriate the religious beliefs of their parents. Yes, they question them. But the better the parent-child relationship is, the more likely that children will align with their parents' faith. Also, factors such as growing up in a relatively strict family, with a father working out of the home and a mother in the home, and marital happiness all are associated with an increased chance of children and parents sharing the same religious beliefs

So, as I sit singing with my children at the Passover seder (my husband
is an atheist/agnostic Jew), as I cry with my in-laws about the plight
of oppressed people (thankfully, they focus on oppression
EVERYWHERE, not just for the Jews), as I watch with a mind-boggling
amount of pride as my children sing "the four questions"… in FREAKING
HEBREW, as I read from the haggadah and say words I don't believe (but
also don't feel hypocritical about reading), I wonder what this whole
thing is all about. I wonder what I'm teaching my children. What is this "thing" that they will likely appropriate from my husband and me? What are the core messages about religion and faith that I'm imparting to them? I wonder
what I'm going to say to my kids when they ask me why I'm praising a
god I don't profess to believe in, why I celebrate a group of people
who I most definitely do NOT feel are the "chosen" ones (for that would
imply that others have not been chosen and, dude, that can't be a good
thing). But I DO sing, and I DO teach my children these rituals and I
DO feel they are important and meaningful and quite beautiful (some of
it, not all, of course). I think the themes of oppression, death, rebirth, renewal, hope and transcendence are so important to discuss… over and over, year after year. I DO want them to celebrate spring and connection and love with their extended family. I want them to feel
connected not only to this generation and the last, but to generations
and generations before them who sang the same songs, told the same
stories, ate the same food, made the same jokes (oy… the jokes). And
I can't seem to do this outside of a context that revolves around a
deity that is not my own.

And we'll also be going to Easter Egg Hunts this weekend.

So many of you will be going to church and telling another story this weekend to your children. But at our seder table last night, I kept realizing that the Christian story at this same time of year has such similar themes: oppression, death, rebirth and so on. I'm not a theology expert and I've read far too little on the subject of how these Judeo-Christian stories arose in the first place and are connected. But it DOES seem to me, on the most basic level, that we're telling some pretty darn similar stories to our children.

So, here's what I'd like to talk about… or, rather, here's where I'd like to start this conversation that I hope can take us to some interesting places: What are you teaching your children about morality, faith, god, religion, worship, and so on? What do you most hope to give your children by telling these stories? What questions do you wish science would tackle in this area? Do you even think science has a place in this discussion? How would you feel if your children appropriated a completely different set of beliefs about faith than you espouse?

(I FULLY acknowledge that I have only touched on the two most widely talked about religious traditions in this post. In part, I do this out of ignorance. I don't want to misrepresent faiths that I know only a tiny bit about. I'd love to hear from you about the whole variety of faith-based traditions that are being practiced at this time and how you think they can effect your children's well-being.)

It’s hard being a family

I just read a great post over at Science-based Parenting (a group of parents writing from a "skeptics" perspective). Have you read the blog? The post resonated so well with many thoughts I've been having recently about teaching my children how to cope with their own intense negative emotions, especially when those emotions are aimed at the people they are closest to, those they need the most, those without whom they could not survive (literally). The post was a reflection on the movie (and book), Where The Wild Things Are. Go read it (trust me)… it invokes so many of what I believe are the key emotional experiences that form the building blocks of our personalities. Experiences in particular that involve jealousy, shame, anger and anxiety. I also reviewed the book here and suggested why the story has appealed to so many kids (and adults).

If you haven't figured it out yet, I don't think of childhood as a happy-happy, carefree, rainbow-filled period in development. I sure would like my children to experience as little pain and sorrow as possible, but I know they'll feel some. And I know that there's not a whole lot I can do about that. What I CAN do is give them a safe place to express and work through their tough emotions. I can also try to cultivate a family environment that does not quash all conflict, but instead works through it, with all the messiness that that might entail. (After all, it's within the family microcosm that children most often practice how to regulate, evaluate, negotiate, and express their inner worlds. If most emotions are left unexpressed and hidden, then it's difficult to get the chance to learn much about how to handle them later on.)  I can also own my own mistakes and communicate that to my kids in developmentally appropriate ways.

I suspect that one of the hardest realizations that comes about in childhood is the insight that your parents aren't all-powerful, all-knowing and perfect. Oy… the anxiety that must come about with this awareness… I wonder if it's a "sudden awareness" or if it slowly dawns on a child, much like the idea that Santa doesn't exist. I suspect that in some cases, traumatic family events may induce these more "sudden" realizations while a more gradual understanding of human fallibility may emerge in the absence of trauma… but that's pure speculation. Now I'm off to see if any developmental researcher has actually studied that "aha" moment when a parent loses their deity status in the child's eye…

Blog block and some link love

Hi everyone. I've been going through a massive writing/blog block. Most of it has to do with feeling completely overwhelmed with my work while I plan a very, VERY big transition. I haven't actually come out with this move fully to all the officials that need to know, so I'm going to keep this vague for another 2 weeks. But it does mean that I've been having a hard time focusing on pulling together the right research for several posts I have in mind.

I'm also selling our house in 10 days.

And looking for a new house.

And generally losing my mind through it all.

But I haven't forgotten about you all. And I am by no means planning on abandoning this space. I really love writing this blog and all the great interactions I've been having with some many of you bright, funny, fascinating parents out there. So please bear with me while I get my sh*% together.

For now, here are three articles suggesting very different perspectives on discipline / parenting approaches. Food for thought for sure, but I just couldn't put together my pros and cons lists coherently enough to make this a "real" post. It's hard not to form SOME opinions though, as you'll see if you read them. Maybe they'll inspire or piss some of you off enough that an interesting discussion can ensue in the comments:

1. Here's an article about the merits of "permissive parenting," one of the three parenting styles we've discussed in this previous post.

2. Here's one suggesting that spanking our kids could lower their IQ.

3. And then there's this one, an article that espouses the varied merits of spanking children.

I'd be thrilled to hear what you all think of these various views. In fact, I wish we could all just meet at a coffee shop and have a proper chat about it all — I could sure use the company and the caffeine…

Let’s recap: 4 – 5.5 months pretty much sucks… for most of us

I'll start with a confession. When my boys were 4 months, I hit my wall. I was so sleep deprived; I often got 2-4 hours of sleep / night for weeks. On a good night when my husband took several night feedings, I would get 5 hours of sleep (I know, this seems like HEAVEN for some of you right now, but I'm a sleep wuss so I couldn't cope well even with that "much" sleep). I NEEDED my brain back. So the first time we tried sleep training, the boys were 4 months. The short story is that it was a miserable failure… I was a miserable failure. There was no pattern to how often they'd wake up and how long they'd cry.  Although we'd TRY to be consistent and implement a sleep-training plan (not CIO, but still some crying was happening all the time) there always seemed to be some major issue that one or the other of the boys was going through: one started teething as early as 4 months, one would be hungry constantly and needed to  "cluster feed," the swaddle seemed too confining, the swaddle seemed too loose, one had flipped on his stomach, the other didn't burp before being put down, and so on. In sum, it sucked. And there seemed too many variables at work, too many possible and impossible baby reasons for them to legitimately need a better, less wimpy, more kick-ass, responsive, sensitive mom. So, after about a week of banging our heads against the wall with some pretty basic sleep-training methods, I gave up. And then I proceeded to lose my mind for the next 2 months. The only thing that got me through it was knowing that it was TEMPORARY. I knew I had a plan and I would put it in place… at 6 months.

Mine is not a unique or even particularly interesting story. It is SO common. So what's the deal with this age? Four months is the beginning of a major stage transition in cognitive development. Babies at this age are now beginning to coordinate simple actions, like reaching and grasping, into routines that have a deliberate impact on the world. Now your baby can actually reach what he’s aiming for, put it in his mouth, and explore it. That means that objects are accessible, reachable, touchable, and YUM, suckable. But more than that, babies at this age are beginning to develop expectations. They start being able to PREDICT what's going to happen in the world. When they reach, they expect what they reach for to be there. Having this prediction confirmed time after time gives them a sense that their actions are causing a particular effect. Piaget termed this level of cause-effect thinking “magico-phenomenalistic causality” (ah, yes, we psychologist are so hip with our terms…), which just means that the baby has a kind of magical expectation that his actions will produce desirable effects. With respect to people, these growing expectations are the key to gratifying exchanges of smiles and gestures; it's that incredibly social "aha" time when the baby realizes when I coo to mummy, she'll laugh, when I laugh, she'll laugh back! Babies will now make a noise in order to elicit a smile from the parent. A time when attention to other people is not just a static state of awestruck delight (like at 3 months and before), but a state of turn-taking, when every noise, every gesture, is offered in order to get a response from the other person. That response means everything. And so, in the middle of the night, perhaps during dreams, certainly when babies wake up throughout the night or during the "middle" of their nap, this is what they're most concerned with: re-engaging that power to socially connect, experiment with, and play with the most important people in their worlds.

When we try to sleep train at this age, we need, at some point (like, at 4 in the morning!), to cut off this quest for a reaction. And babies are not usually happy about this. If they coo, they want you to goo-goo back. ALL. THE. TIME. If they cry, they want you to run and soothe them. EVERY. TIME. They're playing with these cause and effect relationships and they want to feel like they've mastered this little world that continues to grow for them.

In short, the four month stage transition is as magnificent as it is crazy-making. I think one of the hardest parts of this time is that most parents have reached the end of their sleep-deprivation ropes. It's around this time that many of us lose all that adrenaline we've been running on and the realization of how difficult it all is, and how long it could go on for, hits hard. Maybe for some of us, an equally bad part of this stage is that we've lost much of the social support we had when our babies were newborns and our kind mothers, friends and neighbours brought us freezable dinners and words of sympathy that made us feel a little less alone. Also, many parents have to return to work around this time in their baby's life and oftentimes this seems like an impossible transition to make.

How are you coping with the 4-month stage? What's the hardest part for your family? If you've already been through this period, what do you remember about this time in your family's life and please tell us all how you managed to muddle through it…

Let’s recap: 3 – 4 months is iffy, but for some, sleep training works

Here's a question from N., the gist of which represents a significant number of emails that I receive.

My baby is about to turn 3 months (currently 2.5) and I would love
to try sleep training.  I am very sleep deprived and it is causing
marital strife.  Our baby gets up at night every hour to three  and
sometimes he will only fall asleep while lying on us.  Naps are a joke
as they simply don't exist or, if the do, they are 5-45 minute catnaps
in my arms….there is no schedule.  I am not functioning well and it
is terrifying me!  I would like to try CIO when my baby turns 3 months
but I have a feeling that within 10min our baby will begin screaming
fits and my husband won't (right or wrong) go for this…he will only
let the baby cry for 5-10 ….I'm willing to go for much longer because
I am that desperate!
I can't wait an additional 3 months until the 6 month mark…any ideas or wisdom would so greatly be appreciated!

and foremost, this is SUCH a tough age. I remember the panic I felt
when I realized how much longer this whole infancy thing was going to
last. At the time, I couldn't imagine making it "to the other side." A
few thoughts: First, your baby actually does need to wake up at least a
couple of times during the night to be fed. That doesn't mean she needs
to wake up every hour for that nourishment, but it's good to keep in
mind that the vast majority of infants need their stomachs re-filled
every 3-4 hours or so. Second, you may find that your baby hits 3
months old and naturally starts sleeping longer stretches (and not
necessarily on top of you either). These shifts may occur naturally,
without you doing anything at all because those first 2.5 months are filled with huge biological changes
that are settling down right about now. But if your baby DOES continue
to wake up every hour or two and does not settle down easily afterwards
and if you simply can't go on like this much longer, you can certainly
consider some form of gentle sleep training methods.

As I
mentioned in Part I of the 3 to 4 month stage description, this is the
only stage that I am somewhat hesitant to recommend because the
distress levels of the baby really do need to be monitored by the
parent. But on the other hand, there are several reasons why we
included this stage — in the book — as one of the
possible periods to sleep-train:
1. There are DESPERATE mothers like the one who posted the question who
can't go on feeling sane without some change. I don't know this
particular woman's circumstance, but many mothers also either need or
want to go back to
work by the time their child is 3 months old. These mothers often have
choice but to try SOMETHING. My main point is that if you feel you
have to do something, don't try sleep training at 4 months if you can
avoid it and earlier than 2.5 months isn't wise either.
2. We have heard remarkably consistent reports from parents who did
gently sleep train (i.e., not CIO methods, more like "no-cry sleep
solutions") at this window with great success. Although I personally
didn't feel comfortable doing any kind of sleep training with my boys
this age (especially since they were 4 weeks premature and I had "issues", let's just say…), I strongly
feel that it's important to provide the developmental
and let parents make the decisions for themselves.
I think it's important to consider the unique properties of each
developmental stage and think about whether there are some special
considerations that should be made in terms of methods that might work
best. From my perspective, I'd like to emphasize that whatever method
is used
during this period, it shouldn't result in letting the baby cry for
more than 5-10 min max (I don't know about your baby, but mine cried
more than that if they were in their carseat and I stopped at a red
light). This is the only age at which I'm careful to dissuade parents
from picking a method that will involve prolonged distress because
the baby is simply biologically incapable of regulating intense
distress by herself; she
needs mom and/or dad to bring her back down (of course, some babies DO
calm themselves down at this age, but very few can do so when they are
really, really wailing).

you find that your baby doesn't take to sleep training easily during
this age, and you feel you need to stop, then there ARE things you can
do to maximize your own sleep. Some common suggestions: (1) Enlist your
partner to take half the night shift and you do the other half. So, if
you're breastfeeding, you can consider pumping or supplementing with
formula and asking your partner to take the 10 pm – 2 am shift and you
can take over for the 2 am – 7 am shift. That way, each of you are at
least getting a 5-hour chunk of sleep in a row. (2) Hire a "mommy's
helper" if you can afford it. This person can help soothe your baby to
sleep after you feed her during the day and maximize nap times for you.
She can also take your baby for a walk while you catch a nap. (3) Every
3 days or so, you can ask your partner to take the full night shift so
you can catch up. Again, your partner can give the baby a bottle of
breastmilk or formula when the baby wakes up. That way, you can always
refuel twice a week and feel just a little more human. (4) If you can
afford it, night doulas or night nurses that come very highly
recommended can be serious life-savers when your partner can't help.
Hiring someone even once/week might just give you enough energy to get
you through the worst of this time. (5) Some people also find that
co-sleeping during the worst of the frequent wakings works for them. It
really DOES come to an end eventually and although 6 months seems
completely impossible to imagine getting to at this point, your baby
WILL get to that stage when sleep training may take much easier
(believe me, I really DO get it, having had twin babies who woke up
every other hour — and NOT the same hour — througout the first 6
months, I feel your horror like I was there yesterday).

What do you
think? Words of encouragement or wisdom for N.? Anyone out there who sleep-trained during this age and was
thrilled with the results (I know you're out there because I've talked
to many of you)? Does anyone want to respectfully gasp in horror at my
recommendation to try sleep training at this age?

Let’s recap: 0 – 3 months is all about getting through alive…

Sorry everyone. I was in Philadelphia, at this conference on research on adolescence (I'm of the mind that one can start obsessing about your pre-pre-pre teen's adolescence during the preschool years, aren't YOU?!). I had to just call uncle last week and this one also — I can't keep up with my "day job" requirements right now and write at the level with which I feel comfortable in this blog. So, instead of just filling this space with thoughtless musings from my 4 am ruminations, I thought I'd take this week to re-post some stuff I wrote around a year ago (I see that my archives have dropped my April and May entries… grrrr…). And I'll actually improve on some of the post, if I can, with better links or clearer writing (there was a learning curve for me with this blog, obviously, so in some cases I kinda cringe at what I've written and I'm happy to take this opportunity to make it better). Most of you (well, let's face it, NO ONE) were not reading at that time and may have missed some information that might now be relevant to you. I'll start with the earliest ages and pick one or two entries from each stage. Please feel free to comment and share your experiences. We had very few comments when I first started, so this is another chance for those of you who need it, to brainstorm through some of the toughest ages and stages. The posts will be most relevant to sleep training, but as you get by now, I think these sensitive windows of development are pertinent to so many other developmental issues. So, without further ado, let's begin at the beginning…

     The period of birth to 3 months is often considered the time when
babies learn to regulate their basic bodily reactions, their states,
and their physiology. These little beings have spent a long time in the
womb, developing all the bodily mechanisms necessary to live on this
planet, to eat, to breathe, to expend energy in motion, to coordinate
muscles and senses so that motion accomplishes something, and to sleep
when replenishment is needed. They have also developed the mechanisms
for acquiring knowledge and skill—mechanisms that will allow them to
pay attention to what is most important, especially the faces, voices,
and actions of other humans.
    Most important, this is an age when
the baby’s states—alert attention, quiet wakefulness, and sleep—become
practiced and differentiated from each other, creating a predictable
cycle of daily rhythms. And these rhythms gradually become synchronized
with the day-and-night cycle of our planet, so that, starting around 6
weeks, babies sleep more at night and less in the day. And, as they
develop, these rhythms will also become synchronized with your rhythms
and the household routines that underlie them. During the end of this
stage, you will also notice a rapid increase in face-to-face gazing,
more smiling and other expressions of pleasure, and a general decrease
in fussiness at the end of this stage. Babies learn, by about 2 to 3
months, that they are part of a complex but exciting world of cycles
both inside and outside their bodies.
    From my perspective, sleep
training prior to 3 months is not a good idea. There is too much going
on. The synchronization of brain and bodily systems, the establishment
of cycles for eating and sleeping, the coordination of these cycles
with the outside world, all need time to develop and stabilize. The
sheer number of biological and psychological systems getting wired up,
and the rapid rate at which they are becoming connected with each
other, staggers the imagination.  A lot of biological events, including
cascades of changes in neural pathways and organ systems, unfold with
uncanny precision, almost as if there were a master schedule posted
somewhere and your baby is diligently following it. Scientists still do
not know exactly how this cascade of changes progresses so effectively.
But what we do know, as child psychologists, is that it’s better not to
mess with it! To attempt sleep training before your baby does the
majority of her sleeping at night would be to miss a massive biological
leg-up. Why not let natural biological processes do their work, before
you begin adjusting the fine points?
    Sleep training during
this early period may simply be ineffective. It may be difficult or
impossible to establish desirable sleep habits before sleeping at night
becomes routine. But it could also confuse your baby’s evolving
capacity to synchronize her interest, excitement levels, perception,
and communication. Imagine that your baby is just learning to smile at
you and to expect a smile in return. This reciprocal smiling sets off
an episode of communication that is designed to increase arousal,
because arousal is part of pleasure. And now imagine that this smiling
takes place just as you are turning out the lights and leaving the
room, a necessary step in most sleep-training methods. Now your
aroused, excited baby, instead of receiving the ongoing communication
she expects, is faced with the prospect of lying still and going to
sleep. This might simply not work. Fine. But it’s quite possible that,
after a few such scenarios, your baby will become confused as to what
to expect when mutual smiling or gazing take place. Maybe the smiling
means “game over”. Maybe I should disengage rather than engage when Mom
and I make eye contact. This sort of social confusion could result from
mixed signals, as the baby sees it. So, my take is better to wait until
the interpersonal routines of smiling and gazing become solid habits.
As they solidify, security and trust will solidify as well, making the
ordeal of sleep training less of a challenge to your baby’s sense of
himself, his sense of you, and his sense of your relationship.

if you're in the throes of this stage with your baby, you  might be
saying:  But I'm DYING over here!  What can I do to maximize EVERYONE'S

Our answer (seriously, click the link… I found it SO cathartic when I was in this stage with my boys):

"Whatever gets you through the night,
is alright… Do it wrong or do it right, it’s alright.” Use a swing, a
bouncy chair, tuck your baby in the crook of your neck, lay him across
your chest, rock him in a chair, a glider or a hammock, bounce him in a
sling or a baby carrier, throw him in a car seat on top of the dryer
(my husband insists on my warning you to be careful that the seat can
fall off the edge), in the back seat of a car, or in the stroller. Have
you tried the quarter-time bounce (oh man… I need to videotape this
"bounce" and share it with you all… It seriously worked with EVERY
infant I've laid my hands on)? Anything you do, you can undo with
proper sleep training at a later stage of development.  This is not the
time to stress out about “creating bad habits.” What you’re creating is
a tight bond with a rapidly developing little organism that needs your
warmth, flexibility and consistency. During this early newborn stage,
whatever gets you (and your baby) through the night is just fine.

Anyone out there just making it through the night? Anyone want to share their darkest night during this stage?

Happiness, meta-analyses, sex, pain au chocolat… it’s all here!

So, at the tail-end of this week's Parenting Challenge, I've noticed two interesting trends in the emails/comments I've received: (1) Many of us don't know where to start when it comes to taking care of ourselves and (2) A lot of us don't so much want "me" time as we want quality "us" time with our partner (AWAY from the kids). 

To address the first issue, I wondered if we could all contribute one or two ideas for those parents out there so sleep-deprived and stressed that they can't even begin to THINK about what might make them feel just a little bit happier. If you're one of those parents lucky enough to have figured out how to balance (well, ok, at least CONSIDER) your own needs, what do you do to feel good? We could all use a little inspiration. And let's take stuff like exercise and taking vitamins OFF this list for now. These things often trigger too much guilt for those of us <cough>LIKE ME<cough> who can't get our butts out to the gym or remember to get to the health food store. What makes you feel lighter, happier, taken care of, centered? Even for just a very short while?  

I'll go first: (1) dropping my kids at preschool and then hightailing it to the local French cafe ALONE, with only my cappuccino and pain au chocolat to keep me company and (2) Going to a movie with a girlfriend after putting the kids to sleep (and leaving my husband to babysit).

Now, what about all of us who are craving a bit more quality time with our partners? First off, let me tell you that you are NOT alone. A relatively recent meta-analysis confirms what most of us suspected, kids are NOT good for romantic relationships. Are any of you in the mood to read a whole meta-analysis? I didn't think so. Here's the abstract at least, to give you the gist of the results:

Parenthood & marriage
From a less rigorously empirical perspective, I have to admit that it's been a real eye-opener for me to read emails about how many people find this so challenging. So many of us wish we could spend more time "like the old days" before kids, talking with our partners about something other than diapers and hours of sleep clocked. And then there's that whole sex thing… yeah, not so much. Just the other day, one of my favourite bloggers, Julia (of Here Be Hippogriffs... you guys DO read her, right?) posted about the ever-so-common libido dip (or in my case, more like PLUNGE) that mothers so often report. Not only did Julia fess up to her own concerns, but her readers provided reams and reams of comments, most commiserating with her, some suggesting strategies that have helped get things back on track (ahem). Go read them. If you're like me, you'll find the discussion very informative and perhaps even inspiring.

 Aaaaand, finally, I leave you at the cusp of the weekend with another awesome source of inspiration: The Mominatrix's Guide to Sex. This fabulous little advice book is aimed specifically at parents who want to get their mojo back (suffice it to say that I had the book Express Mailed to my house;-)). It's full of fabulous tips that cover everything from the early post-partum pragmatics all the way up to fun toys and video reviews. It's written by Kristen Chase (of Motherhood Uncensored), another one of my all-time favourite bloggers and mom of THREE kids who still manages to nuzzle up to her husband more than once per season <gasp>. She's funny as all get-out and dares to write about all the stuff I wish I had the guts to ask my OB. What I like best about her book is that it's clear she has SO been there: the sleep-deprivation, the body image issues, the awkward silence when the toddler walks into the bedroom. And for those of you who are sick and tired of me talking about partners, she's got a chapter for the single mothers out there too.

That's all I've got… What about you?

A boatload of links to research on depression in mothers

This week's Parenting Challenge is to be good to ourselves. One of the reasons this is so important is that when we forget to take care of ourselves, to eat properly, get some rest (as much as possible, given the extenuating circumstances of parenting sometimes), to socialize, laugh, exercise, and so on, we are setting ourselves up for serious distress, even depression, and that's problematic for all sorts of reasons. When we are down in the dumps for weeks and months on end, that effects not only our own well-being, it effects how well we parent and connect to our children.

Here's just a smattering of some of the research findings on maternal depression:

  • Children of depressed parents are at increased risk for
    developing aggressive behaviour problems, NOT just through genetic
    transmissions of risk, but through parenting practices that are
    disrupted when parents become depressed (Kim-Cohen, Moffitt, Taylor, Pawlby, & Caspi, 2005).
  • When mothers are feeling depressed, their actual parenting (of course!) is compromised; that's one of the main ways that the depression has an
    impact on children's functioning. Here's a meta-analytic review that
    covers the basics: (Lovejoy, Graczyk, O’Hare, & Neuman, 2000).
    • To summarize the review: depressed mothers are less attentive towards their children
      (Gelfand & Teti, 1990), they provide less consistency and structure
      (Goodman & Brumley, 1990), have pessimistic perceptions about
      themselves (Teti & Gelfand, 1997), and often harshly judge their
      children (Caughy, Huang, & Lima, 2009).

We also know that when you intervene and help alleviate mothers' symptoms of depression, their children's problem behaviours also improve significantly. In fact, some amazing findings have come out recently that have shown that mothers who participated in a prevention program aimed at boosting parenting practices and reducing depressive symptoms not only improved their own mood, but also improved their children's outcomes for over a decade to follow. Not everyone is in need of a formal intervention or prevention program, of course. We know that good ol' social support, exercise and mindfulness meditation can do wonders for alleviating or preventing depression. The obvious implication is that we should be trying to hook up with our friends more, get more "me time", and just generally do what it takes to make ourselves feel whole… as women (and men), not just as parents.

(The obvious RANT I could go on and on about is that it should not be left entirely up to women — and their sometimes helpful friends, family and partners — to deal with the incredible amount of stress that's heaped on mothers. It is a given to me that there should be government-supported / funded programs that can help moms connect with one another, obtain affordable health care, access affordable child care, and so on. No, I will NOT rant… But I could. I'm just sayin').

So… do all those links to hard-core empirical studies convince you to go on out there and try to take care of yourself? What are your biggest barriers to doing so?

You all know I'm not AT ALL trying to make light of this subject, right? For those of you who are feeling depressed or know that you are actually experiencing depression, if you're not already doing so, please reach out to someone that can help. Talk to your friends and family. But also talk to a mental health provider that you can trust (start with a family doctor for a referral if you don't know where else to turn). There ARE ways of making the load lighter, but when you're full-blown depressed, it's so hard to see it, so ask someone to help.

Parenting Challenge #4: Be good to yourself

Ok, I've got one for you. It's a little indirect, in terms of actual parenting practices. But it may just be one of the most important things you can do to improve your own parenting and your child's behaviour: Take some time to take care of YOURSELF. I am not kidding and I am not exaggerating when I say that this really may be one of the most important things you do in your parenting gig.

I have said it before in the context of sleep training: To be good parents, to function with balance, humour, tenderness, understanding and, yes, with authority as well, we need to feel healthy, strong and relatively ok ourselves. So often, parents (mothers in particular) are led to believe that all their needs must be put aside for their child. I'm starting to think that this is one of the most damaging messages sent out to mothers (by the media, but just as damaging, by fellow mothers): that they should feel guilty for working outside the home, for getting that massage, for leaving their child to go to the gym, for stopping for a coffee with their friend WITHOUT bringing the baby <gasp>, and so on. SUCH B.S. is what that is! (and if I wasn't trying to be so damn "professional" on this blog I might say a whole lot more colourful things).

We know how damaging postpartum depression can be: for the woman and her baby and their experience of bonding in the first year of the child's life. And it's not just new moms, far too many mothers in general are experiencing serious symptoms of depression. Maternal depression, as I keep learning in my own work and through a large body of research that I've been reviewing, can have a significant impact on children's health and well-being. In tomorrow's post, I'll review a bunch of this research, to give you a sense of how prevalent maternal depression is and how important it is to try to prevent these problems, if we can.

But for today, let's just see if we can take up this challenge: Try to do one SIGNIFICANTLY "good thing" for yourself this week. This is going to feel almost impossible for some of us and very easy for others (a lot will have to do with the age of your child/children and how much support you have).

  • For those of you still suffering through major sleep deprivation, with a wee one who has just come into this world a few weeks or months ago (or many months ago, for that matter), this challenge may even piss you off: how on earth can you do something nice for yourself when you can't think straight, take a shower, or sleep more than 2 hours in a row?! For those of you in this camp, a few suggestions: (1) Think about the EVENTUAL possibility of sleep-training (even if you're not ready for it yet) and read this to remember that YOUR sleep is integral to your health and well-being and your ability to parent. You can deal with the sleep deprivation now… we all eventually get through it. But don't feel guilty when you and your family are ready for a change. (2) Do something nice for yourself, even if it feels like a tiny thing. This will require you getting some help from your partner, your friend, a family member, a paid sitter… ANYONE. And then choose that ONE thing you really want this week, whatever YOU most want: Take a bath instead of a shower for a whole 30 min, meet a friend for a coffee WITHOUT the baby, get someone to take ONE of the 10 bajillion feedings you do at night and sleep through it with ear plugs, order in your favourite type of food, go shopping for a spring dress, WHATEVER. Just choose that something and follow through with it. You are SO worth it.
  • For those of you with slightly older children who are getting SOME sleep, this is a much more open challenge. What have you been dying to do for yourself but feel too guilty to indulge in? Is it a massage? Take it. An hour or two alone reading a book? DO IT! A date night that you've been meaning to book with the sitter for 4 months? Do it THIS week. A girls' night out without kids? A weekend getaway? Joining the gym and making the committment to go? A movie night alone?  Doesn't have to be a big deal, doesn't have to cost anything… just something within your reach that you will do for yourself.

You get what I'm driving at here. This parenting challenge is meant to get us to PLAN for something, ANYTHING, that will make us feel happy. Of course, this challenge will hopefully be a good thing for many of us personally. But I promise you that this IS important to your parenting as well. You'll see in tomorrow's post: I'll cover the research on the many detriments to children and the challenges mothers face when they do become depressed. For now, let's try to get out of our funk if we're in one, and take care of ourselves.

Tell us: What are you going to do for yourself this week? What are your challenges when you try to take care of yourself? Does this feel doable to you? Does it feel relevant to your life?