Wednesday, March 10, 2010
The more technology expands, the less time we spend holding and touching our infants and young children. The more affluence, the bigger our living spaces, and the more "stuff" we can afford to buy which can be used to replace human touch.
I thought of this as I observed two separate incidents recently. The first was a tiny baby, I'd say a few months old at the most, in a bucket car seat being carried by the father. The baby began to cry, and the father began to swing the seat a bit in an attempt to soothe the baby. The second event I noticed was a two year old walking along behind his mother as she was about to drop him off in his mothers; morning out class... she said to him, "No, I can't carry you. You're too heavy!" I should note that this was not an above-average sized child. ;)
So, with the baby gadgets, we have material objects to try to soothe babies: I have seen people push/jiggle strollers, rock car seats with their feet, attempt to stuff pacifiers in protesting mouths, swings restarted repeatedly, vibrators on bouncy seats turned on... Now, I should clarify that sometimes these items can provide a break for a tired pair of arms, and sometimes if both baby and parent are beyond frazzled, a baby may be soothed by one of these gadgets while the parent regains composure. I am not talking about using these things in moderation; I am referring to their frequent use as a first resort. Baby starts crying, and rather than picking her up as the first attempt to soothe her, mechanically and detachedly start swinging the seat she is in: that is what I am referring to here.
With the parents not wanting to hold their young children and carry them... I think that may be more of a symptom of the early foisting of "independence" on small children. "He can walk, can't he?" I have heard people say to parents carrying their 1, 2, and 3 year olds. And the same people who make their toddlers walk "because they can, so they should" are the ones who expect immediate obedience when they give verbal commands. One year olds are not going to all stay away from dangerous things if left down on the floor to walk on their own! They need to be helped, and sometimes carrying them is the best option, and the quickest! I know somebody whose son was delayed in walking... he was around a year and a half when he began to walk on his own. She carried him in a soft carrier on her back very frequently. She actually had people tell her, "He'd learn to walk faster if you'd stop carrying him like that." The child had a physical delay, and they blamed her for carrying him! What would these same people say to a parent whose child is delayed in walking yet he is not carried around in a back carrier at all?? There was also an article I read where the mother repeatedly was asked about her toddler on her back, "Oh, doesn't that hurt your back? How can you manage to carry him there like that?" yet, pre-child, his woman frequently carried a large, 20some pound backpack as she walked around town (this was somewhere in Europe, as I recall), and she never had anyone ask her, "Oh, isn't that so heavy? Doesn't that hurt your back?" But seeing a child there - one who should not be "coddled," who should be walking or in a stroller (in the minds of many) - evoked a strong response from people, because in their minds, a one or two year old should not be carried very much.
So, all this got me to thinking about the average hours spent by most babies and toddlers in physical contact with their parents or other adult caregivers. Touch, as we have learned, has many benefits. The growing brain needs human touch in order to grow and form connections well in the first three years in particular. In light of this, we could conclude that touch is a need for babies and toddlers. The fact that we are a carrying species (designed to hold our young) and our babies take longer than any other animals to develop the motor skills necessary to walk and care for themselves shows that we were designed to be in close contact with adult humans in our earliest years.
So for a baby or toddler who is sleeping alone and is either sleeping straight through the night or is being left alone to be "sleep-trained," that is 10-12 hours without touch, and another few hours during the day if the baby takes naps alone... then, if the same child is frequently left in car seats, swings, bouncy seats, on the floor, etc., then that is more time with no human contact. How about the baby or toddler who is in child care several hours a week (where I observed that babies do not get the same amount of touch as their parents would tend to give)? Left in the church nursery and with babysitters weekly? Every hour that is added in makes for less touch from the parents. How about the baby who is frequently riding around in the car, and the car seat is transferred from car to shopping cart to stroller to car, and the baby isn't in-arms from the time the parent leaves the house until the time they return to the house? Even things like disposable diapers, which can be left on longer than cloth before they would begin leaking, cause the parents to have to touch the child less. Some parents may say, "Oh, but I talk to them, make eye contact with them when they are in the seat as I push them around in the shopping cart, etc." That is good. Better that than facing their seat away from you, sure. But that does not discount the fact that babies need human touch in order to develop, and that there is no substitute for touch. No amount of talking to a baby is going to make up for a lack of physical touch, especially given that young babies cannot even understand what you are saying to them. They want to feel right, and human touch, especially the mother's, feels right to them. It is how they were designed biologically.
And then as babies get older... how about the baby who is bottle-fed and is allowed to carry the bottle around with him, feeding himself? He has lost feeding times as a time of human contact. He will want to begin exploring his environment more, and begin crawling and walking and running... and all this leads to less time in physical contact with his parents. Yes, he is choosing to do these things; it is part of his development and is good. But if this same child already has no human touch all night long, no human touch at naptime because he is placed in a crib and then left with no rocking or nursing or cuddling first, no contact during feedings (there are reasons the breast was naturally designed to not be detachable, and this is one of them! ;)... then when is he getting human touch? At diaper changes six times a day? As his parents lift him into a car seat or high chair or into the bathtub? Maybe some reading time together in which the child sits on the parent's lap, I hope? But an on-the-go one year old may not be getting the human touch he was designed for, because he is busy during the day and then separated from his parents at night, weaned from the breast early... personally, that is one of the most important things to me about "extended" nursing: my toddler still gets touch and holding, guaranteed, even on the busiest days, because she still nurses, I still hold her and nurse her to sleep, and she still sleeps with us for part of each night. I don't have to consciously consider if I am giving her enough human touch.
So, nothing really new in this post, nothing profound... I just hadn't ever thought about breaking down the hours that a baby or toddler spends in physical contact with his parents. It is kind of surprising, actually... and just thinking about my own 25 month old, I am sure she spends less time in physical contact with me than I would think at first glance (hmm, somewhere between 5-8 hours out of 24, maybe - and most of those are spent with both of us asleep!)... and yet, how many babies and toddlers spend far less time than she?