One of the challenges of parenting involves finding ways to comfort infants, babies, toddlers and children of all ages. And it turns out, that much of the wisdom of parents, grandparents and great-grandparents actually resonates with neuroscience.
Doing what comes naturally offsets some sad and incorrect comforting advice from earlier eras
Unfortunately, advice of the late 1800’s and early 1900’s forbade rocking and comforting children. Instead, at that time, parenting advice took a rigid approach that demanded children learn to self-regulate in infancy and fit into unhealthy schedules for feeding and sleeping.
Some of this inaccurate and neuroscientifically unhealthy advice persists even today.
One of my first neuroscientific lessons about the nature of calming came from the excellent book, What’s Going On In There? by Lise Eliot, a neuroscientist who provides insight into how an infant’s brain grows, develops and responds to the world around him or her.
Eliot tells us how a child’s early development connects with the inner ear.
She describes how the vestibular system in the ear is essential for early development. The vestibular system basically involves the little hair-like projections in the inner ear being stimulated by movements such as rocking and spinning.
These activities cause the liquid in the inner ear to slosh up against these hair-like projections to help children develop abilities to balance. Balance is obviously necessary for children in order to sit up, stand up, walk and run, jump and climb. Parents seem intuitively to know early on that their children benefit from being rocked and bounced and even swung around, of course, always in a very gentle way!
An instinctive way for children to calm involves a reflex.
Babies are born knowing how to suck. It is essential for their survival.
In addition to the nourishment they receive as a result of sucking at the breast or bottle, sucking also releases neurochemicals that are calming.
Parents learn quickly that children don’t just suck in order to fill their bellies. They may not understand why, but there is a neuroscientific reason that makes pacifiers so popular, or why many children use their thumb or fingers in their mouths to soothe themselves. We didn’t know specifically why until the neuroscientists provided the underlying neurobiological explanation for why sucking is so calming.
Then there is patting, shushing and “the hold”.
I remember hearing psychiatrist and neuroscientist, Dr. Bruce Perry, share in one of his lectures how parents intuitively know to pat in a rhythm that matches the rhythm of the mother’s heartbeat.
Patting erratically, too slowly or too quickly, is not at all calming to a child. It is the slow, repetitive pattern of patting that is so calming for a child because it was a familiar sound heard in utero.
Another fascinating natural calming behavior parents intuitively know to use is a soft and rhythmic shushing sound. Parents frequently use this intonation when children are crying, often in combination with holding, patting and rocking. It turns out the shushing sound the baby heard is reminiscent of sounds the mother’s heart made when blood pumped by in the womb: shush, shush, shush.
Pediatrician Dr. Robert Hamilton teaches parents a technique he calls “The Hold” that seems to almost magically calm an upset infant. It too is a neuro-biologically sound approach because it mimics some of what the child experienced in utero: having its arms pulled in close to its body and being moved gently.
These various—almost intuitive—neuro-biological responses used by parents and other caregivers to calm upset infants and babies continues to be a source of comfort for older children, teenagers and adults.
As human beings when we comfort each other, we often wrap people in our arms while they curl up in the embrace. We may gently rock them, pat them in a soft and rhythmic way, and often add the soft and rhythmic shushing sound that is so comforting to newborns.
Children and adults often wrap themselves in blankets, not only for warmth but also for comfort, when there aren’t human arms there to do so. We may seek out the comfort of a rocking chair and may enjoy drinking water from a bottle that allows us to suck rather than just swallow the water directly.
I find it exciting to learn how neuroscience is catching up with parents’ intuition and wisdom passed on from generation to generation.
Learning this wisdom also can be both reassuring and affirming to parents because it encourages them to continue these neuroscientific calming practices throughout their children’s lives and whenever they are called on to comfort another human being.
[For some more information, you can check out the Parents Magazine website in an article entitled Ways to Recreate the Womb: http://www.parents.com/baby/care/crying/ways-to-recreate-the-womb/]
Invitation to Reflect
- What are some of the ways you have intuitively known to comfort your children? Does this information reassure you and affirm that what you discovered or were taught resonates with neuroscience?
- Does this information encourage you to continue using and even adding to your repertoire of calming techniques that neuroscience has shown are effective?
Image of ear courtesy of: http://www.growinghandsonkids.com/vestibular-system-affects-childs-behavior.html
Image of Dr. Hamilton courtesy of YouTube as below.
1) Dr. Perry has a wonderful YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCf4ZUgIXyxRcUNLuhimA5mA that contains a cadre of powerful videos all parents should view.
2) A video of How to Calm a Crying Baby “The Hold” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j2C8MkY7Co8