BEWARE SUBSTITUTES

By Stephanie Ondrack

A lot of baby items are marketed under the auspices of providing what babies need: what calms them, soothes, them, settles them… If you consider the function of any of these items, they all have something in common: They replicate something that baby would normally get from a parent. And the unstated subtext—the true reason they maintain popularity with parents—is that they are meant to act as a substitute for parental time and parental touch.

Picture all the baby items that rock, swing, bounce, or gently jiggle baby. These are meant to mimic the rocking arms of a parent, the feeling of movement while being held. Consider sound soothers and white noise machines. These are intended to replace the comforting background noise of a caregiver’s breathing, heartbeat, whispering voice, calming lullabies. Think about warming pads, heated mattresses, and soft stuffed animals. These are all in lieu of warm parental arms and body heat. Consider swaddlers, swaddling blankets, and cuddle wraps. These are meant to replicate the feel of being snuggled safely, held and protected in loving arms. And of course, think about a pacifier, which is a synthetic breast, aimed at simulating the soothing impulse to suckle. I could go on.

Now all of these items have their place. There are times when we can’t be with baby, when offering baby a simulacrum is the kindest of gestures. When we engage a babysitter, a day-care, or a nanny, it is simply considerate to give baby the semblance of familiarity and comfort. When we need a hands-free break, or a couple hours of sleep, or a few minutes to take a shower or eat a snack, it is useful and appropriate to offer baby these comforting substitutes. Pacifiers are miracles on long car trips, for example, when the actual breast is out of reach.

But the way these items are marketed commits, as social psychologists say, a “fundamental attribution error”. Babies do not need these items. I repeat: babies do not these items. Nor do these items actually meet babies’ needs. The reason babies crave body heat, movement, suckling and sound is not because these experiences offer independent benefits, but to ensure that babies spend time in close proximity to their caregivers.

Babies thrive on our bodies because humans, more than any other placental mammal, are born developmentally premature and require a womb-like environment to grow, learn, develop, and thrive. As Dr Nils Bergman points out, a parent’s body is baby’s natural habitat. And it is no coincidence that our babies crave all the sensory inputs associated with being in their natural habitat.

Furthermore, social and psychological development begins with attachment through the senses. As Dr Gordon Neufeld explains, babies use all of their senses to attach to the caring adult(s) around them, to develop a sense of safety, trust, and bonding. It is vital to their brain growth as emotional and social beings that their high need for physical proximity is met during the first couple years of life, particularly the first six months. Babies need to be able to see, smell, hear, and feel us nearby most of the time. As they get older, if this deeply primal need is met, they can progress to forms of attachment that are less demanding of our physical presence: they can ‘hold on’ to us even when apart. But babies are not yet equipped to do that.

So even though these items are aggressively advertised as if they meet babies’ needs, they actually seek to meet our own—the parents’—needs. They target our societal desire to carve out more time for ourselves, to get more rest, to have more hands-free time, to be able to calm baby easily and effortlessly without the hours of nursing and rocking. Who wouldn’t want that?

But the danger is the confusion between what babies actually need (the physical proximity to us) with the markers that fool babies’ senses into thinking they’re getting what they need. It’s the nutritional equivalent to eating food-flavoured Styrofoam—it may fool us, we may eat it willingly and with delight, we may not be able to tell the difference; but it is not actually nourishing. And that’s what we have to remember about all these substitutes for parental proximity: they may satisfy baby, they may satisfy us, but they are not actually nourishing.

So go ahead and use all these items. We all do. I do too (yes, it’s true). They come in really handy sometimes. We need the breaks, and we need to be able to offer baby comfort even when we can’t be there, or when we’re simply worn out. But never lose sight of the fact that these items only fool baby’s senses. They don’t actually nourish. Ultimately, they are not true substitutes for what only our own presence can offer. We, the parents (and other loving adults in baby’s life) are the true stuff our babies need

Stephanie is an instructor with the Childbearing Society, and an instructor with Pinecone Parenting. She is also a homeschooling mother of three.

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