Children Need Attention and Reassurance: Insights from Harvard Researchers

Published on 18 June 2024 at 16:16

As parents, we often face a myriad of advice on how to raise our children, especially regarding how to handle their crying and nighttime needs. According to two Harvard Medical School researchers, Michael L. Commons and Patrice M. Miller, American parents might need to rethink their approach to childrearing, particularly when it comes to responding to their infants' cries and sleeping arrangements.

The "Let Them Cry" Approach: A Cultural Concern

In the United States, it is common for parents to let their babies cry it out, hoping this will teach them independence. However, Commons and Miller's research suggests that this method may have long-term negative effects on children's emotional well-being. Their studies indicate that ignoring an infant's cries can lead to increased stress levels, potentially causing post-traumatic stress and panic disorders in adulthood. The researchers argue that early stress from separation can alter an infant's brain, making them more sensitive to future trauma.

The Importance of Physical Contact and Reassurance

Contrary to the fear that too much physical contact will make children overly dependent, Commons and Miller emphasize that close contact and reassurance actually foster a sense of security. This foundation of safety and trust can lead to more secure and independent adults. They point to cultural practices in other societies, like the Gusii people of Kenya, where mothers sleep with their babies and respond promptly to their cries, as examples of how different approaches can lead to different outcomes.

Cross-Cultural Insights and Emotional Learning

Commons and Miller's research is groundbreaking because it combines insights from brain function, emotional learning, and cultural practices. Charles R. Figley, director of the Traumatology Institute at Florida State University, praises their work for its interdisciplinary approach. By comparing American practices with those of other cultures, the researchers highlight how different childrearing methods impact children's emotional responses and stress coping mechanisms.

Reassessing Modern Parenting Practices

The researchers challenge the American emphasis on independence from a very young age, suggesting it may have unintended negative consequences. They recommend that parents keep their babies close, sleep with them if possible, and respond quickly to their cries. This approach, they argue, will create a more secure and emotionally resilient child, capable of forming healthy adult relationships.

Overcoming Misconceptions and Fears

Several misconceptions contribute to the prevailing "let them cry" attitude in the U.S. Some parents worry that keeping children close will interfere with their own relationships or fear accidentally harming their baby while co-sleeping. However, Commons and Miller encourage parents to reconsider these fears. They advocate for keeping infants nearby, whether in the same bed or on a mattress in the same room, to provide the comfort and security babies need.

The Impact of Wealth and Independence

The trend towards separation is also influenced by socioeconomic factors. As wealth has increased, so has the size of homes, allowing for separate rooms for children. This physical separation can translate into emotional distance, contributing to a society that Commons and Miller describe as having a reluctance to care for its own children. They argue that punishment and abandonment are not effective ways to raise warm, caring, and independent people.

A Call to Action for Parents

Commons and Miller's research urges parents to embrace a more nurturing approach to childrearing. They recommend keeping children close, responding to their needs promptly, and ensuring they feel secure. This, they believe, will help children grow into confident, independent adults capable of taking risks and forming strong, healthy relationships.

In summary, the key takeaway from Commons and Miller's research is that children need attention and reassurance to thrive. By rethinking traditional American childrearing practices and considering insights from other cultures, we can create a more supportive environment for our children. Let’s prioritize their emotional well-being, knowing that by keeping them close and comforting them, we are laying the foundation for their future success and happiness.


The Harvard Gazette:

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