Recently I was reading an article in Notre Dame Magazine entitled "Giving them what they need." It was a piece about how best to meet the needs of infants and children, and it confirmed many of the things I already believe in, like breastfeeding, co-sleeping, almost constant physical touch, responding to the cry of infants. The Notre Dame psychology professor Darcia Narvaez was quoted as saying that these practices are shown to have a positive impact on the developing brain, shaping personality, physical health and moral development. She explains that some modern parenting practices, like use of formula, an infant being isolated in his own room, and letting kids "cry it out" causes stress in a baby, leading their bodies to release cortisol, which is a toxic hormone that kills brain cells, leading to a higher probability of ADHD, poor academic performance and antisocial behavior. In contrast, responding well to a baby's needs positively influences development of conscience, empathy, etc. Narvaez notes that the U.S. has had a downward trajectory on the care characteristics she suggests. Infants spend much more time in carriers, car seats, and strollers than in the past. Few are breastfed for an extended time, there is less presence of an extended family (which enables multiple adult caregivers, which Narvaez says is also important), and free play allowed by parents has decreased dramatically as well.
Given that I agree with Narvaez's points, it might be strange that my first reaction to the article was one of defensiveness. Well, that's because Robert spends far more time crying, often sitting in his carseat, than any of my other kids. I still don't believe in not responding to an infant's cries, but unfortunately, my circumstances (not having other adult caregivers present!) often lead to a delay in Robert's care.
But when I awoke at 4:00 a.m. with Robert in bed with me, gleefully kicking me in the belly and making his gurgling noises announcing that he was awake for the day, I started to feel a little better about how we're doing on this score. I was, somewhat drowsily, trying to respond to his needs. And my missing husband indicated that he had also been summoned during the night to respond to the needs of toddlers.(Interestingly, Dr. Lee Gettler, anthropologist at Notre Dame has found that fathers are biologically attuned to their children when sleeping close by.)
You can probably tell that I'm headed back to a topic I've mentioned before: mortification. Because the truth is that good, compassionate parenting (and pregnancy) takes sacrifices. The modern, isolated nuclear family unfortunately puts almost all of the sacrifices of child-rearing on the shoulders of the parents themselves. And many of these parents have their own difficult work lives, leaving them with little time or energy or enthusiasm for addressing the difficulties of raising children. The perhaps unintentional result is that oftentimes parents do not do a good job responding to the needs of young children because of their own perceived needs (e.g. sleeping alone in bed with the spouse, sleeping through the night, having adult conversation, and, of course, the all-encompassing "self-fulfillment").
It's hard to find the motivation to make sacrifices, particularly with regard to sleep deprivation, as I've noted before, when commenting on the Desert Fathers. People with young children often have to bear this burden, and it's a great opportunity for mortification that most people just don't have. I remember once when speaking with a (priest) spiritual director, he mentioned Pope John XXIII's bedtime prayer of "It's your Church, Lord. I'm going to bed." The spiritual director was suggesting a comparable prayer so as to place family concerns in God's hands. While I appreciated the thought, I told him that my custom (at that time), of making a "night offering." He didn't seem to understand, so I explained that it was just like my morning offering, only that I was offering everything that I would do during the night...because (unlike him) I likely wouldn't get to sleep through the night or select my own wake-up time. And I thought that I really needed to make that offering before I fell asleep so that when/if I were awakened, I'd already be on the right track toward offering up the inconvenience.