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Helping Babies Cope With Stress and Learn to Sleep

We’ve all seen the warnings that sleep training causes so much stress to a baby that cortisol floods the brain, killing neurons and altering development.

Even without these alarming stories, most parents considering sleep training naturally worry about how stressful it is to a baby. None of us like to hear our babies cry. It makes us feel stressed, and the baby probably feels the same way. But how stressful is it? And is it damaging to a baby’s brain?

Despite decades of research on sleep training, most studies have focused on outcomes related to sleep and daytime behavior, but few have examined babies’ stress responses to this change. Those that warn that letting babies cry is damaging to their brains cite studies of babies that were subjected to chronic neglect or abuse or raised in orphanages and lacking strong attachment figures. These are examples of chronic, toxic stress. They are deeply saddening to me, but I’m not convinced that they tell me, or any other loving parent, much about the effects of sleep training my little girl.

This has left me digging through reams of research, trying to put sleep training in perspective among other sources of infant stress. A good place to start is the American Academy of Pediatrics’ (AAP) recently released report entitled The Lifelong Effects of Early Childhood Adversity and Toxic Stress [1] and an accompanying policy statement. The AAP report gives us a framework for looking at stress that I think is very useful. It defines 3 types of stress responses in children: Read more

Toddlers Don’t Need Toys

A few weeks ago, BabyC and I went through a rough patch. She was not that interested in playing independently. Before this, it seemed that her best play happened when I was present but not involved. What do I mean by “best play?” I mean the kind of play where she is totally engrossed and focused on a task that she designed. When she’s in charge of her play, it seems to hold her attention for the longest. I love playing with her, but I’m not nearly as creative as she is when it comes to figuring out all the many things one can do with an everyday object, and I’m afraid that I get bored and try to move her to a new task too quickly. BabyC, on the other hand, can dig through the recycling bin (I’ve learned to be selective about what I put in there) and come up with a toilet paper tube, a used yogurt container, and a milk jug and have all the tools she needs to keep her busy for an hour. One of her favorite projects has been containers with tops – taking them off, putting them on, putting objects inside, shaking, opening, taking out, putting in… she’s even started to get the hang of screw tops.

Anyway, back to our rough patch. For a couple of weeks, BabyC was really whiny. Husband finally helped her learn to say “Up!” when she wanted to be picked up. That was a vast improvement over whining, but she was still following me around the house saying, “Up-up!” all day long. I practiced saying, “I’m fixing dinner right now. I can pick you up in 5 minutes,” but I also spent a lot of time holding her and trying to do tasks with one hand, which I’m sure you understand takes 6x the amount of time as doing them with two hands. I would try to engage her in playing with blocks or yogurt containers, but she seemed to be more interested in hanging on my neck.

I started wondering if we needed to buy some new toys. Read more

My Relationship with Food: It’s emotional, and it’s complicated

I grew up on a farm. It wasn’t a big farm, but we produced food for our family and for a little extra income. So me and food – we go way back.

One of my earliest memories is of setting strawberry plants for our u-pick business. My parents dropped the starter plants at the correct spacing, and my brother and I followed behind, nesting each plant carefully into freshly prepared ground, patting the soil around the base. When those plants started to bear fruit, I liked to begin my summer mornings by grabbing a bowl from the kitchen and running out to pick the freshest berries. I ate them with cold milk, and there was nothing like it. Picking strawberries was my first paying job (nickel per pint, I think).

Close to the earth

We always had a huge vegetable garden. I watched my mom pore over seed catalogs while there was still snow on the ground. In spring, she taught me how to make long, straight garden rows using twine and chalk, and I helped her count seeds to drop into holes – just a few inches, then covered gently with dirt. We lugged 5-gallon buckets of water down the rows to get them off to a good start. By late summer, there was endless harvesting and canning in a sticky-hot kitchen.

We had a herd of 20-30 beef cows, and we slaughtered one per year to fill our chest freezer. My mom tells me that when I was a little girl – probably just 3 or 4 – I watched a cow be slaughtered. She tried to bring me in the house, but I was fascinated and wanted to see. A few years later, I insisted on being vegetarian for a while. I ate lots of peanut butter sandwiches but eventually came to terms with animals as a source of food. I helped my dad care for these animals and also spent long hours perched on a fence post, watching them graze and nurse their babies. Read more

Truth from the Dairy Aisle: Is Milk from Cows Receiving rbST Safe for my Family?

Today’s guest post comes from a dear friend of mine, Dr. Katie Schoenberg. Katie and I overlapped during our undergrad years at Cornell, but I didn’t actually meet her until we worked together in the Nutrition Lab at Smithsonian’s National Zoo, the first job out of undergrad for both of us. We bonded over analyzing desert tortoise urine and freeze-dried sea urchins (yes, really), and we had enough fun that we both stayed in science! Katie went on to earn her M.S. at University of Maryland and her Ph.D. from Cornell University, where she is currently a postdoc. She’s also a new mom to a beautiful 11-week-old daughter.

I invited Katie to write a guest post for ScienceofMom a while back, and lucky for us, she agreed. Katie’s research is focused on dairy cows, so I asked her what she thought about the safety of milk from cows treated with rbST. Being a stellar scientist and a conscientious mom, I knew I could trust her to give us the low-down on rbST. I’m especially grateful to Katie for putting this post together during her maternity leave, between diaper changes and feeding her baby girl. Her answer to this question may surprise you, and I look forward to hearing your thoughts about how you make food-buying decisions for your family.

Truth from the Dairy Aisle: Is Milk from Cows Receiving rbST Safe for my Family?

By Katie M. Schoenberg, Ph.D.

I have a B.S., M.S., and PhD in Animal Science and study the nutrition and metabolism of dairy cattle.   Recently, I gained a new title:  Mom.  Throughout my pregnancy and during the first 11 weeks of our daughter’s life I have enjoyed combining my zeal for the scientific method, my scientific expertise in pregnancy and lactation, and my newly acquired non-fact-based (though hormonally driven) motherly instinct.  This has persuaded me to revisit my own truth on an issue that I have thoroughly researched in the past:  the safety of the use of recombinant bovine somatotropin (rbST, also referred to as growth hormone or bGH) in the dairy cows producing the dairy products we consume.  As a new mom, now responsible not only for making healthy choices for myself but also my child, would I feel the same way about the safety of rbST? Read more

My Runaway Train of Thought

A friend stopped by for a cup of coffee this morning. A chance to talk with another adult! This was pretty much the highlight of my day, if not my week. There is always a vision that our two daughters might play quietly together while we sip our coffee and enjoy an adult conversation.

The reality is that both girls were whiny. They have teeth coming in, and it was nearing nap time. Yuba the dog hadn’t been walked yet today so was dancing around wanting attention from me, knocking over the babies and then licking their faces in apology. The cat needed to be let out – scratch, scratch, scratch. And then back in – scratch, scratch. A snack for the babies gave us an extra 10 minutes or so to talk, and then they let us know that this play date was over.

Once BabyC was down for her nap, I thought back over my conversation with my friend. We started talking about fascinating topics, but I feel like I never got to finish a thought. All I can think of is what I meant to tell her. Our conversation was fragmented, broken by my continual pleas of “Yuba, back!” and “Yuba, stay!” and “Careful, BabyC!” These days, my train of thought changes direction so many times that it never reaches its destination.

Train wreck, 1922 (photo in public domain, via Wikimedia Commons). This photo is meant to illustrate a metaphor for the state of my mind, not my coffee/play date with my friend or my day. Don't despair. Things really aren't that bad!

Read more

Guest Post: Mothers With One Child Are Happiest (and a Giveaway!)

Today’s guest post comes from Dr. Susan Newman and discusses the support for choosing to have just one child in the modern family. Dr. Newman has written a book on the same topic, and she is giving away a copy of it to one lucky ScienceofMom reader. See below the post to enter the giveaway. I’m looking forward to some good discussion on this one!

Mothers With One Child Are Happiest

Resisting the temptation and pressure to have more children

by Susan Newman, Ph.D.

Having an only child is desirable from a wide range of viewpoints and practicalities, but that doesn’t make decisions about family size any easier. Going from one child to two (or two to three or more) is a dilemma single parents and couples wrestle with, sometimes for years.

The mother of a three-year-old child talked to me about whether or not she really wants a second child. She is not an isolated case of men and women who are asking the same question.

The husband of an almost 40 year-old wants to give their five-year-old a sibling. His wife doesn’t. She told me that she has weakened and agreed to see a fertility specialist, but isn’t sure she can cope with another child or fertility treatments.

A friend, age 34, has been teetering on the second baby fence for four years, but her resolve is being undone by pressure from her family to have another. She hesitates knowing her job (and promotions) will be in jeopardy if she takes another maternity leave.

Although each situation is unique, the profound confusion surrounding the question of having more children is similar. Some people begin with a very practical approach and ask themselves questions like these: What will we give up in time, money, freedom, intimacy, and job advancement with another child in the household? How thin will we be able to stretch our financial resources? Read more

Infant Sleep Research: Bedsharing, Self-Soothing, and Sleep Training

This is the fifth post in my sleep series. In my last post, I discussed how my view of infant sleep has evolved to be more inclusive of a wide range of solutions that can work in different families. In this post, I look at what the research tells us about infant sleep across the spectrum of nighttime parenting philosophies.

[Please note: It is beyond the scope of this article to discuss the bedsharing/crib/SIDS/suffocation debate, but suffice it to say that parents should pay careful attention to making baby’s sleep environment safe, whether the baby bedshares or sleeps in a crib.]

Bedsharing Infant Sleep

Let’s say that you choose to bedshare. You feel that the best place for your baby is right by your side, in your own bed. (I use the term “bedsharing,” because the more commonly used “cosleeping” can also mean sharing a room but sleeping on separate surfaces.) Many parents choose to bedshare because it just feels right, even if they had carefully prepared a crib before the baby’s arrival. BabyC slept in my bed for a couple of weeks early in her life, though it was not my plan and ultimately ended up not being the choice that Husband and I made. Still, in those weeks, I felt a real shift in my bond with BabyC. It certainly made breastfeeding during the night easier, and it was sweet to wake up and watch her sleeping next to me. I understand the choice to bedshare, and I think that for many families, it can have numerous benefits. These benefits are not well-defined by research, however. For example, I have yet to find study that investigates if bedsharing actually increases infant attachment. Read more

Sleep Solutions for Every Baby

This is my fourth post in my evolving series on infant sleep.

I have at least 100 journal articles on sleep saved on my computer, and I’ve been dutifully slogging through them, trying to systematically summarize the effects of different sleep training methods or otherwise. But… yawn. I myself didn’t get enough sleep last night. And besides, I keep coming back to all of your many comments – your stories about how sleep works in your house and why you like it that way. They remind me that the best parenting philosophy is the one that makes sense to you, the one that gives you a framework within which to guide your interactions with your child, and the one that makes you love your job as a parent. I’ve come to realize that we can’t talk about sleep without first acknowledging our diverse philosophies on the subject. I’d like to discuss that a bit more in this post, and my next post will be chock-full of the science on cosleeping and sleep training.

Photo Credit: Lori Cole

Sleep is so personal, and yet, it can so often feel like someone is telling us that we’re doing it wrong. This topic triggers such strong emotions, from guilt and shame to defensiveness and judgment. If you haven’t experienced this, take a look at the conversation on blog posts like this one and this one. It is actually kind of embarrassing that we are so darn hard on each other when we talk about infant sleep. Why is that? Read more

Sick Day: Just Baby, Just Mama

Some days, BabyC is a world-class climber, and I am her partner, spotting her in case she should slip on the crux move.

Some days, BabyC is a rock-and-roll drummer, and I back her up on the rice-in-Nutella-jar shaker.

Some days, BabyC is an explorer on an important expedition, and I am her support crew, carrying her gear and occasionally steering our caravan when she is tempted to explore the street.

Some days, BabyC is a scientist, and I am her assistant, giving her an extra hand when she happens upon the mother lode of Interesting Rocks and can’t carry them all herself.

Most days, BabyC and I are all of these things.

But today (and yesterday, too), BabyC is sick. On top of days of teething discomfort and fitful nights of sleep, she is running a fever, and we aren’t sure why. Regardless, BabyC has told me that she feels just rotten, and as if she’s not sure that I really understand, she keeps telling me, over and over. Today, BabyC is just a baby. Don’t expect more of her, Mama. She does not want to climb or explore; she wants to be held. She does not want to drum or sing; she wants to cuddle quietly. And she wants milk – as much as you can make, and then some. Read more