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Avidan Milevsky Headshot

From Ferber to Babywise: When it Comes to Parenting Let's Forget About Science

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I was at a recent family affair and sitting at our table was a young mother with her angelic, but fussy, newborn baby on her lap. As a student of developmental psychology and as a father of a newborn myself, I found the movements and behaviors of the youngest member of our party much more interesting than the other people around the table. As the conversation ensued, including the requisite talk about strollers and sleep deprivation, the mother of the baby nonchalantly took a milk bottle out of her diaper bag, placed the bottle on the table, and checked her watch. Curiously and unassumingly, I observed this scene for a little longer as the mother apparently became comfortable with the timing, reached for the bottle, and began nourishing her famished offspring.

As the feeding ensued it became clear that this child was not only on some type of feeding schedule but was also on a strict diet. As the bottle began to empty the baby indicated in multiple ways that he had enough. However, all the nonverbal cues were either lost or ignored by the mother as she insisted that he finish the contents of this bottle to the very last drop. As the efforts to feed this baby continued, it looked to me as if this poor kid was about to pass out from the forced feeding. If this baby had been an animal I have a feeling that some organization would be protesting this inhumane treatment.

As the party came to a close and the people around the table began to leave, I approached this regimented mother and in the most nonjudgmental voice I could muster asked, "So how is your baby eating?" My years of poker playing apparently paid off as the mother, oblivious to my true feelings, proceeded to proudly enlighten me about this new system she has her baby on. With this method, she explained, her baby must eat a measured amount at specific intervals creating a schedule base. This base then sets the schedule for his other activities, such as sleep, play, and bath time, which all revolve around the feeding. Although this mother had just launched this new system the previous day, she had high hopes for it. When I asked her where she heard about this system she responded "some of my friends told me about it and I looked it up online." I wished her luck and moved on.

Imagine if a mother tells you that her baby needs some complex medical procedure, like brain surgery, but instead of utilizing the services of the scientific community and established medical practice she plans of having the surgery conducted by some guy with a book and a website who uses his own thoughts and experiences with brains to conduct the procedure. Obviously absurd!

But yet, when it comes to parenting, we often have no problem subjecting our children to unsubstantiated, flimsy, questionable, tenuous ideas based on the beliefs of some "expert" out there who wrote a book about his views on the subject matter. What happened to scientific parenting? We would not consider skipping science when it comes to our children's' medical issues.

The way we engage our children early in life will have a profound impact on them in the long-run. Early parenting practices have been shown to impact the physical, cognitive, social, and emotional lives of individuals. With over 50 years of research on parenting, the scientific community has an abundance of evidence supporting particular, healthy parenting behaviors.

Forcing babies into a strict schedule at this young age in order to fit the parent's needs may sound convenient but is far from a scientifically validated approach to parenting. Beyond what we now know about infant development and the natural and interactive complexity of self-regulation, emphasizing scheduling as the overarching value governing infant parenting denies what research has shown to be the most important dimensions of infant rearing: trust and attachment.

The default setting on any interaction with infants should be about what produces the most trusting, secure, warm, and attached connection between an infant and their caregiver. From the early theorists on this topic, such as Erik Erikson and Mary Ainsworth, all the way to current studies on attachment formation, research has shown how early attachment formation is linked with multiple cognitive, social, and emotional outcomes that impact individuals throughout life. Trust and attachment should be the primary focus of infant rearing -- period!

Using food, sleep, play, and bath time scheduling as the most imperative goal of parenting infants is literately "throwing the baby out with the bathwater."