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How can we respond to babies' emotions?
An interview with Aletha Solter, Ph.D.
Interview done by L'Enfant et la vie (a French parenting magazine)
An interview with Aletha Solter was published (in French) in issue number 164 of L’Enfant et la Vie (Fall 2010). These are some excerpts.
After returning from a workshop tour in Switzerland and Germany in 2010, Aletha Solter (a Swiss-American psychologist) replied to questions from the staff at L’Enfant et la Vie from the United States, where she lives.
Odile: Tell us about your training with Piaget and your child rearing ideas from the beginning.
Aletha Solter: At the University of Geneva (Switzerland), I took Jean Piaget’s courses for two years and I was fascinated by his ideas. The main thing I learned from him is the possibility of building theories about cognitive development from simple, objective observations of children. Likewise, I have formed theories about emotional development from observations of children without letting myself be influenced by other theories. For example, I wondered about the deeper meaning of thumb sucking, security objects, a fear of monsters, the game of peek-a-boo, children’s desire to act like babies, aggression, and temper tantrums.
After earning a Master’s degree in human biology at the University of Geneva, I went to California where I completed my Ph.D. in psychology. When my son was born in 1977, I became interested in children’s emotional development. Aside from John Bowlby’s work, nobody knew much yet about attachment and the effect of trauma on children. Now we know a lot more. I am delighted whenever research about children’s emotions, attachment, or trauma supports the theories that I developed intuitively when my children were young. I have included much of this information in my books, for example research about the importance of physical contact, the beneficial aspects of crying and laughter, the negative impact of punishment, and the effects of trauma.
Odile: Can your approach be considered a method?
A.S.: I don’t like the term method because there are no recipes to follow. Furthermore, this approach to child rearing incorporates several different aspects, including the formation of strong bonds through attachment parenting (carrying, breast-feeding, co-sleeping, responding immediately to crying), non-punitive discipline, and tools for helping children heal from stress and trauma. I call the synthesis of these various aspects Aware Parenting. This way of raising children requires an enormous amount of attention from parents. It’s a wonderful opportunity for us to do our own psychological growth because we are practically forced to relive and to question our own childhoods.
Bénédicte: With recent discoveries from neuroscience and the possible brain damage in babies who are allowed to cry too much, has your advice about crying babies changed?
A. S.: My position on crying has not changed because crying is not dangerous for healthy babies. I recommend always holding babies when they cry. There is no research showing brain damage in babies who cry in their mothers’ arms. However, when a baby is separated from his parents and left to cry alone, a whole cocktail of stress hormones invades his brain (for example, cortisol), which can lead to brain damage in the long run. It’s not the act of crying that triggers the release of these hormones; it’s the terror of feeling abandoned, which causes them.
Linda: Babies need to nurse frequently at the beginning to help breast-feeding get started. This is also true for babies who are having a growth spurt or with mothers who have a small milk supply. If a baby does not nurse frequently, there is a risk of dehydration. Isn’t is dangerous to indicate a maximum number of feedings per day?
A. S.: I strongly recommend breast-feeding and I nursed each of my children for two-and-a-half years. In my book, Tears and Tantrums, I wrote the following (pages 68 to 69): "One can expect young infants to be hungry about every two-and-a-half to three hours (from the beginning of one feeding to the beginning of the next), and to nurse about eight to ten times in a 24-hour period…. But this is just a guideline. Babies should never be fed by the clock, but on demand. More frequent feedings may be needed during the first few weeks to build up the mother’s milk supply. The following circumstances may also require more frequent feedings: growth spurts, insufficient growth, extremely hot weather, illness, or with babies who are ‘grazers’ (who do not take a full feeding each time they nurse). Babies should be fed whenever they are hungry."
Linda: Physical contact is very important for an infant’s development. What is wrong with calming an infant at the breast?
A. S.: I agree that physical contact is vital for healthy development. In my books, I advise parents to carry their babies as much as possible during the day, to sleep with them at night, and breast-feed. It is also important to respond immediately to crying, while taking into account the fact that not every cry indicates hunger or a need to suck. The correct interpretation of crying is crucial. There are times when physical contact accompanied by attentive listening can be more beneficial than offering the breast. When a mother tries to comfort her infant at the breast each time that he needs to release stress by crying, the infant might learn that his mother is unwilling to listen, and he might then begin to repress his emotions.
Agnès:: My baby still wakes up once or twice at night and he is almost seven months old. Is it because he doesn’t have enough opportunities to cry or because he’s hungry? I offer him the breast (when I’m not sure, I prefer to do this) but I want him to sleep through the night.
A. S.: With the information in my books, it is possible to help babies sleep through the night without ever leaving them to cry alone. When babies cry sufficiently during the day and also before falling asleep in the evening (in a parent’s loving arms, of course), they spontaneously stop demanding the breast during the night. This is more likely to occur after six months of age. But the implementation of this approach varies with each child. Does your baby eat solid foods yet? Is his weight normal?
Odile: Starting in 1991, L’Enfant et la Vie has invited you to our area (Lille, France) and has written about your work in our magazine. How do explain this strong controversy concerning your approach (people who are for it and others who are against it)?
A. S.: New ideas always stimulate lots of discussion, which is healthy and normal. But new ideas are also often misunderstood and distorted. I advise parents to remain open, to read my books carefully, and to implement these ideas themselves before forming an opinion.
Aletha Solter, PhD, is a developmental psychologist, international speaker, consultant, and founder of the Aware Parenting Institute (www.awareparenting.com). Her books have been translated into many languages, and she is recognized internationally as an expert on attachment, trauma, and non-punitive discipline. The titles of her books are The Aware Baby, Helping Young Children Flourish, Tears and Tantrums, Raising Drug-Free Kids, and Attachment Play.
Aware Parenting is a philosophy of child rearing that has the potential to change the world. Based on current research in child development, Aware Parenting questions most traditional assumptions about raising children, and proposes a new approach that can significantly improve relationships within a family. Parents who follow this approach raise children who are cooperative, compassionate, competent, nonviolent, and drug free.