Parenting and the Theology of the Body

By: Dr. Gregory Popcak

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The Theology of the Body teaches us that the body has an innate self-donative meaning.  That is;  we are, literally, wired for love and connection, and that God’s plan for relationships can be discerned by prayerfully contemplating the bodies God gave us.  Science is actually backing this claim up, and is giving us some important insights into what—given this mindset—is God’s intention not only for adult pair bonding (i.e., marriage and sex) but parent-child  bonding as well.   This line of thought has significant ramifications for important parenting questions like, “How do we get our babies to sleep!”

Sleep Training & Self-Soothing

It is conventional wisdom that infant “sleep training” teaches babies to “self-soothe.”   These are comforting ideas to tired moms and dads who are eager to be great parents and get a decent night’s sleep but what does it mean for a baby to “self-soothe” and is it even possible for infants to exhibit this skill.

Proponents of self-soothing point to the fact that after several days of sleep training—which involves parents incrementally delaying  their response to an infant’s night-time crying—the baby decreases the time crying and, eventually stops and goes back to sleep.  This is what happens, and it has been assumed that the baby is able to return to sleep because of “self-soothing.”  The problem is,  until fairly recently, a researcher never had a way to test the “self-soothing” hypothesis and that’s an important problem.

While, again, its a nice idea that would be lovely if true, infant self-soothing makes no sense from a developmental psych perspective.   For anyone—you, me, any human being—to self-soothe, two  skills are required: self-talk and intentional, conscious redirection.  When you are upset, to get yourself back under control, you need to be able to 1) Talk yourself down (“Calm down, Greg.  You can handle this.  It’s going to be OK.”)   and 2) You need to be able to intentionally direct yourself to engage in some self-soothing activity (e.g, make a plan to solve the problem, do something that reduces your stress, etc).  The problem is that babies don’t have either of these skills.  Children don’t develop any self-talk capacity until at least 4yo (usually later) and although babies do have some soothing rituals like thumb-sucking, it is not known how effective these strategies are.   New research is showing that the answer is, “not very.”

Learned Helplessness and Physiological Stress

It turns out that after several days of sleep training the baby’s behavior and biology become un-hooked.   The sleep-trained child does stop crying, but research shows that  the child’s  stress hormone level remain as high as when he was crying.  If the baby was actually self-soothing, the cortisol levels would decrease as the crying behavior decreased.  But that isn’t what happens. Instead, the sleep-trained infant’s cortisol level remains high, but the  help-seeking behavior stops.  There is a disconnect between what the baby feels and how the baby acts.  In animals, we call this disconnect between the physiological stress response (i.e., high cortisol levels) and behavior, “learned helplessness.”

Learned helplessness is a well-established psychological fact. The classic learned helplessness experiments were done years ago and over 3000 studies later, learned helplessness is a foundational concept in the study of depression and anxiety disorders.  In the first experiments in learned helplessness, a dog was placed in a box that had a metal plate at the bottom.  A lid was placed on top of the box and a mildly painful electrical shock went through the metal plate.  The dog would try to jump out of the box, but be thwarted by the lid.  After several repetitions the dog stopped trying to escape the shock. He just lay there helplessly.  This continued even after the lid was removed.  The shock would be delivered but even though the dog could escape, he learned not to try to help himself—he, literally, learned to be helpless.   Superficially, you could theoretically claim that the dog learned some mysterious way to “self-soothe” and ignore the shock, but you would be wrong.  Physiologically, the dog’s cortisol levels were elevated with the shock, but the help-seeking behavior stopped.  This is the exact same dynamic seen in sleep-trained infants and that should alarm us.

Learned helplessness actually damages the human and animal brain’s ability to process stress and is an established risk factor for depression and anxiety disorders in later childhood and adulthood.

More Scientific Evidence  

A recent study reaffirms the topic of the article:

“Provocative new animal research suggests that the ability to manage stress is not genetically hardwired into our brain. Rather the brain learns from early experiences and develops pathways that prepare the brain for future challenges.”  

Read the entire article here

Good vagal tone  (note:   the vagus nerve resets the stress-out body to a normal unstressed state.   “Vagal tone”   refers to the efficiency with which the vagus nerve rests the body’s stress signs)  is associated with healthy emotional regulation and greater resistance to both depression and anxiety. Long term cortisol exposure is antithetical to developing good vagal tone.  What I am saying is that the idea of self-soothing in infancy is a convenient fiction.   What is the mechanism or process infants use to self-soothe?   How does this magic happen?   Everything I know about developmental psychology says that it isn’t possible.   Unless someone can provide me with a study that documents the process of self-soothing, I have to assume that the idea that babies can self-soothe is wishful thinking at best and junk science at worst.   There is just no evidence that it can be done.   So, if the baby isn’t self-soothing, what is  happening?   Well, the evidence would appear to show that what is happening is learned helplessness.   When cortisol levels are elevated  for a long-enough period  that help seeking behavior is extinguished in the presence sustained stress, that is learned helplessness.

One study indicates that sleep-trained children were easier than children who were not sleep-trained, but if the mechanism of action of sleep-training is learned helplessness, this makes perfect sense.   Parents typically report quiet children as better behaved. Children who have learned the pointlessness of crying through sleep-training  will be quieter and seen as better behaved by parents.   But is a quieter baby really a healthier baby?   Or is a quieter baby a depressed baby?  We don’t know because the aforementioned study refuses to look at the mechanism of action behind the efficacy of sleep-training.

If we take the  Theology of the Body’s  claims seriously,  that God’s intention for relationships is written into God’s design of our body, we need to listen to research that shows that sleep-training is antithetical to the donative meaning of the body.  Genesis tells us that, “it is not good for man to be alone.”  Science confirms that this is true.  Especially for infants.

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